“Learn how to finish” is among the best pieces of advice anyone can give you, right next to, “Done is better than perfect.” A realized prototype full of flaws is ten times better than a flawless concept endlessly debated. Only when you can see something tangible can you decide if it’s worth pursuing any further, and whether the first twenty percent of effort shows enough promise to put in the remaining eighty.
Not to mention, when you finish something, no matter how rough, you get an early taste of the reward, a satisfying surge of endorphins to encourage you on.
However, the often-overlooked caveat of learning how to finish is that you should learn how to finish prototyping, and then stop and reevaluate. A great prototype needs no introduction; it practically pursues itself by becoming the most urgent thing in your life. But some prototypes are there only to make you understand that perhaps working on the full idea may be a waste of time and energy.
Let me give you a ridiculous, though true, real-life example.
In the past, at the beginning of my corporate career, I worked on the implementation of a £ 780,000,000 (you read that right, seven hundred and eighty million pounds) project. Everyone working on it knew the project would be dead on arrival, too big, unwieldy, prone to failure, difficult to operate, and so on and so on. The solution was old tech, and, at the time, it would be cheaper and more effective to scrap it and buy one of the new off-the-shelf solutions. But you see, so much time, effort, money, and planning has gone into the project that its uselessness became a shrine to all the elephants in the room. When I brought it up once—very delicately—I almost got fired on the spot. But everyone in the room and I mean everyone knew. I bet this is exactly how it felt like to be present at the board meetings before the release of Cyberpunk 2077.
Anyway, not one exec had the balls to say, “This isn’t working. And yes, I will have a difficult time explaining to my boss why we’ve wasted 300 million pounds, but changing direction now is still the right thing to do.” Not one. As a result, the rest of us worked through the two-year-long, high-stress, demoralizing slog, and did our best to spend the rest of the money. Just to… what? Boost someone’s ego? Help them prove they were not a failure? Deliver the project with enough pomp so that no one would notice how outdated and useless it was?
All of the above.
You might think that only big lumbering corporate giants are prone to such levels of waste, but the same thing happens to smaller personal projects. Today, for example, I wasted two hours trying to rewrite one of my essays. It had a killer opening but not much else going for it. I tried working around it because dear lord that opening, but at some point, I realized that this here was your typical darling. I did what everyone should do with their darlings; I killed it.
I recently wrote about how letting your current project become a Work in Progress tends to take up your energy reserves and clog up your creative pipeline. Still, the inability to move on and admit failure is in the same league of harmful.
That moment you hear yourself asking, “How can I make it work?” you know it isn’t working. So you should pause, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Is there a simple fix for this?” If not, the energy and time you will spend on the rest of the project are probably better spent elsewhere.
People who learned how to finish (prototypes) soon find out that they have lots of prototypes to choose from. If the current one isn’t working out, the next one will. Or the one after that. They move with the freedom of someone pursuing the great rather than settling for good.
And just as an empty backlog leaves you with mental space to pursue the things that matter the most here and now, instead of worrying about all the to-dos you’ve left behind, so does learning to recognize wasted effort can give you time to work on something much better.
It may take courage to admit it, but some work is not worth doing.
And you will always be able to recognize great work by how important, urgent, and immediate it feels, all at once. That’s the kind of work you can’t get away from and the kind of work you should pursue.
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