Initiative to learn, but not to create
June 7, 2010 2:51 AM   Subscribe

I love to read and learn, but I can't get myself to start projects, to create something in the real world. I can't figure out why. Does anyone else have this (or managed to overcome it)?

I'm a 23-year-old student of Media Technology (i.e. Audio/Video, Web Development, etc.), so creating is very important for my future field of work. It's not that I don't have ideas - I have lots of them, and I love to think them through. I just don't make things happen in the real world.

I love to learn. I usually find new topics that I like and read books (the latest ones were about DSP, C++ and PHP). I want to learn about web development, but I don't start building a web page. I just don't feel like doing it at all. Instead I read a book and forget the contents again after a couple of weeks.

My hobby is to make (electronic) music. Here I have a similar problem: I worry a lot about how my music should sound. I spend hours looking for sounds to put in my library. The average output: One song in three months.

People (including myself) consider myself a hard-working (as in studious) person, probably because of the amount i learn. So it's not that I'm just lazy.

I'm convinced that you learn the best by actually doing things (not reading about it), but I just can't get myself to do it. I can't figure out why. Does anyone else have this (or managed to overcome it)? Book recommendations are welcome, too.

And help is much appreciated!
posted by thebluesky to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 97 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Let me guess: you're a perfectionist. The perfection of the ideal beats the inevitable imperfection of whatever you create. You know exactly what you want, and don't want, and that's always what you're looking for when you're making something.

The better attitude is to really realize that the creative process itself is a process, and that if you make something, listen to it, make something, look at it, and continue onwards it will be more interesting and more fulfilling. The point is not to reach your destination; it's to have a fulfilling journey. I'm sure you know this all already, but I just want to reiterate the extent with which perfectionism or high standards can be a crippling barrier to productivity and creativity.
posted by suedehead at 3:06 AM on June 7, 2010 [14 favorites]

Your standards are too high. Allow yourself to produce failures, or even worse, mediocre stuff that's merely "OK". Value quantity over quality for a while.

This is how idiots do so well. Being too stupid and blinkered to accurately appraise their own efforts, they can't conceive their efforts are crap, so they loudly congratulate themselves and proceed to squeeze out more crap. As it's a numbers game, and as most of the people who judge their crap are also fools, once in a hundred times it pays off and they get lucky. But because they are un-self-critical, they'll produce one hundred mediocrities in the time it takes you to abandon one flawed or unfinished masterpiece.
posted by orthogonality at 3:06 AM on June 7, 2010

You and me are alike. Some helpful therapy a few years ago helped to point out my own perfectionism and how this was a huge sticking point in my own ability to create and finish stuff. My therapist was a big fan of 'homework', and for a few weeks I had to, in his words, 'go fuck something up', meaning that I had to complete something that was, in my terms, substandard. Each week he raised the bar in terms of the sort of thing I had to 'fuck up'.

Do the same: finish something even if it's not as good as you want it to be. Start small and get bigger. At the same time, work out helpful boundaries for this - this isn't an excuse to be universally crap from now on. But what elements of your work etc. can you afford to compromise on, while being able to direct your perfectionist energies towards the elements that really matter. This manages the perfectionism, takes the load off your shoulders, helps to to complete stuff, and also directs the care to where it most gets results for you or for the people who view / listen to / use your work.

I found that no-one judged my work with as critical an eye as I did. I could ease off quite a lot while still being perceived as excellent by my peers and clients, so my career didn't suffer but my mental health got a whole lot better.
posted by dowcrag at 3:13 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh man, I have exactly the same problem. I 'know' how to do lots and lots of things, but when it comes to actually doing them, I get stuck.

What helped me was to realise that the first draft is never all that good anyway, so don't get hung up on not being able to create something, right off the bat, that's as good as what you read about. I do this all the time; a few times I start doing something I 'know' how to do, but anything I attempt is not as good as what I think it should be, so I give up. But that's going about it the wrong way; you should just start creating something and refine it as time goes on. If it really does suck, discard it and move on, but create whatever.

