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Death in a Pile of Unfinished Projects

Death in a Pile of Unfinished Projects

I’ve known for a very long time that I have a problem with “finishing” things. Often it’s because my vision keeps moving forward as I approach it – I’m always seeing how much better the thing could be than what I’ve done on it so far.

But there are other reasons, too. Reading a bit of The DaVinci Method with Leslie last night, I read for the second time a bit about how the DaVinci type tends to fear completion as a form of death.

Yeah, right. At least, that’s what I thought the first time I’d read that bit. The book’s author, Garret LoPorto, had said that he was deriving a lot of his book from the work of Otto Rank on “the artist” or “total human”. (Rank apparently also used the term “productive type”, but LoPorto didn’t mention this.) Anyway, Rank was a pupil of Freud’s, so I initially dismissed the whole death-fear idea as being typical of the Freudian fetish for symbolism and Great Meanings in the most minor of things.

But something that caught my eye on the second reading of that passage made me rethink that position. If you get past the death-symbolism of the idea and focus on the strict mechanics, it makes a lot more sense. What struck me last night was that I hadn’t made the connection between clutter and completion. You see, I tend not to put things away when I’m done with them… because I never really feel “done with them”.

One of the traits commonly attributed to persons with ADD/ADHD is that they “put things down and don’t remember where they put them”, and I do this all the freakin’ time. But the reason that I do that, is because I expect to come back to that thing in just a moment. But I never do. I keep piling new interruptions on my mental stack, and never backtracking. Thus, my life tends to resemble a giant “stack overflow” periodically resulting in “garbage collection” to free up some physical or mental space.

So, as soon as I realized this, another idea smacked me upside the head: if the “productive type” is thrill-seeking by nature, then it should be possible to obtain great pleasure from facing this fear directly! And, I realized that in fact I do get that pleasure whenever I actually clean up. Yes, it’s nice to have a clean and uncluttered work space, but that’s never really been all that motivating. What really happens is that the process of making decisions about all this “stuff” frees up mental energy that was tied up in the unfinished thought processes – a common theme in David Allen’s Getting Things Done, where he calls them “open loops”.

But back to the fear of death. I don’t think that it’s death per se that I’ve been afraid of; I think that’s just an excess of Freudian symbolism. It’s finality that I’ve feared: mistakes that can’t be undone, words that can’t be unsaid, decisions that can’t be unmade. In the words attributed to an Egyptian proverb about the three worst things in life, “to try to please, and to please not.”

Death is merely an example of that broader concept – and not a particularly relevant one. In fact, I’m pretty sure I fear death less than I do finishing my projects. I can only die once, but I have a lot of unfinished projects! (Heck, right now I’ve got *115* tabs open in *9* FireFox windows right now, not counting all the ones I just closed while I was counting!)

All kidding aside, I don’t really fear a conscious death in a good cause. Laying down my life for someone I love or something I believe in, now that would be a good use of total commitment – a true completion. (Which is probably why I often cry when somebody does that well in a movie, like Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in that “I’ll drown so you can have enough oxygen to drag my body back to the habitat” scene in “The Abyss”.)

So what I actually fear in the smaller things is that my commitment won’t be total; that what I produce will be less than whatever it is ultimately possible to create. I fear to make now, what will be promptly rendered inadequate and obsolete by my “better idea” tomorrow – a theme that LoPorto also writes about in The DaVinci Method.

And what I realized last night is, I’ve been taking that fear completely the wrong way. If I’m the type of person that was meant to be a thrill-seeker, I should embrace that fear and meet it head-on, and should find it deeply enjoyable and fulfilling to do so. As a child, I learned to suppress and reject my sense of adventure in order to please my fearful, obsessively protective mother. Eventually, I began to adopt her attitude that whatever can go wrong, will, no matter what precautions you take. And furthermore, that no risky activity could possibly ever be worth it.

Thankfully, LoPorto’s book has given me a kind of permission to remember and acknowledge this side of myself more fully, and to realize that many of the things I’ve been treating as annoying chores are in fact an opportunity to confront my fears, face challenges, and conquer them. While there will probably never be an “X-Games of Clutter and Unfinished Projects”, I can still get a small adrenalin rush from each book or other item I put away or throw away.

I’ve learned, in other words, that it really is okay to be dramatic about what I do. That’s simply who I am. I don’t mean that I need to create interpersonal drama, I just mean it’s okay to make bold moves, dream big dreams, and set my sights back on my personal mantra of “TWD”: Total World Domination. Not to mention all the “big ideals” stuff that I stopped thinking about so I could survive the last few years at my corporate job. Stuff like Truth, Beauty, and Love. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Live Free or Die. All that good stuff. “These are the old days, the bad days, the all-or-nothing days. They’re back!” Yeah, baby!

So I’ll see you at the top. In fact, I’ll race you. Are you ready?

Join the discussion
  • Ok, i know this relates to the smallest part of your post, but i get choked up at that part of the Abyss too. Its even worse now that i have a kid – any time i see anything with parent and/or children in distress or whatever i just go crazy. Can’t even watch anymore.

  • Welcome back, Philip! I have been following your recent posts (the past year or so) with great interest. I wonder, is this stuff that you recently began to focus on or are these things that you have been thinking about and doing for years and only just started writing about them?

