My Six-Point Plan for Doing Projects
Tell everyone your idea. As many people as you can, especially people not in your industry. Tell your mom’s friends. Do not make them sign an NDA. What are they going to do, steal your idea? Not a chance.
Someday soon you’ll be sitting in a meeting and someone will want to go around the room and have everyone say what they’re planning to do this summer. This is your chance to tell people about your project. Here’s what you should say:
I’m going to learn to speak Vietnamese.
I’m going to make a portable heart monitor in Processing.
I found this company called Aircraft Spruce and they sell airplane kits so I’m going to make an airplane in my backyard.
A model airplane?, they’ll say. Like a radio-controlled one?
No, you’ll say, a real airplane.
This meeting now has two outcomes: one, you have to go build a full-scale airplane in your backyard, which, yes, is going to take some work. But two: the badass from the meeting who’s building a freaking plane? That’s you!
The important thing about telling everyone your idea is that it puts you on the hook for following through, because you’re going to look foolish if you do nothing.
And this is important because what’s really at stake when you have an idea is not being first to market. It’s not capturing learnings from your users or iterating on your MVP. That’s small stuff. What’s at stake is your pride. Pride may be your greatest asset in terms of making ideas happen and getting projects done. You have to be too proud to do nothing.
It also helps if you name the company after yourself.
So it’s time to get started. Everyone will tell you, John Cage said to start anywhere. They’ll say, don’t let starting stop you. They’ll say, just make a list.
I don’t care if you make a list. It doesn’t matter what to-do app you use. What matters is that you find two things: a lucky notebook and a lucky pen. These are your talismans. They’re your conduits to the gods who watch over projects like homemade backyard airplanes.
It is your responsibility to find these items. Do not cheat on this: your luck in this endeavour totally depends on appeasing the gods who watch over projects. Don’t cut corners by just buying another Moleskine.
It will take some trial and error, as it rightly should with sacred objects, and tools are sacred.
At some point in your project, your tools will be your only companions. There may come a time when even your pride has deserted you and you find yourself staring at a desk full of schematics for wing struts with no idea what to do. You’ll be holding a pen in your hand. That’s when you need that pen to be lucky, because you have to start moving it across the paper.
Have your heart broken. It happened to Rei Kawakubo, before she founded Comme des Garçons—you can read about her here.
When you’ve had your heart broken, and I mean like sit sobbing on a park bench broken, like move all the way to China broken, you'll realize the work you'd been doing wasn't anywhere near your potential. That’s all I have to say about that.
Heed the wisdom of Mickey Rivers, whose full name is John Milton Rivers, ex center fielder for the New York Yankees, who once said:
Ain’t no sense worryin’ about the things you got control over, ’cause if you got control over ’em, ain’t no sense worryin’. And ain’t no sense worryin’ about the things you don’t got control over, ’cause if you don’t got control over ’em, ain’t no sense worryin’.\n
You may get stuck. You probably will. Here’s what to do.
Hitchhike to Mexico. Stop in the capital for lunch then catch a bus south. Any town, doesn't matter. If you have to rely on the internet, go back to El Paso and start over. One way or another, get to a small town on the coast. Find a place with tables by the ocean. Order something to eat. Sit and listen to the waves and the birds.
The point of all this is shrimp with cayenne pepper and lime, rough corn tortillas, grilled squid if they have it. As you eat, remember that when you woke up this morning you had no idea this place was even here.
When it gets late, buy a bottle of mezcal at the stand next to the restaurant. There'll be a girl there doing her homework in a small notebook. Remember to save the bottle, which is clear glass and has a homemade label. Share drinks with everyone. Eventually head over to hotel, which also faces the surf. Get a good night's rest. Tomorrow you've got to get back to work—that plane isn’t going to build itself.
You will want, at some point, to start over.
Please do not under any circumstances use the word “pivot.” Do you think the Wright Brothers said pivot when they switched from fixing bicycles to making gliders, and again when they switched from gliders to flying machines? They did not.
Pivoting is about turning away from failure, or learning from failure, or something like that. Failure always seems to be involved.
My advice is: do not fail. More precisely: do not give up. You cannot let yourself off the hook that easily. Remember that the gods are watching. Remember what you told everyone in that meeting. Remember how impressed they were. Now is the moment when you have to earn that.
Get back out there and fix it. Get new tools, get help from the aeronautical engineer who lives down the street, try different bolts on the wings. If you give up now, you’ll never know if what you thought was failure was just a matter of the wrong bolts. You have to try everything.
You have to have faith that your idea was good because at the moment when you want to quit, faith matters more than the quality of your idea.
When you get back from Mexico, people will ask you where you got so tan. Tell them about the little girl doing her homework at the mezcal stand. Count to 20 in Vietnamese—they’ll be astonished. Take out your lucky notebook and show them your sketches.
Show everyone your ideas. A novel that sits in a drawer isn’t a novel. You can’t protect what you’ve made. You’ve got to expose it to the elements. You have to get it out onto the runway and yank the propeller as hard as you can and get the damn thing up in the air—up over our heads so that we can see it before we hear it, and look up and smile as the wings flash against the sunlight and see you in the cockpit as you look down and wave to us as we already begin to look like tiny little ants.
Airplane photo and beach photo via Shutterstock.