Finishing: The 2nd Hardest Thing to Do

Man building a tower with wooden blocks

Earlier we discussed why we start new/exciting/fun/creative! things, and also explored a few ideas on how to just begin, especially amidst the mountains of self-critique and the scariness of expectations. In this post, we begin from the end and talk about the 2nd Hardest Thing to Do: Finishing!

1) The Perils of Unfinishing

Why is finishing just so darn difficult? If you’ve been following the earlier posts at all, you’ll pick up quite quickly that once you’ve gotten used to starting things, it becomes as easy as pie. Pop it in the oven and ooh- new thing emerges! But the real challenge is to get all these little half-baked pies out of the oven in a well-cooked, prettily-garnished, and ready to serve condition. There are a number of problems that you’ll start to face if you never do finish up anything. For one, all these ideas start stockpiling, like half-baked pies strewn all over the kitchen – and the flies of self-critique and poor self-image will come to swarm all over you. Even if you do manage to swat them away, you realize that not getting anything finished means that you can’t really share anything with the world (I’m not referring to those projects that can be released over time, so long as something has reached its particular benchmark of utility, that in my book, is finished), and that just plain sucks. After all, your flagship project / epic novelette / fusion brunch menu was started to add value to the world, and losing sight of that purpose kind of makes starting all these gazillion projects lose their meaning. You don’t want to bump your head against a tree while walking into the forest – have your eyes on the goal, and keep your legs walking towards it!

2) Prime Things and UnPrime Things

Much like how there is good reason for us to find starting things difficult, there is also good reason for us to find finishing things difficult. While starting may cost a bit of resources, finishing requires us to pull out all the stops and make sure that we are committed to getting it down and done. The deeper we go into our project, the more we learn about the nature of its accompanying challenges. Call it the warped nature of reality, but if the end goal is worth it at all, chances are it gets even harder to finish near the end! It seems as if our calling is testing us, taunting us: are you ready to go into the deep end, where going in doesn’t mean you get to come out easily? Indeed, the completion of some projects may actually be more risky than it is worth. Hence we need to be quite sharp when evaluating Things. I propose a simple typology – Prime Things and UnPrime Things.

Let’s start with the Thing that we ought to avoid. UnPrime Things are Things that look flashy, pretty, and downright spanking fantastic, but they aren’t actually that critical or useful to anybody, or yourself for that matter. Now, there are plenty of things that aren’t exactly critical or useful, yet they can be quite central to the pursuit of the main goal. For instance, getting the design of your cupcake just right so that it bakes perfectly, mastering that tricky guitar riff so that it comes off splendidly during a concert, or adding energy saving features to your new car prototype; little things that aren’t quite critical but are still central and contributive to the experience of the main goal. What is the difference between these and UnPrime Things then? It’s not actually an easy question to answer, else there would be no point to this paragraph, however we can have an idea by looking at the Thing in general. Do you have all the ingredients of your cupcake ready, and the baking method all set to go? If you do, then great – make sure the design is good as well! If not, and if the guests are waiting outside, well, design may become an UnPrime Thing in this scenario. The trickiness to UnPrime Things lie in their general desirability, juxtaposed against that ever-so unfortunate state of the universe, wherein time, energy, and resources are just so darn limited. If the costs are unjustified, sometimes its just vanity.

Prime Things, on the other hand, are a fertile soil of possibilities that pay off for themselves, and more!, in time. They may not be immediately essential in the here and now, but investing in them might bring you tremendous exponential benefits as you go along. Either they cater to some pressing, unmet need in the market (or yourself), they transform an existing way-of-doing-Things into a much-better-way-of-doing-Things, or they bring some crazy existing Things together into a fully-functional, value-adding Thing. UnPrime Things might feel silly as you start to hit brick walls, and sure you can demolish the barriers, but why would you? Prime Things on the other hand, feel more important and weighty as you get to the points of resistance. You can sense the gold mine of value shining deep within the tunnels of procrastination and distractions, and so you dig it deep and press on (or not!).

3) Finishing up the Prime Things

If you get closer to the end goal, and find that your Thing is starting to look more and more like a fluffy, self-indulgent, full-o’-frills UnPrime Thing, you do have the permission to abandon it right away. Or better yet, keep it under wraps, and learn what you can from your brief stint with that short-lived project. Perhaps you can find signs earlier along the way that can help you avoid starting more UnPrime Things and save your time/energy/heart for that which matters. But if your entire being feels more alive despite the challenges and set-backs, feels more keen and eager to head towards completion especially in the face of distractions and temporal urges to procrastinate, then you know that you have found your Prime Thing and you’d better buckle down, seat tight, and fly your rocket all the way to the moon. There’s no stopping you now! Call up a few friends, make yourself accountable (and possibly ashamed in the case of failure) for what you are about to accomplish, review your goals and reasons for the Prime Thing, and then get down to the hard, sweaty, dirty work.

When it comes to the 2nd Hardest Thing to Do, there is no substitute for good ol’ hard work. So for the love of all things good in the universe, get it done.

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