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23/Jun/2005 | 06:03

Everyone Needs a Big Project

Whenever I've been unemployed, I've done whatever I could to trick my brain into thinking that it's being productive. Designed Web sites, done AppleScript work—heck, I even wrote a book once.

Now, as much as I've accomplished through work—and I've done some pretty big things in my few short years as a Contributing Professional—I've never, ever felt as productive as I've felt during some of my downtime.

How is that possible, Mikey-San?!

It's because of The Big Project™. What is The Big Project? Simply put, it's that BIG THING you've got cooking on your burner at any given moment. It gets interrupted by life, becomes your complete obssession, and can either engage or annoy your friends and loved ones.

The Big Project, nothing can stop you from thinking about it. I'm going to tell you how to spot it, why you should have one, and why it's the worst thing that can ever happen to you.

Sneaking Up on Creativity

Your mother always told you that you had a big imagination. You played for hours underneath the bushes outside with your action figures, making epic battles and drama until you couldn't ignore your parents' cries for dinnertime any longer. Twenty years later, you started jotting down little story ideas in a text file at work, and before you knew it, you had a bunch of really great ideas.

A couple of months later, you realized that a few of those ideas fit together pretty nicely, and you wrote a few pages about them. They weren't very good, not good enough to show your friends, so you put them away for a couple of weeks.

Then you read that book. Saw that movie. Heard that story on the news. You got some heavy, sharp inspiration from somewhere, and before you knew it, you were distilling those seven core ideas into three solid jewels. Right after that, you looked up and knew you had a killer story.

And now you're right at the beginning of your Big Project. Don't fight it—the only way to stop it is to finish it.

You might not realize you're in the middle of your Big Project until you're halfway through it. Most people consider their "big projects" something they're stuck in at work. Shipping that new app or redesigning the inventory system. The Big Project doesn't have anything to do with anyone's business plan; this is a personal mission, sometimes (but not always) a statement of having been alive by leaving something behind.

Big Projects are usually ambitious, long-term projects. Finishing your first novel, restoring that 1970 Chevy Nova your dad left you, or—to risk contradicting myself—writing that program you've been thinking about for the last month. They tend to be largely solitary work whose greatest reward comes only from the person who completes it: You.

I Just Want to Come Home and Vegetate (And Other Bullshit Excuses)

A friend of mine just bought a house. He spent a ridiculous amount of money on it (WOO HOO SILICON VALLEY), and he's very proud of it. The fact he bought a house, not how much it cost him. We're straying here.

The nature of his work requires that his brain is in a state of constant movement. The second he becomes vegetative, he's going to have problems doing his daily work, and that threatens his shiny new mortgage. Raise your hand if you've ever wanted to come home and just "veg out" in front of the television or a button-masher video game for a few hours. I feel your pain, guys. As I say often, WORK IS HARD, and PEOPLE ARE LAZY. By our very nature, more work after busting our asses for eight or more hours a day just sounds ridiculous to our tired brains.

But the brain is a muscle. Work it out often enough, and it can do better work for you when you require it. (Clichés are clichés because there's a kernel of truth in them. Moving on again.)

My friend is one of the most productive thinkers I've ever met. He also juggles a lot of projects at once: a high-pressure job at a Large Silicon Valley Company with lots of required thinking; a popular blog with well-written essays; and even a forthcoming book, his first. On top of this, he has a family.

WHOA. How can someone keep that up? What's the thread keeping it all flowing? Right now, his Big Project is his first book. Or maybe it's this new site he's working on. The Big Project is something you can look down the line toward, something you can use to track the passage of time. Your family certainly gives you reason to live life, but Big Projects give you all something to talk about over dinner.

"How's the book coming, sweetie?"

"That last chapter was pretty easy-going, but I'm having a heck of a time with this one."

"Oh? What's holding you up?"

You're accomplishing something and your wife is having a conversation with you. This is what we call WIN/WIN.

Your day job is simply not enough to wake up to in the morning. You need a Big Project or you're just another drone who crunches numbers or designs cogs, drives an hour home on the turnpike, and cracks open a can of whatever in front of the television for the rest of the night; without a Big Project, you contribute nothing, and are, in a sense, Not Doing Anything.

This is why you need a Big Project. Work can't—and shouldn't be—the center of all of your accomplishments in life.

Coming to Terms with the Loss of a Close Friend

So you've spent nine months working on this Big Project, and now you're starting to see the end of the tunnel. Storylines are getting tied up, you've just got to lay that last coat of paint, you're in late beta stages. You're about to finish this Big Project and (hopefully) look for another one.

Hold on there, soldier. Not so fast. You've actually got to finish this one first.

At the end of the 1960s, the Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described what she believed to be the five stages of grief when dealing with death. In order: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. You may experience any of these, in varying orders, while approaching the end of your Big Project. A close friend is about to die, and you know it has to happen.

Back to writing a book as an example for a moment. Writing a book is, usually, a solitary exercise. It takes a ridiculous amount of creative energy and time to complete a book, and you've got to take all of the stresses that come with it all by yourself. Bobby down the hall doesn't have your back on this deadline. There is no deadline.

Most Big Projects don't have deadlines. You simply know that one day, you will finish, and you'll be able to look back and reflect on what you've accomplished while looking forward to what you're going to accomplish. Working alone, hard, without a deadline—this is HARD WORK.

The only friend that's been there this whole time has been your Big Project. The book, the muscle car, the computer program. You've had help from time to time, but it's really just been you and your Big Project, for the last several months. And you're about to finish. That means no more late nights working hard with your friend. When you're stressed out and need to get away from people for a little while, to whom will you turn?

Finishing your Big Project means losing a close friend, and that's hard to do, even if you know you'll end up starting a new one as soon as you recover from this one. Because of all this, there's a new stage in death and dying:


You don't want to finish, because you don't want to give up that symbiotic feeling that's given you such a great sense of accomplishment since you started. Go ahead and think that it's just because you can't figure out the ending. I'll wait here until you come to your senses.

Really, the resistance stage is just the denial stage under a different name. Deny that your Big Project is going to end long enough, and it just might never end. Let me tell you from experience that if you let your Big Project sit unfinished, you will never, ever be able to strike it from the front of your mind. The only way to stop is to finish. You owe it to yourself, your Big Project, and everyone around you who's been supportive of you since you started.

Everyone goes through resistance. Hopefully, by the time you get here, you'll be able to recognize the resistance stage when you see it.

After all, you have to start that Next Big Project soon, right?