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Posted on: Thursday, 23 July 2009 by Rajiv Popat

As I continue to struggle mulishly towards writing the book I started to set out months ago I am starting to realize that there is a lot more to be read; researched and said on the topic of how genuine builders and storytellers function. The 'Random Thoughts On Builders At Work' series of posts is supposed to help me organize of some my random thoughts for inclusion in the book without feeling the urgent need to organize them sequentially.

All of these posts; will be eventually added to the book; but for now; dear reader; you can read them as isolated blog posts without any direct sequential connection with the post that came before it or the one that will follow.

So; dear reader; here is one such random thought of genuine builders.

Why We Build Stuff Decides How Long We Continue Doing It.

Early on; in my post on consistency; I announced that consistency is one quality present in all genuine builders and storytellers. Having said that I continue to be disappointed by the lack of overall consistency in the world of software development in general.

You don't have to take my word for it; dear reader. Go look for:

  1. The number of abandoned blogs on word-press or blog-spot that never crossed the post count of ten.
  2. The number of abandoned open source projects on source-forge.
  3. The number of software programmers who upload and update their resume on a job portal every year.
  4. Number of startups that come to an end each year.
  5. Number of ideas on which work is started and then abandoned each year.

Somewhere deep down inside;  the question that really kept bothering me was this --- Does this mean that we are all quitters and whiners who start things which we neither want to finish nor support; in the long run.

After a decent bit of soul searching; reading; and one flash of lightning later; I figured out that the answer to these questions; dear reader; really lies in 'why we indulge in the act of building stuff'.

As it turns out; most people; indulge in the all of the acts mentioned above; starting from launching their blog to signing up for an open source project; for the same reasons that crack dealers indulge in the risky business of selling crack.

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner explain the phenomenon in their book; Freakonomics. They explain:

A 1-in-4 chance of being killed! Compare these odds to being a timber cutter, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls the most dangerous job in the United States. Over four years’ time, a timber cutter would stand only a 1-in-200 chance of being killed.

Or compare the crack dealer’s odds to those of a death row inmate in Texas, which executes more prisoners than any other state. In 2003, Texas put to death twenty-four inmates—or just 5 percent of the nearly 500 inmates on its death row during that time.

Which means that you stand a greater chance of dying while dealing crack in a Chicago housing project than you do while sitting on death row in Texas. 

So if crack dealing is the most dangerous job in America, and if the salary is only $3.30 an hour, why on earth would anyone take such a job?

Well, for the same reason that a pretty Wisconsin farm girl moves to Hollywood; for the same reason that a high-school quarterback wakes up at 5 a.m. to lift weights. They all want to succeed in an extremely competitive field in which, if you reach the top, you are paid a fortune; to say nothing of the attendant glory and power.

Analyze the life cycle of a typical young and budding blogger bubbling with enthusiasm about to sign up for a free word-press or blog-spot account and you will realize the similarities. You will also realize this is why a huge number of bloggers never cross the three post count. Here is pretty much how the life of a typical blog works:

  1. Bubbling with enthusiasm and encouragement Fred starts a blog; which he believes will make him rich, famous and so-very-sensational.
  2. Fred does three posts in a month; only to discover that no-one cares about him, his blog or his product.
  3. Fred silently and subconsciously decides that the world doesn't deserve his blog and quits; till he finds something else which seems amusing and exciting.

If this describes your mental process as you sign up for a blog; do your first open source check-in or share your idea with your friend; it just means that you may have striking similarities with the Wisconsin farm girl who moves to Hollywood or the drug paddler who risks his life at only $3.30 an hour.

The problem with that sort of motivation; is that; it doesn't last very long. Once you realize that getting to the top is painstakingly hard and there is nothing much to be obtained by staying at the bottom or in the middle; you are left with no other option but to quit.

Conan O'Brien describes how he avoids this risk very articulately in his interview with the A.V. Club. He explains:

There's a temptation to over-think the whole thing. I've had a Field Of Dreams philosophy to this: If you build it, they will come. I still have no idea.

I don't look at research. I don't look at who's watching, or when they're watching. I've never been interested in any of that. I'm interested in doing what I think is funny.

For the last 13 years, that seems to have worked for me.

If I go to 11:30 and do what I think is funny, and someone comes and tells me it isn't getting enough people in the tent, I'd say, "Well, that's all I can do." If I'm looking at spreadsheets and time-lapse studies of viewing patterns, I think I'm wasting my time.

What I should be worried about the first night I host The Tonight Show is, "How can I make this a funny show?"

The second night, "All right, let's make another funny show doing some different stuff." You do it one show at a time.

And if you're lucky, eight years later, you've alienated a nation.

Whether it is your blog; your open source project or your next big idea; if you have the slightest element of Hollywood-Baby-Dream about the fame and money that is going to come out of all your efforts; chances are that your efforts are going to have take a nose-dive on the path of failure and you are going to quit; whatever-it-is-that-you-are-starting; in the next few days.

On the other hand; if you realize up-front that your blog, open source project or your ideas are not going to make you rich or famous; and decide to do is anyways; for the pleasure of doing it; chances are that you will find it that much more easier to survive as a low maintenance software terror cell and continue doing what you love doing; for a very long time --- consistently.

Remember; why you start something often governs how long you continue doing it.

So before you start; answer the why; very carefully.

Remove the Hollywood element of success out of your idea; right upfront; before you even start.

Stop fooling yourself.

Ask yourself if you will genuinely; truly still love the idea after the money, fame or other Hollywood-Dreams contained in the idea are shattered and removed.

If the answer is 'no' --- drop the distraction and go find something that you genuinely love doing.

If the answer is 'yes' --- start slogging on your idea now.

Either ways; I wish you good luck.

Note: This article is a part of a Work In Progress Book. To Read connected articles read the Builders At Work category of this blog.