There is more to creating a productive and satiating life and business than the what of a to-do list and the when of a calendar. In The S4D we continually explore all the Elements that make up every efficient and effective system or project. Each month, I share small excerpts of from our studies so you too can begin to craft holistic and synergistic systems that support real life.
The S4D follows a rhythm of quarters that start in February, May, August and November and mark the beginning of spring, summer, autumn and winter respectively. Observing the seasons is important both literally, since our energy and activities are impacted by our natural surroundings – as well as figuratively, since we pass through the phases they represent not just every year, but at every time scale and in the course of every system and project.
How To Skillfully Navigate the End of a Beginning
Here at the Atelier of Time, April marks the third and final month of the Spring quarter. It’s still the season of new creation and rejuvenation, but instead of being at the Beginning of the beginning, or at its Crossroads, we are at the End of the beginning.
I’ve been noodling on how to describe the End of the beginning, the essence of that transition, and, really, Charlie Gilkey says it best. In his essay Stand Tall, Creative Giants, #3 on his very well-observed list of challenges experienced by creatives is this:
“They half-finish projects because they’ve worked out the puzzles or adventures before finishing them. The projects have thus lost their appeal, and Creative Giants have other commitments to attend to.”
That, in a nutshell, describes the End of the Beginning. Unlike the first dip on your Roller Coaster of Shipping, which is still about discovery (even if it is a less than tasty reality sandwich), this transition is about the shift from invention to execution, from potential to tangible, from the planting and blooming of Spring to the ripening of Summer.
Both phases are roll-up-your-sleeves hard work, but their inherent motivations and rewards are often quite different, as are the required systems and support structures. Projects, especially long-term ones, rarely have the same character all the way through. And we ignore such shifts at our peril.
Graceful Exits Make for Graceful Entrances
In review, Beginnings are about preparation and readiness. Middles are about pausing and assessment. And Endings are about clean up, review and celebration. They are opportunities to reorganize, capture Lessons Leaned, leave a breadcrumb trail for your Future Self, cultivate satisfaction in your work, and take yet another deep breath before diving into the next thing.
As you may have already guessed, Endings have a lot in common with Beginnings. There is a lot of overlap between cleaning up after yourself and getting ready for the next thing. Which is largely why making a graceful exit results in a graceful entrance.
And when we’re closing a phase within a larger process or project, that kind of Ending also has a lot in common with Middles. We are always navigating cycles within cycles.
The End of the Ending – when a process or project is fully complete – is something we’ll explore much more fully later in the year. Right now, I want to explore how to skillfully navigate the End of a Beginning, since it’s a step that tends to be a doozy for us creatives.
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Recognize where you are…
The End of a Beginning – especially for a creative project – can be a lot like the shift from falling in love with someone to loving that person. In the beginning, your beloved is nothing but funny and charming and nearly perfect. But sooner or later, you’ve had enough shared conversations and experiences to know they are not perfect (and, of course, s/he has discovered the same thing about you). So, if you’re going to stay together, you have to adjust your expectations accordingly. And you have to figure out how to sustain the relationship over the long haul, because you’ll need some other driver than what fueled the “in love” phase (which was largely some very powerful brain chemistry).
The same goes for projects. When you’re high on a new idea, it feels perfect and easily doable. But the more you work on it, the more you become aware of the gap between what you see in your mind’s eye and reality, and the hard work it will take to close that gap. So if you’re going to finish the project, you’re going to have adjust your expectations accordingly and figure out what is going to sustain the effort of the longer, and often more arduous, execution phase.
With that in mind, consider your ambitions or projects that are in progress right now, especially the ones that seem to have stalled. And ask yourself if your lack of engagement is the result of the spring-time exploration phase leading to…
…feedback that this idea is actually a no-go. The discovery phase has led to the realization that this isn’t such a good idea after all. You just aren’t aware of that or haven’t accepted it yet – or simply given yourself permission to not finish something you’ve started. (Not everything you plant is going to bloom or ripen. That’s okay. Or maybe you thought you’d love gardening, but you actually don’t. That’s okay too.)
…confusion and denial. Reaching the Middle revealed your beloved idea’s imperfections and you can’t figure out how to adjust your approach or project plan accordingly – and, to be honest, you don’t want to. You don’t want to let go of that high-on-a-new-idea-everything-is-perfect feeling. At all. (Well, it’s grown a lot, but the leaves have spots. That’s probably a bad sign and I should probably do something about it, but maybe they’ll just go away while I plant something new over here…)
…a lack of oomph. You’ve accepted reality, you’ve adjusted your approach accordingly, you know what to do next… aaand you’re not doing it. You know the in-love phase doesn’t last forever, but without that juice, you just don’t seem to have energy for this thing. (The garden looks great. Everything is off to a strong start, but –wow– this is going to take a lot of watering and weeding all summer long. And just because I’ve figured out the spot thing, doesn’t mean I won’t have to figure out how to handle a bug infestation or other setbacks later. I know the harvest will be worth the effort, but right now it makes me tired just to think about it.)
