Failure To Launch: Why You Procrastinate Your Projects Away.
How many hustle or business ideas have you abandoned or mothballed?
Do you sometimes feel that no matter how many times you are inspired by a new idea, concept, project or opportunity, it never seems to work out the way you imagined? Most often, do you even know if it would have worked out, or did you give up before you got to the point where you find out? These grand designs of earning extra income inspire at the outset but do you end up disappointed?
There’s this glorious honeymoon phase during which you’re passionate about a project. You invest a lot of effort and a great deal of hope. Then, after some time, you start to run out of steam. Reality never seems to live up to your expectations (or hopes), there are unanticipated hurdles, unexpected complexity, unrealistic demands and unhelpful market conditions. You lose steam, begin to procrastinate. Eventually, you give up.
Soon, this project, like so many before it, is consigned to the graveyard of once-good ideas. A crowded place in your mind you prefer not to examine too closely because of all the wasted time and energy those failed ideas represent.
There are many reasons why these otherwise good projects so often fail. One of the most common is that while you’re dreaming it up, you fall into the imagination trap. A disconnect occurs between what you’re likely to achieve and how you picture it in your mind. The project gets better and better in your imagination, and reality can’t keep up. Once this happens, you become unconsciously reluctant to launch the project, because it’s psychologically painful to close that gap and let reality intrude on the dream. That could cause some serious cognitive dissonance. Better to keep the idea that it would be successful alive.
How Our Minds Motivate Us
There’s a lot of preaching out there about the power of positive visualisation. That by imagining success, we somehow mystically call upon the universe to bring us closer to our future achievements.
There’s some value to that, in an abstract sense. If you can’t visualize where you’re going, then you don’t know what you want and you’ll have a hard time getting there.
It’s also true that getting excited about an end result can help generate the energy and motivation needed to do the heavy lifting required to get there.
Our brains encourage this sort of visualisation because it feels good. It gives us that little burst of dopamine and the giddly euphoria that goes with it. It makes us want to work harder.
How That Motivation Backfires
Unfortunately, that little hit of dopamine is addictive, and in our search for more of that, we’re way too smart for our own good.
As the project progresses, and it turns out harder than we imagined, that hit of dopamine disappears and is replaced with responsibility, anxiety, workload and the very real possibility that the project will not work out as planned.
But the dopamine hit is what motivates our brain, and there are now only three ways to get it.
- We complete the project. Or at least reach the next significant milestone. This provides proof that the project is still on track, that the ultimate goal is achievable, and our little fantasy of being financially independent, or a successful novelist, or having a working online shop, or having an influencial instagram account – whatever it was – it feels realistic again. Boom – euphoria!
- It’s easier to feel positive about a project that hasn’t hit any roadblocks yet. So we drop the project into the ideas graveyard to make room for something new, because the old project is too mired in difficulty and complexity. There’s a new, shiny, bright idea to work on, and that gives us the buzz we crave.
- What I want to deal with here: We procrastinate. We avoid getting to the challenging bit by never actually launching the project. Instead, we plan how we’re going to launch the project. We imagine what we’ll do with the first revenues. We design an advertising campaign and we conceptualize the end product. We draw on bits of paper and we code parts of websites, but little is completed, and nothing is ever launched. This is the imagination trap. Your project will never see the light of day because it is too shiny, too perfect and too valuable to you in its imagined form. Any interaction with the real world would put that at risk, and you get more of a buzz from your beautiful idea they way it is in your dreams.
Obviously, only option 1 ever gets anything done.
Doers and Dreamers
This is the real distinction between successful entrepreneurs and individuals who dream about their projects while holding down a day job.
The day job tells you how to contribute to a plan designed by someone else, to achieve goals that enrich someone else. You are paid for your contribution, not the result. You get paid even if the result is failure, but your reward if it’s a success will also be limited, because it’s not your project.
We’re all dreamers. Even the doers are dreamers. Every entrepreneur I’ve met dreams about the projects (s)he’ll never get to do because (s)he’s committed to the one (s)he’s working on.
