In Part One, I discussed how the unstructured process taught in design school encourages waiting until the last minute and eventually conditions students to procrastinate. This time I’m going to touch on the fear of finishing.
I’ve often heard that the most important part of design is the thinking that goes into it. Or maybe that it’s the details. Or was it the research?
I’m here to tell you that it’s none of those things. The most important part of design is finishing. If you don’t finish, nothing else counts. You could have notebooks brimming with brilliant ideas, stacks of research, and rooms wallpapered with moodboards, but it doesn’t count until you Make A Thing.
Finish. That’s a scary word. It carries an idea of perfection, that nothing could possibly be added or removed, that the process of creation has ended and that only then does the project release you to move on with your life. Thinking about a specific project, you might have a vision of what finished means, or worse, a vague idea with the hope that you’ll know finished when you see it.
So you go through your process, searching methodically for perfection, chasing this mirage of being finished. Then you see that deadline looming on the horizon. The deadline doesn’t care if you are finished, the deadline won’t wait for you to reach nirvana. The deadline marches forward, unrelenting. It will arrive whether you are finished or not.
That’s when you freeze up. You could get your project done before the deadline arrives, but it won’t meet your expectations of finished, and that’s scary. You’ll have a half-formed freak of a project left haunting you, like a scar on your portfolio. A black mark on your reputation. So you push it out of your mind, you distract yourself with something else.
It’s really a fear of disappointing yourself. There’s a vision in your head of what you believe you are capable of, and if you can’t hit that mark, you don’t know how to cope. It’s easier to withdraw completely than to let yourself down. Sometimes the deadline comes up and smacks that fear right out of you, and you scramble to put something together at the last minute. Sometimes you just let the deadline blow by.
Feeling terrible about yourself yet? I know I am. Let me tell you a story.
There was a pottery class. The first day, the teacher split the students into two groups. One group had all semester to make one pot, the quality of which would determine their entire grade. The second group was told to make as many pots as possible. At the end of the semester, the teacher would put their work on a big scale, and their grade would be determined by weight.
At the end of the semester, the students that had focused on quantity had created far better work than the students who had tried to make one great pot. While students on Team Quality were researching and theorizing about pottery, students from Team Quantity were getting their hands dirty actually making things, failing, learning from their failures, iterating, and naturally learning and improving their skills.
In order to improve at anything, you have to suck at it for a while. Sometimes a long while. That’s pretty much the definition of improvement; you sucked more last time, and you’ll suck less next time. You get better by doing this over and over and over and over…
So how do you finish over and over if finishing is such a scary idea? It’s time to change the way you think about finishing.
In software development we have a different word. We don’t finish something, we ship it. We get it out the door, we get it into people’s hands. Perfection doesn’t even enter into the equation. It needs to work, it needs to be a viable product, but it doesn’t need to be perfect to ship.
If a product needed to be perfect to ship, there wouldn’t be a new iPhone every year. Hell, there wouldn’t be an iPhone at all. Imagine all the Apple engineers toiling year after year to improve the resolution of the screen, adding cameras, changing the materials, updating the software, but never shipping because it’s never perfect.
In order to ship, you have to decide on a project that’s good enough, knowing full well that you will do better next time. In fact, the whole point of shipping is to stick your flag into the ground and say, “Today I have gone this far. Tomorrow, I will be up there.” You can’t plant that flag if you don’t ship.
So here we are, another long-winded essay, and I’ve yet to tell you anything useful or applicable about project management. We have laid an important foundation here, though. We’ve explored how a lack of structure in school has rewarded waiting until the last minute, and how unreasonable expectations of perfection create a fear of finishing and hinder your ability to learn and grow. Now that we’ve identified and isolated these problems, we can learn to deal with them.
So why have I broken these ideas apart into smaller posts instead of delivering it all in one big essay? Well, a core idea of the next topic is breaking down big projects into small, manageable pieces, and what kind of person would I be if I didn’t follow my own advice?
Next time we’ll get our hands dirty and talk about project management. And then we will be finished.