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Posted on: Thursday, July 23, 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.

Friday, July 24, 2009 9:18:02 PM UTC
While reading your 1-5 list above, I immediately had a vision in my mind about the number of DIY projects I've seen abandoned. How often have you seen a half finished kitchen shelf sitting in a garage, or decking missing the final coat of varnish, or a vegetable garden gone to weeds? I think these problems are endemic to everyone.

Conversely, I occasionally come across someone who does finish all of those odd jobs they started out on, and I'm very jealous ;)
Sunday, July 26, 2009 9:42:05 PM UTC
@Eddie,

My quick reaction to your comment:

> I think these problems are endemic to everyone.

Yes; I agree; having said that I feel that we as individuals can actively strive to reduce this.

What I was trying to say with this post has three parts to it.

The first is that we need to be a little more careful before opening new threads or projects in our lives. Let your ideas prove themselves before you take them up for implementation.

https://www.thousandtyone.com/blog/StrongIdeasWorthSpendingTimeAndEffortOnVsRandomDistractions.aspx

The second is; before you start a project you need to keep the reality in mind --- which is --- no one cares about you, your blog or your product.

https://www.thousandtyone.com/blog/NoOneCaresAboutYouYourBlogOrYourProduct.aspx

The third is; you need to be passionate about any idea you undertake and take it up only if it sounds like you will be able to stick with it even after you remove the Hollywood-dream aspects out of it upfront.

Once you start keeping the reality in mind; it makes is a little easier to stick around and keep working on your idea consistently.

I agree we all have projects we abandon and once in a while that’s a good thing:

https://www.thousandtyone.com/blog/SoftwareDevelopmentAndLearningTheArtOfGivingUpShamelessly.aspx

Having said that; if you keep feeling excited about every idea out there and then abandon it; becoming good at anything becomes really hard.

Dip; by Seth Godin; is an excellent book on this topic:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1591841666/thousandtyone-20

Btw, I hadn’t thought about it from the perspective of real life projects like the kitchen shelf --- but that’s an interesting perspective.

I wonder if people who leave real life projects incomplete are more likely to abandon blogs and leave software initiatives incomplete. Is there no connection between the two; or are these two just disconnected --- interesting thought.

My thought is that people who start threads of work that they are passionate about and ignore everything else by not even starting it are more likely to stick around and finish what they start.

I’ve personally grown to believe that ‘why you start something will eventually decide how long you continue doing it’.

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