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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Starting – the Hardest Thing to Do

Cliff

Why is starting so difficult? Why would we rather roll about in bed than start the first sentence in our epic novels, make the first calls towards building our fledgling businesses, or perform the first reps of a new exercise routine?

The good news is that it’s not actually our fault. In fact, if we face some degree of resistance, we are probably on the right track! Anything worth to do is usually not easy to decide about. It usually involves some sort of cost, whether upfront or hidden. It could be as subtle, and also as expensive, as a valuable alternative opportunity. For instance, instead of preparing for a usual career route like everyone else, you’ve decided to risk your future on a creative novel that has no guarantees of selling. How does that feel? Scary isn’t it! And more so the faceless critiques that may be chortling on the side at your potential failure.

But should that stop you from starting? It could actually be a good reason to reconsider your decision. We may not always be ready to kill our other opportunities and enter into the realm of scary commitments. So before you make your move (or not) it’s quite important that you discover your motives first.

And the most important question to answer is: Are you going to be an amateur or a professional?

An amateur does that scary thing because he likes it. He may even love it, but his life surely doesn’t depend upon it. His livelihood, family, or future isn’t directly dependent on the success of “scary-thing”.

The professional, on the other hand, has her paycheck on the line. Whether she likes it or not is irrelevant – she loves it; this includes slogging through the nasty bits which she hates and all.

If you plan to be a professional in that scary-thing, you’d need to have more planning. But if you are an amateur, the next paragraph is for you.

Just begin! As an amateur, chances are you’ll need more opportunities to discover yourself in the first place. Don’t overthink it; do your basic planning, and then start. Follow the simple rule of doing at least 4 times more than thinking, leaving your planning to just a quarter of the time you’re getting your socks wet and knees deep in mud – trust me, you’ll learn more that way. Perhaps, the most one thing to be cautious about is to ensure that your amateur pursuits do not encroach into the non-negotiable areas of your life. You don’t want to ruin your livelihood in the midst of experimentation!

The same advice probably goes for those who are intending to transform scary-thing pursuits into a professional career. Especially because there are larger costs for the experimentation, it is absolutely crucial that the following three questions have been addressed before you start.

1) Are you ready?

Crazily enough, many failed attempts occur because the daring soul wasn’t quite ready yet to embark on the costly quest. How do you know that you are ready? Readiness is not necessarily the absence of anxiety (an absolute lack or fear, on the contrary, may point towards delusion). As prepared as you are to make your move, the anxiety still exists! But a ready person has decided that whatever challenges may come will be worth to overcome. The ready professional has counted the costs and is prepare to pay it because he or she has answered the following question…

2) Do you love it?

Are you in it for the money, are you in it for the fame… or are you in it because you love it deep in your gut? If your reasons are anything other than “you have no choice” or “you absolutely adore it” (the best when these two reasons are one and the same) then perhaps they may be too superficial to carry you through when the going gets tough. Hours of exhausting work, months of trudging through the frustrations of unpaid labour, years of not being satisfied with what you’ve devoted your life to – these could be the costs of pursuing what you love. But true love is not blind: it knows that pain and sacrifice are the flipsides of the unparalleled pleasures of mastery. Yet, love is only a prerequisite, it alone is not the answer. The last, determining question can help you make the final choice.

3) Can you contribute anything of value?

If you are going professional, you’re sacrificing other opportunities for the main preoccupation that has enraptured your heart. You may be aware of the costs, you may have pure motives, but if you do not have the value, you may be doomed to fail.

Are people willing to pay you for what you do? Are you at the cutting edge of your field? Have you acquired a high level of proficiency in your pursuit? Until these questions return gold, it may be wise to reconsider your big move, and postpone it till you’ve consolidated enough value to justify a scary, costly commitment. Go back to the drawing board, return to the dojo, get the reps done, the words written, the years of experience. Then come back and try again.

But if your value-check turns out on the up and up, then your postponement may just be the jitters. You’ll need to start somewhere! Take small risks, make small bets and see where it leads you. Don’t be too bold, but don’t be paralyzed either. You don’t want to kill your chances early, nor paddle around in your passivity either! Your little, risky moves forward may be the thing that carves out a compelling path ahead. That is the time when all your risks pay off, and the horizon begins to look a bit clearer.

So starting doesn’t always have to be so hard… or dangerous!

The Power of Words

With the advent of graphics, video, and audio based education (such as those on youtube, like TED-ed in particular), words as a medium faces new challenges. Since time is a first class citizen, a person would value highly condensed information over a less efficient form – words. In 5 minutes of watching a video, one could learn the basics of music reading quickly and easily. For instance, check this out:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN41d7Txcq0

To explain this to another person in words alone will be a killer.

Nonetheless, words as an individual medium still has its strength.

