I Can’t Talk About It
by Dan Walsh
Why I Don’t Talk About Many of My Projects
I have four monster projects coming up in 2014. They consume my thoughts, but I can’t talk about them. I can’t talk about them because their success is fragile and words are disruptive. I like talking about my projects. It feels good to expound on ideas that excite me, but for the sake of the project, I can’t always talk about it. I’m not keeping secrets, I’ve just learned in the past that talking too much – sometimes talking at all - about an infant project is the best way to ensure it never grows up. Talking feels like work, but doesn’t create progress. Talking creates debilitating expectations that paralyze action. Talking calcifies unproven strategies and makes it impossible to adapt.
I may have already spoken too much about these projects. One is a website, one is about marketing and product creation, the other two are social experiments. One of those is a book. I’ve shared the broad strokes and some of the details with people close to me. I offer the above descriptions reluctantly, and only to provide context. It’s easy to talk about plans and ideas. I want to do this, I want to do that. Here’s my plan. But the more I talk about projects the harder that project becomes.
Talking Limits Progress
Talking isn’t doing. It is a kind of good deed to say well; and yet words are not deeds.
Talking is a form of procrastination. It feels like valuable work, but it isn’t. It feels like planning but almost all planning is worthless. Talking takes time but doesn’t create any progress. In fact, it creates frustration. If I talk about a project for one hour a day, by the end of a week I’ve spent 7 hours on this project. But when I look at the progress I’ve made, I see exactly nothing. No progress. At this rate, the project will literally take forever to complete. I’m not Sisyphus and I don’t have eternity to accomplish the impossible. This is the easiest path toward giving up. It goes like this: “Think think think. Talk talk talk. Plan plan plan. No progress. Become overwhelmed. Give up.”
I used to talk a lot about the projects I was working on. And by “working on” I mean “talking about.” I never made much progress because all I did was talk and be excited about the idea. I was a hamster on a wheel: Going nowhere but loving the illusion. I worked hard to break this habit. It was difficult. I still have to remain vigilant of this trap, but I’ve gotten good about only talking the minimum required amount to move a project forward. Surprisingly, that amount is almost always zero.
Talking Creates Paralysis
“The amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.”
Talking creates paralyzing expectations and ensures failure. They say one of the best ways to reach a goal is to share it with others. This sharing creates social pressure to perform and the resultant risk of public failure is supposed to keep people on their diets, workout routines, etc. The accountability this technique create might be useful for some goals, but it’s damaging for creative endeavors.
Anything creative or new – which is to say anything that doesn’t already have a step-by-step manual – by definition cannot have expectations. It has never been done before, so there are no previous models from which to draw accurate expectations. The more these inaccurate expectations are discussed, the more a person’s identity and emotions become attached to the outcome of the project. An outcome which will most likely be “failure.” But only failure because most things don’t go right the first time around. Only failure because the actual outcome wasn’t exactly like the expected outcome – that specific one-out-of-a-million-outcome. Talking creates impossible expectations and attaches emotional significance to these unattainable goals. The only way out of ensured failure is to give up.
If I set unrealistic expectations and tie my self-worth to a book idea which may or may not be any good – if I talk it up to the point that my subconscious starts to get worried – then self sabotage is the only option. If I don’t work on the project, then I never failed. Sure, I don’t have a published book, but it some ways that’s better than a published failure. It’s a lot easier to rationalize away the whispy idea of a project that never existed than it is to perform the lobotomy required to erase the memory of a concrete failure. I could even chalk it up to that awesome catch-all excuse: “a scheduling conflict.” If I never start, I can’t fail.
Staying quiet about a project, and therefore also the outcome, creates zero expectations and leaves the door open for learning opportunities. Learning should be the only expected outcome from any creative endeavor. Learning can happen with any project, which means any project can be a success. This low-pressure environment encourages progress and in a self-fulfilling way facilitates greater success.
Talking Stifles Adaptation
“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.”
Talking makes a project less adaptable. Aside from a broad stroke or two, talking about a project requires explanations and details about strategies. In the beginning, my strategies are loose. They are rough sketches of possible ways to approach the challenges facing a project. But every time I talk about these strategies, they become more numerous and more permanent. These pencil sketches get inked. Deviation from this untested plan gets harder and deviations is always necessary.
Planning a new project too many steps ahead is a fool’s errand. It’s useless and hastens failure. No plan, no matter how well thought out, will stand up to the real world for more than one or two steps. There are too many variables, too much uncertainty, and too much can change between planning step 27 and actually executing step 27. By the time I get to step 27, I might not even need it anymore. Any form of success is proceeded by countless adjustments, reactions and plan b’s. The firmer a strategy becomes – that is to say the more I talk about it – the less likely I am to deviate from it. If I can’t adapt then the whole project falls apart as soon something changes – which always happens.
Now, this isn’t to say that all discussion is worthless. Legitimate planning is a real and useful thing. Brainstorming or thinking out loud can help work through difficult problems. Alternative perspectives will usually reveal new solutions to old problems. The trick is to identify and avoid idle conversation that can actually damage a project.