Also, I tend to be just plain lazy. I'm a fast reader; if I skip over all the examples and exercises I can plow through an instructional book pretty quickly. Actually doing all the examples and exercises took 10x as long, so I didn't. If you're reading books on stuff like C++ within a couple of weeks, you're probably doing the same thing.
posted by Xany at 3:16 AM on June 7, 2010

This is me also, this thread.

In addition to all the previous good advice, I find this helpful:

Memento mori.

Desperate, harsh, and helpful.
posted by krilli at 3:33 AM on June 7, 2010 [8 favorites]

"Perfectionism" is the usual way to describe this phenomenon, which has the advantage (and disadvantage) of describing it as positive quality. I prefer to think of it as discomfort with being associated with the less than perfect--an unwillingness to be vulnerable to crticism. Creative projects are emprical in nature which means that they can only be persued by experiment and trial and error. You have to be able to tolerate the failures in order to proceed.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:16 AM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Not sure about the emerging diagnosis: perfectionism is the inability to finish something - I think thebluesky's problem is the inability to start.

The only two strategies I know that work for that are:

1. deadlines (public, declared deadlines) and
2. doing the fun bits first. It sounds wrong, but it sometimes works.
posted by Phanx at 5:31 AM on June 7, 2010

There is no true perfect success in a creative endeavour. Therefore, your goal should not be to succeed, but to fail, repeatedly and forever, in the most entertaining, stimulating and memorable ways possible. Stop thinking of creative endeavours as producing a product; start thinking of them as explorations and journeys -- like a nature trail: you begin and end in a parking lot, it's how you traveled that makes it worthwhile. To help you get started on this philosophy: I tell you to take exactly half an hour a day to create something. When the half hour is up, the project is done, whether it's perfect or not.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:32 AM on June 7, 2010

This also: Try it and see what happens.

This reframes the Super Important Project That Must Not Fail into something small and curiosity-driven.
posted by krilli at 5:49 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm in your boat too! And I'm thinking of starting some kind of "dodgy attempt task force" accountability group - anyone who wants in, please memail me :)
posted by Chrysalis at 5:57 AM on June 7, 2010

I too have a perfectionist streak. It sucks to not get things right the first time. Perhaps immersing yourself in an environment where failure is acceptable (like a beginner's class) will help.
posted by Anima Mundi at 6:32 AM on June 7, 2010

Remember always: The perfect is the enemy of the good.
posted by Eshkol at 7:26 AM on June 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think a lot of people have this issue. One thing that hasn't been mentioned is that, for me at least, learning about something and planning a project on it is much more fun than actually doing the work. Producing music and writing computer code really is work, even if you do it as a hobby rather than a profession. When you do a project, there's a tradeoff between how much effort you are willing to put in and what benefits you get out of doing it (even if it's just the satisfaction of seeing it completed). In just planning something or learning about something, you can focus on the fun and interesting parts, but with any hobby there are going to be some aspects that just turn out to be frustrating or boring.

So one practical way fight this kind of thing is to work on projects that give you immediate benefits. For programming, that means writing a functioning program that you can start using right away, and then building it up iteratively from there (rather than planning it all out ahead of time and working on it for months before it actually starts working). For music that might mean recording a rough version and adding or replacing elements until the final version is competed. Realize what parts of the hobby are fun for you (even if it's just reading a book or looking for sounds) and make sure those activities are thoroughly mixed in with the parts that aren't fun (i.e. the actual work).
posted by burnmp3s at 7:35 AM on June 7, 2010

Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird addresses this very well. She's talking about fiction writing, but I think the principle applies to just about any creative endeavour. I found the third chapter particularly helpful.
posted by orrnyereg at 7:51 AM on June 7, 2010

I'm convinced that you learn the best by actually doing things (not reading about it), but I just can't get myself to do it.