But doers are dreamers who don’t fear launching their projects into the real world. Seeing if they work, adjusting where necessary, reinventing where they meet with failure and seeking advice from others they encounter along the way.
Being A Doer – Understanding the Difference
This is such an important concept that language overflows with metaphors to describe it and authors have tackled it in every context, from every angle.
As a consequence, I’ll let other people’s language structure my thoughts on what it takes to be a doer.
Rubber, Meet Road.
“Where the rubber meets the road,” is an expression that refers to the part of a project that actually makes a difference.
When I started working professionally, I was to be a finance employee in a large multinational, on a graduate fast-track. Immediately after the recruitment process had completed and I’d signed the contract, I was approached by the Human Resources Director responsible for the program.
She told me that before I would be allowed to “drive a desk” at head office, it was important that I understand where the “rubber meets the road” in this business. Everything we did, she explained, in every single part of the business, from product design to marketing, finance to manufacturing, was nothing more than support for a single moment. That moment drives the entire business and everything depends upon it. It is the moment when a client signs their name to the bottom of a purchase order. It is the single act that generates revenue for the business. Everything else is cost in support of that moment.
Therefore, I would be required to go to Glasgow and spend three months as a sales representative, doing the rounds with the product in a place I was unfamiliar with. My remuneration would be linked to my performance just as it would be for any other sales rep.
To this day I count those three months as one of the most valuable career experiences I’ve had.
Where does the rubber meet the road in your business idea? It’s usually where someone interacts with something you produce and makes a purchase decision. That can only happen if your product or service is available for them to find. That’s never going to happen until it’s out there.
A Ship In A Harbour
A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.“Salt from My Attic”, John Augustus Shedd
Popularised by the magnificent Grace Hopper, I first heard this expression used by one friend to encourage another to go and speak to the object of his affection, who was with her friends on the other end of the bar. My friend had to overcome his shyness and fear of failure. She couldn’t know he found her appealing unless he found a way to tell her so. No amount of pining in his own mind would ever make up for inaction, and casting glances across the room would at best make him look pathetic, or worse come across as creepy.
The quote is just as apt when applied to your ideas, business or otherwise. They may look shiny and perfect as long as they are untested in the choppy waters of reality, but is that their purpose? Do they just need to look good in theory, or do you intend to actually get something out of them?
An imaginary business idea will make you imaginary money so you can be pretend-rich and financially independent in a dreamed-of future that will never happen.
In fact, an unexecuted idea is a lot like a losing lottery ticket. It gives you license to dream of riches you don’t – and most likely won’t – ever have. Until the draw, at which point you’re going to need another lottery ticket.
In the case of my friend at the bar, he found his courage, crossed the room and attempted to strike up a conversation. It led to nothing, in that instance, but served a purpose nonetheless. Upon discovering that a (not unfriendly) rejection from the girl in question did not leave him in a condition worse than death, he was more confident of his own resilience going forward.
This leads me to my next quote:
Failure Is Not Fatal
Success is not final, failure not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.Unattributed. No, Winston Churchill never said this.
Nobody seems to know who said this. Everyone who thinks Churchill said it is wrong, the attribution of the quote to Churchill has been debunked numerous times but it’s one of those myths that just won’t die.
Nevertheless, it’s a fantastic saying, and it applies here.
The fear of launching a project is the fear of failure. Different cultures view failure differently. Different people react to it in different ways.
It’s a tricky beast. If you anticipate failure, it typically comes to you. This is a form of target fixation. But if you anticipate success and then fail, the failure hurts a thousand times more.
But even a thousand times the pain is not fatal, and the price paid is worth the lessons learned. After, the difference between you and everyone else in the room is not that you failed and that they did not, but that you tried, and they did not.
If someone criticises you for trying and failing, remember that this makes them members of the peanut gallery, because they are passively commenting on your actions. You are the actor: You acted.
Don’t Fear Mistakes
We learn wisdom from failure more than from success: we often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and he who never made a mistake, never made a discovery.“Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct”, Samuel Smiles, 1859.
I wanted to use “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new,” which is often attributed to Albert Einstein, but that’s another quote that seems wrongly attributed. Even Samuel Smiles (who, funnily enough, was a writer in the self-help category way back in the 1850s) wasn’t the first to come up with the concept.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t have to come from Einstein to contain a shot of truth.