…to get where you next want to go with some grace.
If the idea is a no-go, drop it. You really, really don’t need to finish everything you start. In fact, this is key to staying out of overwhelm.
If you’re confident this a viable idea, then honestly own up to what it’s going to take to see it through. This is often a sticking point for creatives to whom most things have come quickly and easily (especially in their formative years). To avoid being bored, you you’re naturally drawn to working at your leading edge. But working at your leading edge automatically means this thing isn’t going to come quickly and easily. And we just don’t have good practice and experience with long, challenging arcs of development. We genuinely don’t know what to do and more importantly, we really don’t like the way the Middle makes us feel, the way it threatens our ego and sense of identity. (See Carol Dweck’s work on fixed v. growth mindsets for more on what’s going on in this moment.) But your awesome idea needs you to remember this feeling is both temporary and illusory and to keep working and strategizing until you get to the other side of it.
If you need energy and motivation, update what will fuel your reality-adjusted project plan. When we craft a project plan in the S4D, we name its purpose and outline its phases and steps as best we understand them at the outset. We draft timelines, determine the necessary working environments and tools, and select the people who will contribute to this endeavor. We also choose how we will care for our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and financial energies throughout the process. All of these decisions are essential to a well-fueled project. And we make them knowing they will change as our experience and understanding of the work evolves.
When we reach the first Crossroads of a project, what we’ve learned so far typically leads to practical, straightforward changes to our process, timeline, working environments and tools, or project team. But fully crossing from Spring into Summer, from planting to ripening, from idea to execution – to acting on that updated plan – requires deepening and widening our understanding of purpose and energy management in ways that are often less obvious and more challenging.
For instance, when I’m at the End of the Beginning, the “why” that has fueled my work so far has been baked into the idea itself. The ambition has been compelling in ways that I may or may not be able to articulate – either way, curiosity and that “in love” feeling has generated more than enough energy to get me through the discovery phase. But once I understand the project and what it’s really going to take to see it through, I have to plug into a different sense of purpose to remain engaged in that updated project plan. The dialogue in my head shifts from: This is such a great idea! It’s really going to help my students understand XYZ better and implement it more quickly. I am genius. — To: Okay, this is still a really good idea, and if I do a really good job at executing it all the way through, it will be able to stand on its own two feet and that will free me up for other things. It’s not that the genuine desire to help people has been replaced by a desire for freedom (or was mistaken in the first place) – they are both constants in my overarching goals no matter what I’m working on – I just make a conscious change to which one is doing the driving. I switch from geeking out on teaching as best I know how to geeking out systems-crafting as best I know how – in part because that instigates another discovery phase that will keep me motivated.
But given the cognitive demands, emotional ups and downs (including challenges to the ego), and sheer butt-in-chair time it takes to properly execute a big idea, there is also a very good chance I need to amplify how I care for my physical, mental and emotional energy. The specific fuel that’s needed varies from project to project, but often includes more active outdoor time, more art (especially theater and music), and more conversations with others. While immersion is fabulous during the exploration phase, the temptation to remain hunkered down and giterdone is actually the wrong move. From this point forward, the project is a marathon that is better for less isolation, not more.
Let’s go back to that thing you’re stalled on. Assuming it’s a viable idea and assuming you understand and have accepted what it’s really going to take to see it through, I want you to ask yourself…
- What is my renewed primary sense of purpose that will give me compelling reasons to regularly engage with this project until its finished (without waiting until my back is against the wall of a crisis or looming deadline)?
- And in the absence of that high-on-a-new-idea feeling, what is the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual fuel that will sustain that work? What is going to sustain this long-term relationship and keep it healthy?
Once you’ve brainstormed some answers to these questions, give them a whirl. Experiment with plugging into different “why’s” and see if that revives your curiosity. Play with different aspects of the pacing, environment and people that create your overall working conditions. Explore the differences between what fuels discovery and what fuels implementation. And see if that improves your willingness to engage in the work and general ability to finish things.
And then tell me about your results. I’d love to hear about where you’re stalled, what you tried to shift that, and what happened as a result. Please share your experience in the comments below or send me at note at hello [at] thirdhandworks [dot] com).
peace and love,
A full module of the S4D is devoted to long-term project planning. In it are detailed, step-by-step instructions for moving through every phase of bringing a goal to completion. And putting that knowledge into practice comes with the backing of a supportive community to help you through whatever setbacks you may encounter along the way. The collective experience of meeting the challenges of our chosen work – of learning through doing together – is a big part of what makes the S4D so effective. I’d love for you to share in the momentum.