Big Things are many and varied, but they share these main qualities:
*They are personally meaningful to the people who seek to complete them.
*There is often no firm deadline for completing them.
*Their structure is large, complex, and at first unclear.
*They require sustained concentration and effort.
This is possibly one of the worst times in history to get a Big Thing done. Our modern, sped-up, self-promoting lives, constantly interrupted by technology, have made it so. Not only that, but if you need to do research on your thing, it’s so easy to google what are trying to do and discover that someone else has already done it, or go down a rabbit hole of possible sources and materials and related links until you are presented with a seeming infinity of possible ways to proceed with your thing. How do you narrow it all down? How do you find the best way to proceed?
One woman I talked to who struggled for years to finish her dissertation said she felt as if she would have to read all the books in the library before she could finish her paper. She admitted that she was prey to that great enemy of completion: perfectionism.
When you set out to create something, you can become paralyzed by the possibilities in front of you. At a certain point you have to accept that you can’t read every book in the library, or check each of 1,454,673 Google results, and work with what you have.
We need to give ourselves a break for failing to complete our big projects. But we also need to recognize that the excuses we make for failing to create our Big Things could be disguising a basic fear—one that has existed since the beginning of humankind: that our Big Thing will be a failure.
But will it be a failure by whose measure and whose standards? According to you? According to critics? Even if it turns out to be terrible, or have no impact (according to some subjective/objective standard), was it still worth it to do it? Yes, if you felt a compulsion to do it and it was hanging over you and when you finished it that overhang was gone. Even if you decide that on balance it was a failure, the experience could help you chart a different course the next time.
Overcoming a fear of failure requires immense courage. As the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, the inevitable result of passing over from a state of possibility into one of actuality is a sense of anxiety. In this intermediate state, self-doubt and fear are necessary. Creativity, Kierkegaard, writes, involves reconciling opposite: the infinity of the universe on the one hand and the specificity and limits of the individual self on the other. Into that breach rushes anxiety, until the self can find a footing and begin to create a structure inside the emptiness.
Reprinted with permission from The Big Thing: How to Completely Your Creative Project Even if You’re a Lazy, Self-Doubting Procrastinator Like Me, HarperCollins, Aug. 9, 2016.