If business were like soccer, there would be more goals scored off the posts than directly into the net. Success is rarely, if ever, a straight shot from idea to result. Achievement comes by applying the many lessons learned from mistakes made along the way.
We can reach out to Edison for a suitable example. Asked if he had failed to make a lightbulb, he replied,
"I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work."
He was exaggerating: In truth, he and his team had tested 6000 different filament types before alighting on carbonized bamboo, which had the required durability and low cost required to make the lightbulb a commercially-viable product.
Our language too often uses words that lack nuance. Failure is such a word. We only fail if we bet everything upon our current course of action. In every other case, we do not fail, we learn.
Your Plan Will Not Survive
No plan survives first contact with the enemyparaphrased from “On Strategy” by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Chief of Staff of the Prussian General Staff
Flexibility is essential when you start a project.
You want to be the writer of great works of fiction, but it turns out you have a talent for short-form crime writing? Roll with it.
You built a website to sell dropshipped air-conditioning units, wrote a ton of authoritative content, but for some reason make more money from the affiliate sales than the dropshipping you spent months setting up? Count your blessings and double down on the affiliate sales.
Understand, adapt, continue.
But the key lesson here is to not let the “incomplete” nature of your business plan, or the lack of a few elements of functionality from your website, become an excuse not to launch at all.
What you think will work will not. What does work will surprise you. Everything that works well will take more effort and time than you anticipated. It’s like gravity in physics, this is a fundamental law of business.
So spending another month perfecting the wording on your MailChimp signup form isn’t going to make as much difference as throwing together five signup forms and doing some A/B testing. Getting a fifth supplier onto your dropshipping website won’t work better because you did it before you launched. Writing another six short stories for your blog doesn’t need to happen before you send your manuscript to an editor, or you open a Kindle Direct Publishing account.
Your plan is naive, ill-informed and incomplete. I know this and I haven’t even seen it. I know this because you haven’t launched it yet, and unless your plan is a carbon copy of a recently-launched existing business, then it’s naive, ill-informed and incomplete by definition. Don’t let it hold you back, because it’s not going to get any better until you put it out there and let the market guide and teach you.
The Origins Of Luck
I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.Apparently not Thomas Jefferson
For the third time in this article I reach out for a quote I have in my memory, and upon diligencing it, discover it’s fabricated.
The earliest known reference to this is a proverb from the 16th century, where the words, “Diligence is the Mother of Good Luck” are to be found.
That said, there’s no denying the truth of what Jefferson didn’t say, and how it applies to your efforts in entrepreneurship.
When you’re struggling with the desire to procrastinate, prevaricate, delay, reconsider or otherwise compromise your project, remember this:
First: What you’ve done so far (pre launch), isn’t work. It’s preparation for work. All the real work, the learning, the external deadlines, the customer satisfaction, the cash flow management, the marketing optimization, etc: That all happens after you launch. Everything beforehand is preparation, anticipation and after a certain point, prevarication and delay.
Second: Once you’ve launched, that work will feel completely different to the effort you’ve made so far. Everything you’ve done prior to launch has been work in a vacuum. Nothing pushes back at you, and you have no results to show for it. But when you spend 20 minutes responding to a customer complaint, you’ve moved the needle on your customer satisfaction, or saved your business from a costly own-goal. When you write a long article for your blog (seems apropos, this far down the page), you’ve contributed something real to your readers, and hopefully some real interactions will come of it. (No – really, please tell me what you think in the comments section!).
That work is harder, because it’s real. It’s also infinitely more satisfying, and it generates the luck referred to in the quote above.
Gears Meshing With Reality
You’ve got a project. It’s like a beautiful machine that exists either in your head, or in an unlaunched business, a web site, a series of sketches… whatever.
This machine, and all its moving parts, are no more substantial than smoke until you allow them to interact with the real world.
When you release the clutch and the gears of your engine mesh with the workings of the rest of the world, then you’ll start picking up speed. Not before.
What are you waiting for?