Finishing Ambitious Projects

Where do I even start?

Over the course of my life I had started many ambitious projects and had abandoned most of them. I’d begin a project with enthusiasm, but somewhere in the middle I would regard my efforts as feeble and inadequate, and wondered whether or not it all was a waste of time. Forcing myself to work made it worse, and sooner or later I found myself “postponing” my projects indefinitely, giving myself false reassurances that I’d come back to them one day when I had more free time.

I’ve danced this dance longer than I care to admit, and there came a point where all my unfinished novels, all my unpublished stories, and all my other discarded ideas became such a weight on my emotions that starting anything new seemed to require an almost superhuman effort.  Eventually, I gave up on bold ideas completely because it was too painful to have great ideas only to realize that I didn’t have the motivation or the discipline to bring them to fruition.

I managed to bury the desire to create for five years. As much as I tried, however, it didn’t go away completely. It registered as dull pain just below the surface, a mixture of restlessness and regret that brought about fatigue, stomach disorders, neck and back pain,  and depression. These symptoms were my subconscious’ not so subtle way of saying “Listen up. You’ve got to make a change.”

So change I did. I quit my job to start working for myself. Soon the big ideas I had suppressed for so long came flowing back, and it was not long after this that I got the idea that would change the focus of my career: goldhat.org.

The idea behind Goldhat was simple:  I imagined a musician playing on a street corner passing the hat around for the loose change of onlookers. If the musician was good enough and if the crowd was large enough, the musician could earn a decent living. It was then that I thought, “why not bring this street corner to the internet?” A crowd could only get so large on the street, but on the internet you could have tens of thousands, millions even, tossing their spare change into a virtual “hat”. If enough people were willing to give, this could change the way content creators made money on the internet.

Although the idea was simple enough, the steps I needed to take to make it a reality were unclear. I didn’t know how to program. I barely knew HTML, and I had no idea whether or not a social donations site was practical. Considering the emotional baggage of all the projects I had started and abandoned in the past, it’s a wonder that I started this one in the first place, let alone finish it. So, when I finally launched goldhat.org just last week, I looked back at the seven months I had spent working on it and realized that there were five big differences between the project I had finished this time, and all the other projects I had abandoned before.

The five big differences were:

  1. I made no excuses
  2. It was larger than me
  3. It was closer to the money
  4. I was incompetent
  5. I had nowhere to run

1. I made no excuses

When I was writing my novel, I always found excuses to do something else than write. I was either too tired, too stressed out, or simply “didn’t feel like it.” I told myself that whatever writing I did when I was in a less than optimal state would be crap anyway, so I chose not to write. These excuses were pretty lame and deep down I knew that if I had cultivated the discipline of writing every day that it wouldn’t matter if I was tired or stressed out when I sat down to write, but I didn’t want to let go of a convenient cop-out.

When I started working on Goldhat I was well aware that my past excuses hadn’t gotten me anywhere, so I resolved not to make a single excuse for myself this time around. If there was an obstacle, I’d find a way around it. If there was a skill I needed to learn, I would learn it. If the next step to take wasn’t clear at all, I’d gather as much information as I could until I got an idea of what actions I could take to move forward.

2. It was larger than me

It took me a long time to admit it, but one of the main reasons I wanted to write novels and have them published was so that everyone would see how brilliant I was. This kind of ego-driven pursuit was unsustainable because being a writer means receiving criticism and rejection on a daily basis, and I wasn’t ready to deal with that.  If my mission was more focused on bringing joy and meaning to my readers, I probably wouldn’t have minded the first few rejection slips that I had received. Instead, because my main purpose was self-glorification, the rejection slips and poor reviews stamped out my biggest source of motivation. I just couldn’t continue when it was gone.