Merlin Mann of* has been super-helpful in me getting off the ground with my own projects. Basically the rules I’ve pushed together for myself are:

1. Set aside time on a regular habitual schedule to work on stuff.
2. When you feel lazy picture the final product and the warm glow of satisfaction you get from getting it done. That glow usually wins out over an hour of TV.
3. Picture the sadness and embarrassment you’ll feel for not having worked on it. This sadness usually wins out over an hour of tv.
4. Don’t talk about how you’re going to do this project to other people. Just do it.
5. Just start. Starting will give you problems to solve which will motivate you to keep going.
6. Have both long range and short range goals for the project and your learning process as a whole.
7.This is not a cosmic struggle. Either you are going to make a project a priority or you're not. It's up to you. Everyone who has ever become anything set aside time and sacrificed in order to become good at something they wanted to be good at. It's not about wanting to start it's about starting.

Brain Tricks:
-Use an egg timer and say well I’ll just work for x (x should be > 15 minutes, because it takes 15 minutes for my brain to warm up to any task YMMV)time. Usually by the end of that time you’re into the task and will keep going on your own.

Specific 43folders stuff:

First Care.
Time Attention & Creative Work

*He also has podcasts and is really engaging in them and funny, too.
Here's Merlin at MaxFunCon.
posted by edbles at 8:51 AM on June 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Try a project where the feedback loop of technique -> outcome -> technique is part of the project. I'm thinking of baking here, but I'm sure there's others...

Bread is great. You start out bad at it, and you can get VERY good at it, but -- even when you're bad at it, flour + water + salt + yeast = bread.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 9:03 AM on June 7, 2010

The only thing that has ever reliably motivated me to get anything done is a deadline, and that only if there is someone else imposing it... usually a teacher, but I'm sure I'd be the same with a boss or client.

I'm sure I could have taught myself to draw using books and online resources (because that's pretty much what I used to get through my class) but I simply can't seem to get motivated unless someone is expecting me to produce something. I produced a ton of stuff for that drawing class, most of it a lot better than I thought I could do. (Still crap, but crap that was sort of recognizable! I was so excited.)

So yeah, I'd suggest enrolling in a class, or joining a creativity group or club of some sort where people will expect you to have some progress to show at every meetup. You could also get yourself a "creativity buddy" where you both hold each other accountable for making progress on your goals. The good thing about the buddy is that you don't necessarily have to find someone who is working on similar projects to you, just someone who is willing to hold you accountable in exchange for you doing the same for them.

The guy who started NaNoWriMo suggests writing out a check to a charity you despise and give it to a good friend to hang onto, with the understanding that if you don't achieve the agreed-upon progress on your goal in a specified period of time, the friend will mail off your check to the hated charity.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:13 AM on June 7, 2010

I had the same problem and I overcame it by doing two things:

1) Getting into a routine.
2) Giving myself time.

I wrote a novel which recently got published. I got into a routine of going to cafés after work for at least an hour (often more) and writing. Find a routine that works for you and stick to it. Ideally it should be one that comes naturally, not an enforced one. And I also gave myself plenty of time, 3 years, to finish a manuscript I'd be happy enough with to send to a publisher. Perfectionism gets a bad rap, but you don't need to bang things out ratatat. If you need time to work on something before you're happy with it, then give yourself that time.
posted by Kattullus at 9:29 AM on June 7, 2010

Have you read "The War of Art"?
posted by segatakai at 9:30 AM on June 7, 2010

2nd War of Art - came here to post that. A great book that helped me overcome procrastination by reframing it conceptually.
posted by rocco at 10:10 AM on June 7, 2010

I have the same problem with regards to my life in general and my life as a writer. Sometimes there's so much to see and hear and touch and feel - so much to absorb, and I've had moments when I knew I'm on to something good, something brilliant, something life-changing...and then I don't do anything about it. I live so much in my head that it's making it difficult for me to live for real.

