Keep calm and ship

There’s a very natural cycle when we ship a new project.

In the lead up, we experience hope. Hope is a beautiful thing as we’re in the land of what might be. It is beautiful and lasts until we start doing the work.

Next, there’s doubt. Could I really deliver on what I hoped? The reality doesn’t seem to be close to what I imagined. Is this going to go anywhere?

Once the work is done, we experience fear. Is this any good? Should I just pack up and leave? It is this stage that gets most projects. In response to that fear, we try making all sorts of last minute edits and changes. We forget why we wanted to do this and try and settle for something “people” will like. Or, we just stop and walk away.

Once we get past the fear, we ship. Ah! It feels great. We are elated.

For ten seconds.

Then, as we review what we shipped, we realize it isn’t the perfect product we’d envisioned. Why didn’t I catch that obvious flaw? Ugh.

Doubt and anxiety set in again. Are they going to hate it? Is someone going to write that horrible negative email?

A few hours pass. We still haven’t heard anything. Is this a confirmation of our worst fears? Should we be ashamed of what we shipped?


I’ve shipped many a project over these years. And, yet, I’ve always experienced this cycle of emotions. It is fresh in my mind as I shipped the first edition of the “Notes by Ada” project yesterday. I realized after I shipped that MailChimp’s formatting hadn’t worked as well on mobile. Bummer.

Whenever I experience this, I remember the following truths.

First, I have been ashamed of the first version of every project I have shipped so far. I always look back and ask – “What was I thinking?”

Second, we learn some incredibly valuable lessons when we ship. The best way to respond to them is to improve our creation process. And, you don’t really have a great process until you ship that first product, fall and learn. This attempt might not work, and that’s okay.

Finally, the questions to ask aren’t – “Was I good or perfect?”. They are – “Was I engaged? Was I paying attention?” As long as the answer to that was yes, we were doing the best we could. When we know better, we’ll do better.

Until then, keep calm and ship.

Fifteen steps backwards

There are many things that make changing personal habits very hard. But, one that makes this process supremely frustrating is the fact that, after some initial success, you start by taking fifteen step backwards for every one step forward.

We’ve all been there. The first week of our new exercise routine goes great. And, then comes the lull. Two weeks go by. We’re struggling. Should we just give up?

Maybe that’s why personal change is the hardest kind of change there is. Dealing with the obvious conflict between our rational and emotional selves can drive us nuts. And, try as we might, there really isn’t an easy solution. There are no hacks that can solve the problem. There is only awareness, thought, patience and consistent effort.

Take one step forward and fifteen steps back. Then, try again. And, again – maybe it will be fourteen steps back this time. And, yet, you’ll continue to feel that stubborn force pushing you back.

Steven Pressfield called this force the resistance – the force that acts against all personal change, progress and creativity.

You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study… Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.

Overstatement or not, we often find it easier to conquer environments, nations and organizations than to conquer ourselves.

I know what I need to do

I know what I need to do. It is going to be painful, hard and, truth be told, the resistance is screaming in my ear asking me to figure out ways to avoid it.

There are definitely ways to avoid it.

I can choose to ask many people for their advice and choose to listen to someone who shines light on an easier path.

I can choose to make a list and just begin working on other projects – never mind their priorities.

I can choose to listen to the resistance, complain and find ingenious ways to procrastinate.

Or, I can just suck it up and do it. Like most times, when I listen carefully to myself, I know exactly what I need to do and how it needs to be done. Perhaps, instead of attempting to figure out escape routes, I should just realize that the high anticipated pain and the strength of the opposition from the resistance provide the strongest clue that this is exactly the obstacle that needs to be overcome.

The obstacle is, almost always, the way.

resistance

The obstacle

I’ve started out on a new design thinking class and we’re at the stage where we’ve identified a potential problem and need to assess if it really exists. One of the requirements of the class is to “get out of the building” and test the ideas by asking potential customers. For the first problem assessment assignment, I have 3 options – call up people I know and ask them, do some research locally or travel to the city (45 minutes away) and attempt to do it there. I say “attempt” because there is no guarantee they’ll stop and answer my questions.

I was amazed at the resistance surge I experienced within myself when I first gave the city option thought. I realized that my zone of comfort involved reaching out to people I knew and doing a quick survey of needs. The thought of going into the city, walking about, asking people questions, and getting rejected had woken up the resistance. Perhaps angered it even. It was now an obstacle and as the resistance didn’t want me to contemplate the thought. It even attempted to send a few excuses – you are too busy, there is that appointment you can’t miss, etc.

That moment was the surest sign that the right thing to do was to remove my appointments in the afternoon and head to the city.

The obstacle, I have come to learn, is generally the way.

