Starting is tough. You’re fighting the pain of everything you’ve ever failed at before, and hoping this time will be different. It doesn’t matter how prepared you think you are and it doesn’t make any difference what it is that you’re trying to do. You're “opening a loop” of doing something that is untested, and that's not easy.
Sometime in the last century, I started a few things.
In my college freshman year, I learned how to screen print. My buddy and I made some t-shirts to sell at local metal shows in Atlanta, where I lived. We were kids having fun at the school printmaking studio on the weeknights and showing up to these loud venues on the weekend with a box or two of shirts. This was a low-risk opportunity. It's how I learned about costing, profits, delegation and how not to manage creative conflicts with a partner (our friendship fortunately survived that round, and many others.)
Then there was the time I decided to put out small art magazine. I pushed it up a hill for two years. Artists liked it, galleries liked it, theater people got into it, musicians could dig it. Companies paid to be in it from time to time. There were symposia and events around it. Friends helped. But for most of the time I did all of the design, outreach, content gathering and most of the copywriting. I sold advertising, showed up to press checks, stayed up late sipping root beer with the press man, and quality assurance. It was a thrill to see a new issue come out once every other month. Things were great for a while and then two years into it, I realized I simply couldn’t do it any longer. So, I pulled the plug on it.
There are a few other projects in between those two that gave me some great lessons in how to do it the better next time. I figured, you give it your best shot and you learn as you go.
But lately, those “lessons” have turned to whispers and then to admonitions that get louder and more forceful every time I begin to consider opening the door to a new project. I’m reminded by the voice in my head that I might “fail”, that a good thing might go bad, that people might not show up or like it or support it.
In fact, there are so many reasons for not starting that I’ve made a list of the more frequent ones to make it easier:
• Don’t know where to begin
• Not skilled enough
• Not old enough
• Not young enough
• Not rich enough
• Not poor enough
• Not connected enough
• Not privileged enough
• Too privileged
• Not independent enough
• Not in the right city
• Don’t have the right equipment
• Not the right look
• Not the right gender
• Not lucky enough
And here’s the summarized version of that list:
• Living with the fear of starting.
I recently started a new project. I’d been thinking about it for months, making notes, diagrams, flow charts and lists. Really working up a sweat over it. Then I mentioned the idea to a couple of friends whose opinions I trust. They were nice, they said “give it a shot, it might actually work.” They thought I’d be “uniquely qualified to pull it off” with where I’m located, and the people I know who know the people who know the people who can make things happen. Great, I thought. The balloon in my daydream expanded to fill the room it was in.
Then of course the balloon expanded enough to reach the walls, the ceiling, the Resistance.
Having been at this juncture before, I decided to confront this Resistance head on. Actually, I think it decided to confront me.
Soon after, I took a call from a recruiter about a start-up company that “could really use” someone like me. By my math, for the forseeable future, the job was going to realistically need the kind of commitment that would essentially force me to postpone my own little venture for at least a couple of years. It was a very tempting idea and I could always come back to it, right? Could I?
I decided on a quick exercise to see what might play out: picture myself 6 months from now having taken this job while my project idea is put on hold. The money’s good, life is fine enough. I then pictured myself a year from now with this job. A year from now there’s been some significant progress in my position with the start up job. The money’s still good, there’s more in savings by now. I’ve probably managed to get some time off and take a vacation, to decompress from the stress this job brings. Hopefully.
I then pushed the time travel dial 5 years into the future. There is an idea for my project that is five years overdue and languishing, possibly obsolete. I had started with with a plan long ago, some money put aside to launch it, even injected some momentum to see where it leads. Some inspiring people showed up in my life and the true wealth of a balanced life presented itself. But five years into this job now, I’m in an expensive work chair, managing “creatives”, clocking in ridiculous hours a week because we’re now in a “growth phase”, and socializing out of career necessity with work friends and clients at the end of the day. That idea I had for my own project has gone nowhere significant at all, it’s becoming a distant memory. I am now five years older and not only have I lost those five years, but my muscle for entrepreneurial work is atrophied.
I decided to forego the start-up gig. I started my own thing. My logic: the fulltime job will never truly be engineered to suit me completely in the way that I can with my own thing, and to me that's a big part of doing my own thing: to suit me and my values as fully as possible. The nagging notion to then face is that my resources—my “runway”—might have been more substantial with more in my pocket when I started. Leaves me thinking the timing wasn’t “ideally ideal” to start. Of course, this was echoed by a couple of well-meaning friends. But that’s life, isn’t it?
The thing is, there’s never a great time to start. But start. Commit. Circumstances, family and well-meaning friends will always conspire to bring you back to what is secure, safe and not really worth the fuss. They’re looking out for you, saving you from yourself, sometimes, and they do mean well. I mean, who do you think you are to think that you can pull off this coup?
So expect that your ideas will get kicked in the teeth. Often. Scan for signal. Qualify every criticism, take it all in seriously and adapt. But know when to hit the mute button: I’ve found getting out of the range of listening to noise from people without imagination is far better than entertaining it.
That magazine I started, the one that went belly-up? Years later, I decided to leave Atlanta and move to New York with about $300 to my name, no job lined up, no industry friends, and living out of a suitcase. I ran into an old college professor who introduced me to a friend as the “guy who did the magazine”. That friend recognized the magazine from her time in Atlanta—apparently she collected them. She had moved to New York not too long ago and landed a dream gig at a top-ten ad agency. She decided to hire me for a project. That gig alone gave me enough to get moved into my apartment, furnish it and start filling it up with a couch, bed, books and groceries.
My point is that you’re not starting today. You started a long time ago, in some oblique, smaller way. You just have to pick up where you left off and close that loop.
PHOTO: A summer afternoon on The Highline.
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