The Problem of Starting

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

A few years ago my wife and I became sort of crushed by all the crap we’d stuffed into our semi-detached workshop/shed. For years, when we were sick of having something in the house but were too parsimonious to just throw it out, we’d shove it in this shed. When there was no more space in the shed, we’d move stuff around to there was a little more room, then we’d shove new stuff in there. We maintained the minimalist aesthetic of our midcentury modern home by fouling that little shed with our hoarding, like when Walt and Jesse cooked in the crappy Winnebago.

For the better part of a year, I regularly scheduled a Saturday and swore that I’d clean the thing up. In my own defence, I would sometimes get a few things to the dump, but it was hardly a triumph. It just left holes in the matrix that would allow more amassing of garbage. It all seemed so insurmountable. There was so much stuff in there that we didn’t want to even start for fear that the project would swallow us whole.

So, I would balk. Again, and again, and again.

Eventually it just became ridiculous. We could no longer live with the secret grave of trash and zero access to our tools. We needed an intervention, and my wife was the catalyst. One day we tore into that thing, and we were all the way done in, like, three hours. That’s it. Three hours, and poof: we had a shed back. All that crap was in a pile, waiting to be chauffered to the dump, which happened soon enough. And then it was over.

Since that day, my wife and I call any task that seems much bigger, messier, and scarrier than it will probably actually be a “Shed Job.” As in: “I should just grade these papers. They’re gonna be a shed job anyway.” Or, “Hey, you’re back already. Was that a shed job?”

Answer: “It was a total shed job.” 

Having a name for something scary drains a lot of the fear out of it. When the urologist told me I had testicular cancer, I remembered growing absolutely and immediately placid. “Oh,” I thought, “This is no longer a mystery.” 

The doctor had me pull up my pants, then he started walking me through the next steps, “There’s a clear path for this, and we’re looking at a ninety-six percent cure rate, but we have to get started right away. I want to see you in the OR on Thursday.” It was Tuesday, and for some reason I didn’t freak.

The trick about scary things is the more you wait, the scarier they get. We’re all subject to psychological inertia, the same way we’re subject to non-metaphorical physics with our bodies. When you’re doing stuff, when you have the habit, you tend to keep going. When you stop, you don’t want to start again. I have lived this again and again and again.


This isn’t a new insight. People have had this thought over and over again, too. Steven Pressman has written an entire book called The War of Art on this very matter of resistance. Creative people of all stripes know that you need the habit in order for the work to come forward. Louis L’Amour said it well, “The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” Moreover, the faucet doesn’t turn itself on.

I’m a notorious non-starter, which comes, I think, from perfectionism. I can imagine an outcome that is way beyond my skills or abilities. I worry about wasting materials or time. I worry about making a mess, or making something stupid. I’m not worried so much that other people won’t be into what I’m doing. I’m worried that I’ll hate it. So, I take the only honorable path: I do nothing. 

The thought pattern goes like this: if I leave the fire on the mountain, with the gods, where it belongs, then it won’t go out. I won’t be responsible for whatever happens. Obviously, that kind of thinking is bad mojo, way worse than getting busted and chained to a rock so giant eagles can re-eat your liver every day.

Um, maybe…

But there’s another story about resistance and inertia, and it fits my worldview a little better. Even if you’re not a big bible reader, you’re probably familiar with the parable of the Ten Talents. This is the story where some guys’ boss is leaving town, so he gives them some money (don’t know why he does this, but never mind). One guy gets five bucks, another guy gets two, and the last guy gets one. This was merit pay, apparently, each guy got money based on his ability, his “talents.” Guy with five, goes off and doubles his. Same with the guy who got two. The guy with one, freaks out, buries his in the ground.

Better safe than sorry, I guess.

Long story short, the boss comes home, asks about the money. The first two guys show theirs, and the boss shakes their hands. Third guy is really nervous, and he should be. The boss goes crazy on him, takes his one talent, and gives it to the guy with ten. 

The moral of the story here is the guy with one talent was faced with a shed job, right? His fear got the best of him and he stalled. That hesitation, that fear, cost him everything. 

I am not interested in people who use this parable to justify eliminating capital gains taxes (which happens all the time). This is a much more serious tale about the fear of starting and its consequences. Since it’s a bible story, the consequences here are meant to be taken as eternal one. It is mortifying to start. It takes faith, and it takes experience, too. You have to already know that once you start the work you’re going to settle into a comforting flow. The right stuff is going to happen if you can just get going. But how is a person going to gain this experience? How will you know that it's going to happen?

By starting, of course.

What if you fail? Don’t worry you will. And when you do, just follow Samuel Beckett’s advice and “fail better.” It is apparently a much better option than burying your talents in the backyard.