  • “””I wonder, is this stuff that you recently began to focus on or are these things that you have been thinking about and doing for years and only just started writing about them?”””

    Um, which stuff do you mean? I don’t think that there’s actually been a significant change to what I write about here, other than an ever-increasing drift towards general self-improvement topics and away from specific software ones. I am in fact planning to split the blog soon, in order to be able to have a section devoted exclusively to software development topics, though.

    “””TWD over what?”””

    Which part of “Total” and “World” do you not understand? 😉

    Seriously, TWD is a tongue-in-cheek expression, a tip of the hat to the tradition of the “mad scientist” or “Bond villain” with some dramatic but harebrained plot to take over the world.

    What it *really* means, though, at least to me, is for a thing to become a part of everything everywhere, within a chosen field of endeavor. For example, both WSGI and setuptools are now inching quite close to achieving TWD status in their respective niches.

    In other words, TWD isn’t an overarching goal; it’s an attitude and a benchmark for measuring a project’s success within a field of alternatives. TWD means taking the territory by being better (from the *users’* perspective), spreading faster, and being harder to dislodge than anything else. Being viral helps. Social engineering and network effects help. Worse Is Better helps.

    And above all, understanding who your *real* users are, will make or break you. WSGI and setuptools succeeded where PyProtocols didn’t, on the basis of a better understanding of who the target user should be — and it’s not always the obvious group.

    Indeed, previous efforts to standardize web request and response objects for Python failed because they assumed that their “customer” was the developer using the objects. WSGI’s primary customer was framework developers, and thus a pretty API has little relevance to them.

    Similarly, setuptools is succeeding because it first targets the needs of package authors, not the needs of system administrators or of end-users per se.

    It’s easy to *expand* the scope of WSGI and setuptools to address other audiences, of course, and that process is now well under way. But it’s only happening because I chose the right “territory” in which to establish a beachhead and to recruit allies from.

    But anyway, I’ll stop now before I end up writing a whole article on TWD principles here in the comments. 🙂

  • Why put yourself down for enjoying starting things? Starting something up is what you’re good at. There are plenty of people around who love finishing tasks but who can never get anything off the ground. Find yourself a completer-finisher to work with, you’ll drive each other nuts but you’ll both be 10 times more productive!

  • pje wrote: ‘the “big ideals” stuff that I stopped thinking about so I could survive the last few years at my corporate job’

    If you have been successful at continuing to make money without having most of your time consumed by boring/useless activities specified by PHBs, please write a HOWTO for the rest of us. I’m serious. This is a major issue for those of us who seemingly share your general personality type without (at least in my case) being “born entrepreneurs”.

    (As for always going onward, and never going back to clear up the mess, this is just a real-life application of Henry Baker’s “Cheney On The MTA” style of garbage-collecting the heap, at least if there is a garbage collector 🙂

  • That’s “garbage collecting the _stack_”, of course,because in this way of doing things it’s never popped (“Did he ever return? No, he never returned …”).

    Back before I encountered computers, my pile of abandoned incomplete projects was readily explained by the credulous with “he’s an Aries”. To say “he’s a Da Vinci” makes it seem like a compliment; it’s really just a description.

  • “””If you have been successful at continuing to make money without having most of your time consumed by boring/useless activities specified by PHBs, please write a HOWTO for the rest of us.”””

    The short answer would be, don’t take jobs like that. Find ones that are a fit for where you want to go, and that have leeway for you to expand.

    Of course, that’s a bit like saying “just do it!” to a person who’s having trouble getting started at something. It’s leaving out some important bits, in other words. I’ll try to address them in another article.

    “””To say “he’s a Da Vinci” makes it seem like a compliment; it’s really just a description.”””

    It’s “really” whatever we want to make of it. If you have a choice to view something as a blessing or a curse, the *rational* thing to do is to consider it a blessing, since that produces a better quality of life.

    “””You go to your top, I’ll go to mine. We may or may not meet. But have fun.”””

    If you’re going to be analytical about it, you should also observe that I didn’t say *you* would be at the top — or any top — when I got there and saw you. 😉 In fact, I said I’d race you, implying that even if we were going to the same top, the intention would be for me to get there first. 🙂

    But that’s the sort of thing you get when you overanalyze life instead of enjoying it. You have fun, too!

  • I have been totally stressed out lately getting ready to move and starting the book I am writing. It felt unreasonable, and I couldnt figure out what was the matter with me. I did a random google search of “fear of finishing things” and found this entry, and just wanted to say that you did a great job sorting out your thoughts, and I’m grateful that I got to read them. I hope things are going well for you!

  • The Davinci method rocks. Loved this article you wrote. I could have written it myself 🙂 I now avoid clutter by picking up after myself morning and night as a rule. If I forget to do it in the morning, I will have remembered by the evening. But the trick is to do it as a habit like brushing your teeth.

  • First time I comment on some random dudes blog post hehe.

    Really liked your article, it spoke to me. I am also reading the DaVinci Method (because I have great trouble delivering/finishing, there are just too many new ideas all the time) and I enjoyed your interpretation of this part.

    Also really liked how you turned chores into potential thrills. I'll try to follow your example!



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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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