A friend once told me an invaluable lesson that keeps repeating at the back of my head whenever I get this way: "The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn't write." That always scares the shit out of me, and I always try to create and make something, anything, than not do it at all.

For now it's still growing pains for me. I've lists in my head and actual lists of ideas and to-do's and a lot of them are still not yet translated into action. Sometimes I worry too if I lack the motivation or if there's infinitely something wrong with me. I have no way of resolving this, so I guess it's a journey for me, too. Thanks for opening up.
posted by pleasebekind at 11:19 AM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

And oh, I'm also seconding Anne Lammott's Bird by Bird and Merlin Mann's 43 Folders. Tremendous help. I've got The War of Art on my wishlist for years and seeing it here, maybe I should go out and buy it.
posted by pleasebekind at 11:22 AM on June 7, 2010

Best answer: I have the same issue, and I beat it enough that people comment that they don't know how I manage to do all the things I do.
I have an advantage over you - I'm no-longer a student. If you get a job in a media production company, it will get hammered into you that shit needs to get done no-matter what, and you'll be shocked at how many corners can be cut and the world doesn't end.
Something really important that you learn in industry is where to NOT spent your time to get great results. You don't have that yet. But you don't need to work in industry to get it.

The biggest step, which you've already done, is to recognize the nature of the problem. If you're like me, you don't get started because you're still thinking through the details, you're still ensuring the source material is as good as it can be, getiing your ducks in a row so everything goes smoothly when you start, and you just don't often seem to reach that point.

Next step, is recognizing it's happening when it is happening. Noticing that you're still ages from starting because you still have to sort out this and that and this other thing... which reminds you... gotta make sure that...
Forget it.
Pull the trigger, and start even though you're unprepared.

You know what's awesome about watching a really good surgeon or dentist work? The confidence borne of experience that they can afford to screw up, because there is nothing they're going to break that beyond their ability to fix... and then proceed with the job until it's done.

Through doing it, getting started even though you don't feel prepared, you'll learn from hard experience, that you are up to the task of fixing the issues that arise, and therefore you don't need to spend as much time making sure nothing can go wrong.

Another thing that helps is learning that quality is a logarithmic graph - there are vastly diminishing returns on effort, and it's very easy to work on wrong side of that curve. The quality difference between a 12 megapixel image and a 16 megapixel image is almost nothing, but the amount of disc grinding that multiple layers on the 16MP image might produce in photoshop, compared to 12, can be immense. And this will take a big toll on what you can produce and how much work you can put into it.
Taking a road that is four times harder for an intended 5% better result usually results in worse results, not better. Especially if you consider opportunity cost.

Give yourself permission to sacrifice short-term quality in order to get better quality in the long run. It's the long-term quality that really counts.

And quit stall, just start. Sort out the problems as the arise, not beforehand. (You'll get really good at it.)
posted by -harlequin- at 11:34 AM on June 7, 2010 [9 favorites]

I have this problem, and I don't think it's perfectionism, because most of the time I am okay with less-than-perfect results.

I just suck at getting momentum up. Once I've got the ball rolling, it's more or less easy, but getting that first push is immensely difficult. I give myself deadlines and requirements and I just put them off. I think the only thing that really helps for me is having some sort of external impetus. Back when I was a student, I found the best way for me to get my homework done was to have someone to do it with and a set time for doing it. Maybe you could find yourself a creating partner and have your Thursday evening 7pm music lab/web lab/both and use that time to make things and get feedback from your partner. You have an hour to make 30 seconds/2 minutes (I am not sure what is reasonable in music creation, but you probably want some amount that gets you almost but not quite all of the way to done), and then spend 15-30 minutes talking about things and critiquing each other.
posted by that girl at 5:05 PM on June 7, 2010

