My Hump

Often, doing something worthwhile done means taking a long uncomfortable journey.

Say you are a party and see a table with a bowl of potato chips. But between you and the chips are clusters of people engaged in their own conversations. To get to the chips, you’ll need to sneak between those people without rubbing up against them.

Let’s draw a graph of your unhappiness as you go past the partygoers to the chips. Where you are now has a moderate level of unhappiness, since you’d prefer to be at the chips.

As you move closer to the partygoers, your unhappiness level goes up, because you come closer to touching one of them, and your unhappiness level peaks right when your chance of touching someone is the highest.

As you successfully pass the other guests, your unhappiness level diminishes, reaching a low point as you arrive at the chips.

The difference in unhappiness between the peak of the curve and where you were originally determines whether or not you’ll risk passing the other partygoers to get some chips. If it is very high (for example, if you are very likely to brush against the other people on the way to table), then you might not attempt to get to the chips at all.

Physical chemists refer to this concept as an ‘activation energy‘. In some reactions a molecule must pass through a configuration where an atom comes uncomfortably close to other atoms, whose electron clouds all repel each other. If the temperature is high enough, the atoms will have enough energy to pass by each other. But if not, then they are unlikely to do so. I’ve found that, often, getting a project started (even a small project, like writing a blog post) often feels like this.

Marketing expert Seth Godin has written this book called The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When To Stick (And When to Quit). The thesis of The Dip (which, despite the title, actually has nothing at all to do with potato chips – ah ha ha ho ho, I kill me) is that projects are often very easy at the beginning, but gradually become harder to push forward.

I’ve read the book, but the summary on Amazon begins: “Every new project (or job, or hobby, or company) starts out exciting and fun. Then it gets harder and less fun, until it hits a low point – really hard, and not much fun at all. And then you find yourself asking if the goal is even worth the hassle.”

The key, he says, is to recognize when a project is a lost cause (and will never go beyond ‘The Dip’) and when ‘The Dip’ is just a normal part of bringing the project to fruition.

Based on my experience, I think Godin has the whole thing backwards: The Dip is actually a Hump, just like the hump in getting to the chips. I think it’s rare that a new project (or job, or hobby, or company) ‘starts out exciting and fun’ and then ‘gets harder and less fun’. On the contrary, new projects are often the most frustrating. With a new hobby or job or home renovation project, you rarely have the tools you need and often have little idea what to do. You spend most of your time just wishing you knew what the heck you’re doing, learning the lingo, becoming an instant expert, and trying to avoid doing any irreversible damage.

As the work progresses, uncertainty and unhappiness grows until, at some point, you question whether it was a good idea to even have started doing this at all. That’s usually the point where the project has just shaped up enough that your initial vision of what it was going to be like has been largely replaced by your ability to see it for what it is and where it’s actually going. Only then does the project begin to turn a corner.

It’s important to recognize that my view of how projects tend to unfold is not simply Godin’s view drawn upside-down.  To help speed up chemical reactions, engineers use catalysts, chemicals that reduce the activation energy and thus make the reaction easier. But in Godin’s view, there are no shortcuts. The Dip is part of the landscape and you cannot change its shape. Here are some of the techniques engineers use to change difficult tasks into ones that are more easily solved:

Some Catalysts to Aid Project Completion

Catalyst #1Be sure you’re solving the right problem. There are often several ways to reach a given goal. Find the one with the lowest activation energy. You don’t necessarily want to get to the chips. You might instead want to get the chips to come to you. (Is there a small child nearby to help with this?) Where are the rest of the chips? Is there a better snack available somewhere else? (One key to this is to avoid speaking in absolutes – things like: “I must get over to those chips.” – since doing so almost always artificially limits your options.)

Catalyst #2. Iterate. To set up a tightrope across a large dip, a tightrope walker will first stretch a plastic fishing line and then use that to pull a thin string, which is then used to pull a thicker rope, and so forth. A writer will make notes that form a dozen or so key sentences in a passage and then go back and fill in the space in between. At each stage, you have a passable solution, just one that gets better with each iteration.

Catalyst #3. Reserve judgement. To paraphrase Warren Buffett, the best time to pass a final verdict on something is ‘almost never’. When working, just press forward. Recently, I was building a rabbit hutch and found that it is very difficult to paint oneself into a corner when building – if the hutch needs more ventilation, drill a couple of holes into a wall. I used a stick to hold the door shut for a couple of weeks until I was able to install a real latch. If I want a better latch, I can always remove the one that’s there now and put a better one in place. You don’t need to decide at any given time that this is the way things will be forever and ever – just try lots of little ideas until one works right.

Catalyst #4. Nobody knows what you left out. People often use the expression ‘moving the goalposts’ in a pejorative manner, as if it is a bad thing. I call it ‘defining success down’. If you had intended to write a book about activation energy, but it turned into just a blog post about activation energy, no one but you knows otherwise. I was recently writing a post that was supposed to be a ‘Top Ten’ list, but I got so caught up on the first point that I didn’t write the other 9. I’ll just save them for some other day and no one else is the wiser until then.

I see that by listing these ‘catalysts’ I’m trying to boil down everything about how engineers think into a couple of paragraphs, so I’ll just define success down and stop here and continue this thought some other day.

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