March 22, 2012

A (non-beginners) guide to starting something

Credit: Thomas Hawk on Flickr [CC licensed NC SA]

Credit: Thomas Hawk on Flickr CreativeCommons licensed NC SA

“Come, come again, whoever you are, come!
Heathen, fire worshipper or idolatrous, come!
Come even if you broke your penitence a hundred times,
Ours is the portal of hope, come as you are.”

مولانا جلال الدين محمد بلخى aka Jalal al-Din Rumi


Hey there you praise-singers for failure. You, who can celebrate in the face of your own embarrassing blunders, botched plans, flopping after proclaiming you would own the competition, of being eviscerated publicly for well-meaning naivety, wimping out of your grand quests, disappointing expectations or dead-end determinism. Those of  you who extol how useful and edifying repeated failure is, in the greater scheme of greatness. You Michael Jordan quoters.

I’ve lived most of my life in sheer amazement bewilderment at you.

I get it the rational level, of course. But playing fast and loose with loss, is emotionally repellent for us not gifted with spines of tempered titanium. No matter how sensible the intellectual argument, where’s the logic in eagerly inviting embarrassment?

Would you gleefully begin something big, bold, close to your heart, if you understood that there are banks of critics in the Circus Maximus of the social Web? They’re there. At the ready, connected to the global brain, awaiting fresh content to tear apart, or cheer on as a hero to climb the gladiatorial ladder, to fight another day. That may thrill those titanium-tempered ones, and the ballsy beginners who haven’t a clue, and only see the glistening prize.
But if you’re not insulated by Spartan-like determination, or plucky luck, what the devil do you do?

Pollice Verso (1872) by Jean-Leon Gerome. Image: Public Domain [remix: Max Kaizen]

What’s obvious to most of you (okay, probably not the perfectionists or neurotics) is that loss of face, shame, indignity are not synonyms of failure. Nor yet invisibility, conservatism, cynicism, depression, misdirected aggression. The option of (symbolically) dying, restarting, carrying on without going into therapy because you lost a battle, is a small but significant brain tweak.

Small doses of shame’s soul-corrosion are helpful, surely: say you need a convenient hook for effective social control; to know where one should be in the subtle social hierarchy;  to keeping one’s clothes on in public; to coax on debt-fuelled consumerism? Heaven knows we need to buy stuff to cover our shame. It has measurable economic and social utility, so there’s no chance it’s going away any time soon.

Individually however, shame is an emotional choice to apply, after you’ve bungled. It isn’t a natural consequence of making a mistake, or even several.

Only beginners have the bliss of starting without grasping all the complexity that the experienced see. Too many really brights lose out while they’re working out the grand plan. [It always ends up being a grand plan because the intelligent need to account for all the known hazards, who to ally with, the regulations, the elaborate stages of funding, the politicking necessary].
How bloody burdensome.

I think there’s a way through for those of us who were shipped with the creative|analytic brain configuration. A flexible set of permissions for your emotional property rights. A license to venture in safely if you will (some rights reserved), not using the all closed social-default (where your big idea never sees the light of day, just in case it fails), and not all the way open (where it might benefit society, or be pillaged, pirated and leave you the poorer).

5 POLICIES for those who dare to BEGIN THINGS
(when you aren’t a beginner anymore)

  1. Cover your Ass(ets) rather than coveting assets. Having a lot to lose impedes brave moves. Insurance, maintenance, storage – actual stuff sucks vital resources. Could you value access over assets*? How much time/energy could be redeployed, if you didn’t need to worry about hoarding and safeguarding your material goodies. Meet the fear of loss head-on by having less to lose, physically. Get your precious intellectual-wares off your local machine and into the cloud. Trust, but do backups in more than one place.
  2. Banish originality. There is happy freedom in not even trying to be a god-kissed genius. Learn improv, work with what you have, the Web is h u g e. Love opensource. Find stuff to build on; why build from scratch? Resourcefulness is a virtue of our age – learn how to search and remix (legally).
  3. small (doable) ideas FTW. Admittedly not as sexy for dinner party conversation, but this is about actually starting something, not looking like a genius. Prediction has been overclocked by complexity, just give it up. Spawn and release lightweight prototypes. Too much time/money spent perfecting an infertile idea, makes it punishing to cut your losses and nurture the new.
  4. Employ Scientific Method – develop hypotheses, set up experiments, get feedback, tweak the conditions, repeat. Guessing isn’t as useful as knowing. Keeping journals or test logs of data, offers the added bonus of that soothing sense of control that over-thinkers need.
  5. Keep good company, because you could too easily lose the plot if you heed the siren song of the cynics [I’m partial to the definition of “cynic” in Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (1911)]. If what you start, is likely to change the way the world works in some way be aware: the world is only going to get weirder, conservative opposition to change more militant  – which  will require some oldskool toughness. Keep tight with a few trusted people to remind you of exactly why the hell you’re not just staying safely in the background.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
– President Theodore Roosevelt (April 23, 1910, Citizenship In A Republic speech)

Whether we want to get involved or not, the world now demands active citizenship. Globally, laws, business, relationships, human rights are being bent out of shape. How they re-form on the other side of this interregnum is on the shoulders of those of us alive now. What we make, matters. Each one that refuses to get into the fray for (justifiable) fear of failure and reproach, jeopardises our collective freedom. If you are strong on rationality and analysis, it’s easy to logically justify avoiding pain. But worth remembering with me, that failure is a merely another result, not an emotional event, certainly not automatically shame. Emotion actually moves us. Deploy its force with care.

Sometimes there is virtue in overturning the rulings of your head, and let what moves you, be what you do. Whether by starting a business, a social enterprise, a campaign, a film, a movement, music, helping young ones build stuff from opensource rather than just buying finished goods, whatever it be that stirs your heart, begin today.
Safer, messier, smaller, smarter and shared.



Listen: 1. Finding your Vector of Impact Sukhinder Singh Cassidy at Stanford’s eCorner [podcast 1h or watch the video snips here] 2. Tim Harford on Adapting and Prospering in a Complex World [34min podcast]



Read:  1. Tim Harford: Adapt, Why Success Always Starts with Failure. 2. Steven Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come From


! make stuff on the side, with friends, just for fun: realworld or online. New skills + no pressure to succeed



* clarity: not hippie/communist tendencies. I’m interested in collaborative consumption, for resource efficiency, happiness, and ultimately healthy capitalism. More services, less stuff already.

March 22, 2012