What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

Someone (anonymous) prompted me to answer a question on Quora. I thought I’d share the question and my response below. The tough part about such a question is that no one can answer it. The best (I believe) you can do is provide a frame that will hopefully help. The response has many of elements I write about here on this blog and all of what is recommended has been tried and tested. So, here’s hoping this helps the person who asked the question and anyone else who might be having a difficult time.


What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

I changed job about a year ago, and really haven’t been doing well in my new job, definitely not as well as I did in my old. Some things are solvable, or at least I can see how to solve them, e.g. project management. However, my job is very technical and requires a deep understanding of material that is complex. I cannot seem to get my head around it, my learning on it is very slow. For that I just do not know what to do, and feel hopeless. It is strange for me because my technical grasp in my old job was good, I don’t know why I am struggling so much here. I feel so demotivated and I do not know who to talk to, as people who do not work in the industry do not understand. I really want some constructive feedback and something concrete to work on, but my colleagues and management say “understanding technical issues should be a given” which makes me wish I could just quit and do something else, although I can’t actually afford to do that financially.


 

Dear friend,

Congratulations! This is an opportunity that can make you and really change your life.

What you describe is the essence of the toughest struggle we face as humans – it is part external, part internal and part existential. It is when the resistance seems to just overpower you and suddenly everything that you seem to touch seems to have failure written all over it. There is nothing harder. I have experienced losing both my father and uncle between ages 9 and 11 and then facing many difficulties as a consequence of that. And, yet, when I look back at a time when I went through something like this, I found death and it’s consequences easier to deal with. This sort of experience will teach you to be human and, in many ways, I think it’s those that learn to be human are those that learn how to be happy.

The toughest part about this sort of situation is that it comes with a seeming lack of options. You seem stuck in an endless spiral and rebuilding your confidence and your sense of self feel like a lot of hard work.

So, given the situation, it is great that you are asking the question. It is sometimes hard to step out of ourselves when we are having tough times. And, this is definitely a good first step. Well done.

Here’s how I would approach it.

Step 1. Examine your options and make a conscious decision.

It seems to me that there are 4 options –
1. Quit now (which you can’t seem to afford financially)
2. Search for a job now
3. Stay and continue status quo
4. Stay and change things

Out of these 4 options, I think searching for a job now could be an escape. However, given your current mental state, it is unlikely that is going to be fruitful. Since option 3 is not one I would recommend, let’s focus on the decision you have in front of you – To fix it or not to  try.

If you decide to fix it, then we proceed to step 2.

Step 2. Rebuild with a 1 month short term plan.

Give yourself a clear short term process goal, e.g., “I’m going to work hard on “being happy” and I’m going to measure my efforts on it.”

This will take 3 steps – 

1. Get the basics – eating, sleeping, exercising, and reading – right. Eat healthy food every 4 hours, kill alcohol and cigarettes for a month, sleep 8 hours every day, exercise 6 days a week (aerobic for 20 minutes) and spend 30 mins every day reading/listening to a book (perhaps start with your commute). When you start,  start with “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl.

Create a simple tracker and measure yourself on these.

2. Journal your daily learnings. You are learning something every day. Reflect on it and write about it. Every challenge is learning and every day, we get better at dealing with them.

3. Recharge emotionally – via good times and volunteering. Spend at least a day a week with loved ones and get over yourself when you do (no moping / complaining). And, make 3 hours to volunteer at a place with underprivileged kids.

Notes
– This may not immediately change anything. You’re in a spiral, and as you face the inevitable frustration once you start trying, you’ll probably spiral further down. Allow yourself to hit rock bottom. It’s a liberating place to be when you realize you can’t sink any lower.
– Don’t take it personally – great footballing stars have gone on to become massive failures when they switched clubs. It isn’t just about you – it is also about the environment.
– As you might have gathered, this isn’t about the technical skills. Our first step is to work on your confidence and motivation. • Be willing to iterate and change approaches. This will help you with stage 1 – getting started and building your confidence. You’ll need to keep tailoring your approach as  some things will work and some won’t. That’s okay. It’s a long way up and there is no easy way out of it.

And, this is not going to be easy or quick. You will feel stuck and annoyed many many times as you work your way through the process. If that happens, welcome to the club. This is how we get made.

PS: I’d love to help beyond this Quora thread. If this thought process helps, that’s great. Even if it doesn’t, please feel free to write me on rohan@rohanrajiv.com if I can be of help in thinking through this. Good luck and good skill!

Where will I feel most pain?

Often, that’s a great question to identify the projects worth doing.

The pain of starting afresh, the pain of fighting the resistance, the pain of having to prove ourselves again are indicators of the sort of stretching required to learn and grow. It is easiest to stay stagnant. It might also be painless in the short term but pain in the short term has it’s way of paying off in the long term.

Our lizard brain prefers to trigger the flight response at the sight of pain. Perhaps it’s time to rewire it a bit..