It would be disingenuous to say that some of my motivations for creating Goldhat didn’t stem from wanting approval from others. This time, however, I made sure that my main drive was purpose, not pride. I knew that if I could succeed in bringing goldhat to the world, more starving artists could make money from the content they worked so hard to create. This was something I strongly identified with, and I felt I owed it to all those artists to at least try to make this idea a reality. When times were difficult, the fact that Goldhat was larger than just me was one of the main things that kept me going.

3. It was closer to the money

Although some fiction writers make a lot of money, the majority don’t make much at all. Because the chances of making money in the immediate future were so low as a writer, it was difficult to think of writing when I had bills to pay. I was afraid of starving, and it’s extremely hard to be productive when you’re wondering where the next paycheck is coming from.

Goldhat was different because it was a real business. I could see plenty of ways that the site could generate revenue. Although it wasn’t guaranteed that Goldhat would make money, I felt that the chances of making money in the immediate future were much higher than writing a novel and trying to publish it. I know that money isn’t everything, but sometimes the LACK of money can be a real distraction. The fact that Goldhat had commercial potential meant that I didn’t have to worry about money so much and could focus on whatever I needed to do to make it work.

4. I was incompetent

Because all my teachers and professors had praised my writing in the past, and because I had graduated with honors from the University of Washington’s English department, I had built up an image of myself as a “great writer.” Thinking of myself as a great writer was all I had to buoy my self-esteem. I didn’t want poor reviews and rejection slips to tarnish that image. The easiest way to avoid all that was to stop writing completely.  Also, because I thought I was “great,” I felt that I didn’t have to try as hard as other people to get my work in print. This feeling of false superiority didn’t get me anywhere, and it certainly didn’t get me to finish that novel.

How liberating it was to be an idiot! Because I never thought of myself as a programmer, my ego wasn’t tied up in my code. Because I didn’t have a background as a code warrior, I didn’t have to worry about how “perfect” my program was as I was putting it together. Also, because I knew that my knowledge of programming was inadequate, I felt that I needed to work harder just to produce anything of value.

5. I had nowhere to run

When I had a job, it was easier to abandon my writing and immerse myself in work. When I was working on Goldhat, however, I had already quit my job in Tokyo and had moved out of the country. Although I was tempted to get my old job back several times, the fact that I was in another country and would have to reestablish a life that wasn’t right for me was reason enough not to turn back. There were times when I was plagued by self-doubt, and there were one or two times when I seriously considered giving up, but because there was no alternative but to move forward, I had no choice but to find a way to do so.

Working on Goldhat was both a stressful and rewarding experience for me.  In many ways, it was hardly any different from working on my novel five years ago. This time, however, I was lucky to have been able to change my attitudes and my perspective. Making these changes didn’t make it any easier, but at least I could accept the fact that it wasn’t easy and find the resolve to do it anyway.

What about you? What ambitious projects have you finished? What helped you push through to the end?

Photo by: hashashin

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  • Kenji,

    A good, and very reflective post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. I’ve had a few big projects I have not finished or left “hanging on the vine” so to speak. There’s always something to learn and it’s clear that you’ve learned a lot about yourself that you wil be able to continue carrying over into your career.

    Best of luck!

    Sean

  • Kenji

    Thanks much for the encouragement Sean. I really appreciate our discussion last week. It helped me gain a little more clarity about my project and my situation than I was able to myself. I wasn’t so sure about coaching before we talked, but now I can begin to see its value.

  • Kenji,

    I love this very reflective and relate(able) post! I think it resonates with a lot of creative individuals.

    Much continued success! I think you are at least on the right path now.;-) You can go the distance!

  • Kenji

    Thanks for stopping by Jennifer! I appreciate the encouragement!

  • dawn christensen

    Kenji, this open and gently challenging share is just too close to home for my comfort, and yet also very encouraging that there is hope for my tendency to avoid acting on any of my million-dollar ideas. Thank you for your well articulated insights. Best wishes. Am looking for spare change to toss in the gold hat… and looking at myself more carefully. ~~d

  • Kenji

    Thanks for leaving a comment Dawn. I glad you liked the article!

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