This is why I love Ray Bradbury’s suggestion to “Jump off the cliff, and build your wings on the way down.” If you hesitate, you’re lost. If you don’t shoot, you can’t score. Don’t tell me something won’t work, tell me it didn’t. These aren't platitudes.

Just do it. Swoosh.

I made this "inspirational" message a couple of years ago, and I can't find the original photographer's info for a credit. 

I made this "inspirational" message a couple of years ago, and I can't find the original photographer's info for a credit. 

The Inherent Creativity of the Down Climb

Today, my wife and I took Max to his daycare, and becuase it was President’s Day, and the Big Ones didn’t have school, we took them on a little adventure to a place west of town called Three Peaks. It has pretty vistas of the mountains to the east of us. It’s close, but not too close. We weren’t trying to hike forever, or anything. We just wanted to get outside and move our bodies a little during this non-wintery February.  

Here's a picture Zoë took with her ratty old 3rd Gen iPod Touch.

The trail was hard to find. The kids got a little bored, broke away from us, and started scrambling up the side of some really crumbly rock. Ike was up the side of that stuff faster than a mountain goat on a sugar high. Zoë, who was moping about the whole trip like some bored teenager in a television commercial, followed him straight away. I was just about to call them back down to the safety of the trail, when I noticed my wife scrambling right up behind them. Zip—off they went.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a dubious history as a YMCA camp counselor, unit director, outdoor school teacher, ropes course facilitator, life guard, and assistant program director. I run everything my kids do through a pretty elaborate risk analysis algorithm, which is not entirely unlike the way Guy Ritchie had Sherlock Holmes plan out his fight moves. 

I’ve had enough experience with this sort of thing that I can predict an accident with uncanny accuracy. Often times, I can shut tragedy down before it happens like a Minority Report agent, but this time, I just shut the algorithm down and just followed them quietly up the boulders. They all did a good job getting up to a great vantage point, and I fought the urge to shout out advice like: 

“Three points of contact at all time!” 
“Bend your knees to keep a low center of gravity!”
“Use the sole of your shoe for friction. You need a lot of surface area!”
“It’s easier to climb up than down!”

In then end, there were a few scrapes and scuffs, but not many. They were red-cheeked and huffing, and thrilled by their accomplishment. The views were great. We were high enough that a raven circling nearby was below us.

After a rest, they decided to go down the other side using a route that seemed easier than the way up. I spotted that route on the way up and was pretty sure it wasn’t a good way, but I just kept my mouth shut. They figured it out pretty fast and headed back and found another way down. During that time, my wife and I stopped to talk about what was going on.

She said, “You know, this is just problem solving and creative thinking.”

I agreed. It was a fantastic insight. Add that to the list of why I married the right woman.
“It would be easier if I'd just told them which way would be safest, but they wouldn’t have learned a thing,” I said.

We went on to discuss convergent and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is the type of thinking one uses when creativity isn’t needed. It's usually used to solve a problem that has a single approach and a single, well-established answer. It’s not an entirely useless form of thinking, but when you’re have to be creative it can hamper your progress. Convergent thinking is something you might use later in a creative process, once you know what direction you need to take, once you’ve tested out the possibilities.

Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is most useful when there are many possible solutions or approaches to a problem, and you need to try them out or iterate before you can settle on the best one. Route finding is the perfect example of needing divergent thinking first, and convergent thinking second.

Both are needed to get you where you're going.

There we stood, my wife and I. One an art teacher and teacher of art teachers, the other a creative writing professor and the director of a university creativity center. We were watching our kids go through the process of figuring out how to get down the side of this little mountain safely.  It wasn’t an entirely risk-free enterprise, and we could have made it faster for them by showing them the way, but that would have stolen any success they earned that day. So, instead of a couple of kids who got down onto level ground and said to themselves, “We did it.” The attention would have been turned to the wise parents who kept them from catastrophe.

How often does this happen in the classroom or in the workplace? Correctness has become the goal. We use correctness to measure our success, even though failure is so often the most thorough instructor. When teaching people to be art teachers, my wife often reminds them that if every art project on the wall looks the same, then you’re doing it wrong. 

It’s almost always the wrong choice to take away someone’s ability to choose their own path through an assignment, a project, or a life event. One can imagine a few criminal examples where others might have to intervene, but otherwise it's no help to meddle. People who have experience really do mean well. They want to save people the trouble, grief, and anguish they've had in their own experiments. Sometimes they want to save themselves the trouble of having to come around and help that person who messed up. They don’t want to be bothered. But the goal as a teacher, parent, or leader is to help people grow and to help people feel proud of their own accomplishments, not to make things easier.

That happened today on the rocks. And we all came back in one piece, a little cold, a little scratched up, and a little winded, but better people all around. When you're a parent and a teacher, there's a constant meta-level to everything you do because, in the end every parent is, in fact, a teacher, the most important one those kids will ever get.