I have the same problem.
I second the "just do it" strategy and give yourself time.
One of my most satisfying works was a paper I wrote in college. It was monumental. Many steps and a lot of writing. To get through it I paid myself an hourly wage. I charted the number of hours I worked and tried to reward myself. In the end though, just racking up hours on the project was it's own reward.
Also for this project, I started early. I brainstormed ideas on various problems, then I let them cook in my head while I worked on something else.
Finally when it came to writing, I told myself..."I'm going to write the worst draft ever." Just writing crappy sentences was enough to get me going.
When I finished, I got an "A" on the project. It was the most satisfying "A" I ever received.
I've attempted the "Write the worst draft ever." strategy on a novel and a screenplay. It seems to work for me.
Hang in there. I still struggle with this problem and I suspect I deal with it all my life.
posted by hot_monster at 10:13 PM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The previous replies have framed the question as a matter of work habits or motivation. But when I read the question, I felt that it described me, but I don't consider it a "problem." I like studying things and I'm good at it. Now, this doesn't mean that I don't do anything at all, I'm just not really into making things. Consequently, I went into research and this is great for me. I write, I get projects done, I read, I make presentations,...

I think of it as the difference between a philosopher and an engineer. Mr. Mausburger is an engineer at heart and loves making stuff of all kinds. I'm a philosopher and I like to research the heck of out things. Once I have figured out how to make something, I don't feel the urge to actually make it.

It strikes me that the reluctance to make things in the world may be a mismatch between temperament and vocation. Assuming that the inability to make thing isn't a product of procrastination or perfectionism, maybe media studies would be a better fit than media technology?
posted by mausburger at 1:12 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with mausburger and others who think it may not be a "problem". Maybe you're like me, and you enjoy learning more than doing. For me, learning how to do or make something is more pleasurable than having a finished product. It's ok, but it does mean you'll have to find your own strategies to cope with this if you get a "product-oriented" job (instead of "process/research-oriented").

Fwiw, I stumbled across this idea in Barbara Sher's book where she talks about Scanners - people with many interests who rarely "finish" anything. It's a good book and I recommend it, I think you might find something for yourself in it.
posted by gakiko at 1:40 AM on June 8, 2010

Response by poster: I'm stunned. This site is one of the most useful resources on the web. Thank you all for the great answers. Apart from the perfectionist guess being spot-on, the follow-ups were just as helpful. I'll do my best and try to help others on this site, even if my answers won't always be perfect (hehe).

About the learning/doing: I actually enjoy doing, I just don't enjoy starting. When I stop in the evening after working on a PHP site (rare case until now) I feel that it was great fun and that I would do it again. That's why I was puzzled: I remember it as being fun, I just don't start again.

Today I spent about an hour working on some music. I think it's still not good, but it's getting there :)
posted by thebluesky at 1:42 PM on June 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Starting is hard when you get home from a day of work/study. You're tired and just want to grab some food and splash down in front of the TV. Getting rid of the TV and otherwise removing your easy options can leave you with fewer things to do other than start, and once started... you're away :)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:00 PM on June 9, 2010

Here's a couple things I just remembered:

Meditation helps a lot! I mean A LOT. Deep stretches too, with the meditation. Seems like the stretches sort of haul the frazzled spirit back into the body. Works. Somehow.

Also, I just finished The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. It's a bumpy read, has its weak spots as a book, but there's just a lot of truth in there. I'm having an easier time abstaining from smoking immediately after reading it, which is something! And I'm also more effective. Get your ass into Now is what I took away from it, and some methods to do so.
posted by krilli at 5:52 AM on June 13, 2010

I hate to recommend a book for someone who's trying to stop simply reading books, but I really think this one has potential: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. The key thing is that you've got to make your goals bite sized(to at least get started) and crystal clear.

As a general example, never give yourself a goal like "Make a web page." That's such a large, scary, and vague goal that even if if you mustered the courage to try, you wouldn't know where to start. Instead, take that broad project, and break it down into manageable and distinct steps. So a better first goal might be to "Mind map ideas of what needs to be done to create a web page," and you go from there, taking it one step at a time.
posted by Ryogen at 8:59 AM on July 5, 2010

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