Words Draw out Imagination

Why is this valuable? The more things are fleshed out in audio-visual detail, the less space you have for variation. Notice how some books can transport you into another world, or how some quotes can zap you with an emotional shockwave? While they rely on a structure of meaning that is readily agreed upon for the majority of readers/writers, they also give space for very personal interpretations. The world that you imagine is often uniquely your own, and that quote probably resonated deeply with some of your own experiences. Videos can do this as well, but words leave a larger gap that challenges the mind to fill up with creative details. Consuming media is never a one-way process! With words, the participation from the consumer’s end has more than enough space to grow.

Within that “imagination space” lies a limited set of interpretation. That is only natural, as unlimited or unstructured meaning can only equate to nonsense. But the beauty lies in the limitless variations within the limits. On a broad spectrum, granted there are only so few interpretations of words. Yet the deeper we delve, the more our embellished details can have the potential to flourish. Hence the strength of hermeneutic studies – can the treasure trove of meaning ever be exhausted? Even when our finite minds and experiences stop us from broadening our readings, collaboration can find a way to multiply them, sometimes exponentially.

Now, one can have the breadth of rich and varied meaning-constructions, but usually that which is the most meaningful to us are the interpretations that we have linked intimately with our own lives – the kind that draws from our experiences of the world, personal histories from our past, or our convictions of how things should be – these are the things that can have the most potential to transform us. Not only do our own interpretations inform us about our own thinking, but if we enter into dialogue with the writer’s content, our thoughts can very well be challenged. Furthermore, if we express this to others, they may likewise have points to add. Our reading then becomes a dialogue that has the potential of changing our mindsets and attitudes about ourselves and the world, and it moves away from the indulgence of one to the conversation of many.

Words can become Power Phrases

Partly due to the nature of words as containers of malleable meaning, one word can trigger a multitude of memories and details. Particularly when tying it to your own personal experiences, the memory and detail triggers tend to become more powerful and meaningful. An intense paragraph on empowering, motivating attitudes can be summarized into a single word, or even at most, a short phrase that can be called to mind at any time to remind you of the vital lessons learned, restoring the multi-dimensional experiences that you first encoded the paragraph with to the forefront of your awareness. Instead of the traditional idea of memory tools being used to recall large chunks of exam-ready information, this concept is what I call Power Phrases.

Power Phrases enable you to recall entire states of information that transcend simple levels of knowledge. While it can probably also function as a tool to help you remember factual data, it works best as a trigger for helping your body get into states of optimal performance. Today’s research into leveraging high-performance states focus on re-integrating the mind with the body. No longer are we content with simply possessing head knowledge – it must be felt on a tangible level too. Perhaps more pertinently, the state of the body has been shown to be able to drastically influence mental and emotional states. Going for a quick run can sometimes literally jog your mind, unlocking integrative solutions for difficult problems. We cannot always excuse ourselves for a quick physical exercise at any time of the day, but tying Power Phrases to specific physical and mental states can give us the boost that we need; all we need to do is speak, and our brains will tap into the deeply wired patterns of strength and resilience that we’ve programmed into our cognitive selves, releasing the energy we need to be the most appropriate versions if ourselves in the pressing moment.

The idea of summoning specific mental states with words alone sounds like a super power. And it probably is! Unfortunately, the laws of physics still apply in this world – to have access to our own psyches on that level, a lot of deep work has to be invested prior to unlocking the power of words. We would have to reconfigure our neurons to fire in specific patterns, push electro-chemical impulses through our brain cells in new and challenging ways, and keep up that mental practice consistently. There is still this sort of learning work to be done, and we can’t fully escape it, but the associative nature of learning Power Phrases can mean that instead of assimilating knowledge foreign to what we already know, we are building linkages with what we already intuitively or historically understand. This will save a lot of time and effort. Though, whether the pay off is worth it is ultimately up to you!

Boundaries Part 2

Boundaries 2

This week’s Reuben’s Wednesday is not on a Wednesday! (my gosh 🙂 ) But without further ado, let’s continue from where we left off…

Disregarding the advice of my parents, friends, and family to take care of myself, I landed up in a recovery ward, where I found myself frazzled, burnt-out, and unstable… all because I decided to push one boundary too far. I had to give up midway on almost all of the projects that I undertook, say goodbye to a million on-the-whim friendships that I made, and go into fulltime retreat in order to continue my recovery. My self-confidence and esteem was shattered, and it took months to get back on my feet again.

Thankfully, that was a couple of years ago.

These days, I subscribe to the idea of pushing boundaries within boundaries. Because in the end, we are all fragile creatures and we need to know where we can go, and where we cannot. And for those places where we can go, we must go in as deep as possible, to explore as wide as we possibly could.

But then, there will be places where, for the sake of our own sanity and health, and perhaps that of those we love and care about too, we cannot, and should not venture too far into. We need to learn the self-control that tells us to jam on the breaks before things start to go awry, before the universe breaks apart and we get eaten up by something nasty in a cave deep under.

