When you start with an idea for an invention, or for making art, it’s prudent to talk to people about it and get an estimation of how it will be when it becomes a reality.
That first information-gathering phase is as important as it is gratifying. Here you seek out information on how to go about your decision from start to finish and, while it satisfies a basic thirst for knowledge, you also develop a feeling of momentum toward your main goal. You put together a “right set of questions” and develop a clearer picture about what success should look like. You also research to find precedents—others who have tried the same thing, or similar—with both good and bad results. By keeping an open mind you can more quickly pick up on the adjustments you'll need to make for success.
As you move further into your studying you will inevitably find other people who have taken on similar challenges—they become good examples of what problems you might encounter, and how you would go about solving them. Everything from marketing and social media to production costs and billable time. This is a significant undertaking from which you would plan to distill information to use on your project.
But have you set a start date? Or did you decide, “It depends...”?
It’s easy to fall into the latter category to postpone setting a deadline until you “know more.” It’s understandable to believe that you don’t yet have the right amount of information to start. That is, of course, true for some length of time. But that time is often considerably smaller—and more definite—than most people will let themselves believe.
Years ago, I found myself in conversation with an artist who had been meticulously researching personal computers because he was about to buy his first one. Very quickly I found that it was futile to advise him on anything: his fear (somewhat correctly) was that something better will come along as soon as he had made his purchase.
That would become a good metaphor for the term I've encountered many times since: Analysis Paralysis.
It is older than Aesop’s fable of The Fox and the Cat, in which the fox boasts “a hundred ways” by which he might dodge a hunter, but the cat humbly knows it has but one. When the hunter's dogs finally catch up with the fox and cat, the cat quickly climbs a tree. The fox, confused by his many options, hesitates and is trapped.
When people venture into uncharted territory, they give into a hesistation that comes from overthinking: the plan isn’t refined enough, or they might need more resources, or better advice is needed before they make their first move. In other words, “What’s the harm in waiting until you’re sure?”
Well, what's the harm “researching” a project idea for half a decade? What does it say when you are “focused” on your fourth book on the same subject/field, about the same kind of project, in the same market, and you find yourself criticizing the book for redundancy? There is an inevitable moment when it becomes clear that you have now amassed sufficient information (like when when you have a growing list of conflicting opinions from experts in that field about what to do).
So what should you do?
When you find yourself at this juncture—of having “too much information” and simultanelously feeling confused—the answer is very simple:
Because the time for listening is over, and it’s time to act: you have enough information to take a wrong step in the right direction and work from there. And taking a step means you’re on your way to becoming less confused: everything that you try will produce a result, which you can then examine and modify to improve your process.
Expert advice is great, but is also often so specific to the expert’s own project with their own circumstances (budgets, audiences etc.), that it becomes unusable “as-is”. In other words, it is more often a great way to gauge if you’re meeting the right milestones, but it may not be the best way to figure out how to get there—that is up to you, and your circumstances. By moving from theory to practice, you get to methodically validate and invalidate various insights you've collected, distilling the information to apply to your specific needs. This is precisely why you have to mute the experts when it's time to take action: now it's you behind the wheel, it's your journey.
When you realize you're responsible for the rubber meeting the road, you also realize you have to silence the pseudo-expert in your own mind: a fear of the unknown will lean the best of us toward premature conclusions, often pessimistic ones.
All the expert advice in the world will give little more than a good hypothesis to begin the work. You have to physically, manually go out there and test your hypothesis—a method that you figure has the best chance of success at this point in time. You have to knock on doors, make your pitch, talk to people and engage their interest about your precious idea or prototype. You also have to then listen to them, and make some decisions about what you’re willing to change and what you’re not willing to compromise to improve the end-product. This is very different game from the safe “guessing”, based on what you have read or watched or heard, from the experts.
There’s always the temptation to be trapped, to let time pass—time in which you could make small, low-risk mistakes from which to learn. But the alternative is far more interesting: ignore everybody, and start failing if you will. But fail forward. Do it often and quietly tease out a way to make your project incrementally successful until it's not so incremental anymore. Circumstances often make it convenient to hesitate, to be too concerned about putting your best foot forward, making the right decision so that you’re not left feeling like a fool after trying so hard. But one thing that all experts in every field anywhere will agree: Failure is the only guaranteed path to getting anywhere interesting, to any kind of success.
PHOTO: “Heart of the Andes”, 1859Frederic Edwin Church, Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.