In essence, we must push our boundaries all the way but within sound limits. And therein lies the same spirit of complex contradiction that underscores all acts of maturity. So back to the story, in order to regain my sanity, I decided to establish some boundaries. Whenever I abode by them, my life would tend to be on track. Whenever I abandoned them, my life would rail off track. I’m not saying that now I’m an addict to structure, but all I’m saying is that there are some fundamentals that we should not violate too much or too often, although we can (and should!) let ourselves go once in awhile.

That being said, there is a very applicable saying, that paraphrased, goes like this: young men learn the rules, but wise men know where and when to break them. While the focus of this maxim is more on the breaking of said rules, or boundaries, it is also true that one must know which rules cannot be broken, which is often in certain circumstance. And more importantly, we must learn which rules are best left unbroken. A melody plays most beautifully on a stable chord progression, much as how the complexity and beautiful fractal divergences in communities emerge out of a solid economic bedrock. Everything in life has moments of variation supported by structures of stability, and some cannot be broken, some can be amended, while others must give way to change for progress to happen.

I am not yet wise, with too few years under my belt, but this I know: to learn the nature of these boundaries will yield great fruit. And before I get too darn pretentious with my choice of words, here is a humble experiment that I’ve started, and I’ll like to share.

Now I won’t be sharing everything because my private life is private and I plan to keep it that way (for now hurhurhur), but as an exercise on setting boundaries, here are some of the more important ones that I plan to stick to.

1. Sleep: Have at least 8 hours of restful sleep every day.
2. Morning routine: Perform morning exercise, brush teeth, have breakfast and shower.
3. Exercise: Hit 3 body parts a week, cycle to the train station when possible, and have sufficient time to recover

I know that I don’t have a thousand followers yet, or even a hundred, or even *gulp* 10 (okay maybe I do have around 10 followers), but the act of posting something on a public blog inspires accountability. So before I start on my 7-day accountability series (yes! I actually have content planned for this month as promised), I need to be accountable first: to myself, and to my present and future audience.

So I’ll update you guys on my progress. Ciao!

Boundaries Part 1

As promised, the first Reuben’s Wednesday signed, sealed, and delivered on Wednesday 🙂

Boundaries

Many years ago, I didn’t know much about boundaries. Or rather, I knew about them, but I didn’t know what it meant for me. I’ve always thought I’ll be the courageous rebel who’ll rail myself against any and all ‘man-made limitations’. To me, the sky wasn’t the limit, it was just an excuse to keep men bubbling safely within Earth’s atmosphere, instead of inventing a rocket to pierce though right out of it.

And so I began the great experiment. On the social sphere, I started experimenting with the boundaries of myself, and others. On the train, on the streets, anywhere and almost everywhere, I would try to start up a conversation with someone. And to my surprise, people were actually receptive. One guy even went on and on about how I should join Toast Masters because it changed his life and he was sure it would change mine too. So, as you can imagine, my outlook on life transformed completely. I realized that humans are not as far apart from each other as I thought. And I felt as if I’ve officially built and got on the rocket that took me out of my own atmosphere. Awesome.

But just in case you come from a liberal society, or you’re just a flaming extrovert, mind you, before all this, I was as shy as the toothpaste at the bottom of the tube. Damn. My whole family is introverted, and so am I, but not by nature. I am the curious, shy sort, the kind who needs to explore the world, but is sometimes just too darn afraid to stick my neck out. The kind who has words to say but somehow, they get stuck at the… bottom of the tube. So to me, whatever I achieved in this period was great. It was admirable. And more often than not, it was.

Until things went haywire. I began pushing more and more boundaries. Not social this time, but physical. I thought to myself – if I could reduce the number of hour I slept everyday, and still maintain the same level of functioning, wouldn’t that be the ultimate time hack? I could make a dozen more friends. I could learn things that need a lot of time to learn. I could… I daresay, become a genius! And so began my research and foray into polyphasic sleep.

But like many other things I got interested in, I never really bothered working with the fundamentals before experimenting with it. As such, I found myself getting addicted to the short sleep phases. And no, if any of you were wondering, I never actually managed to pull off polyphasic due to lack of discipline, but that’s another story. In this one, all I did was sleep less, without any compensatory REM naps throughout the rest of my day (sorry for the technical talk, if you didn’t get it, it just meant I executed the polyphasic sleep hack wrongly!).

Sometimes, I would wake up in the middle of the night and just work on a project that I felt ‘super inspired’ for. While it would seem brilliant then (mostly because my ability to make sound judgments was already deep fried by my lack of sleep), a careful analysis many months down the road later would have it that work done during those graveyard hours was among the shoddiest I ever produced, although I still do hold that high levels of creativity and spontaneity are often achieved during those times (go midnight junkies!)…

…if you want to know what happened to me in the end, tune in for next week’s Reuben’s Wednesday!