6 ways to get started on that big project

The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing (Walt Disney) 

Starting something can feel a little terrifying. For a very long while I have had thoughts and ideas swirling around my brain which I have wanted to share in blog form but for various reasons it has never seemed like the right time. In the last few weeks, again and again, I seem to keep coming across blogs, articles and books which encourage a leap of faith. In taking my leap, I’d like to encourage you to take your own, whatever form that may take. 

I have been thinking about times when I have started something new. When I proudly sent in the first assignment of my masters degree, I was rather crushed when it was returned to me, with the polite request to redo the entire thing. Apparently I had missed some crucial models and frameworks which I had not even heard of. I was embarrassed and thought that my supervisor would think “who is this girl, she has no idea what she’s talking about, how did she even get into this degree?” 

Maybe you have been wanting to try something new for a while: writing, painting, photography, cooking, running. Whatever it is, here are some thoughts that have helped me and I hope will help you too

1. Be willing to be a beginner
“Every expert was once a beginner” (Helen Hayes)

The scariest part of starting something new is being willing to do something that you are not very good at… yet. This requires humility and patience, and perhaps the willingness to ask for help. Generally we choose to begin something because of an existing interest.  (Think an avid reader who wants to write or a food-lover who wants to learn to cook gourmet meals) The problem is, because we already know what we like, when we can’t immediately create it ourselves we become frustrated. 

I think this idea is perfectly summed up by this quote by Ira Glass 
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Are you willing to be humble enough to be a beginner?

2. Develop a growth mindset  

In being willing to be a beginner, recognise that where you start will not be where you end up. Of course we are all born with a certain set of genetics which predisposes us to be good at specific things (think tall basketball players) and these natural abilities will incline us towards specific interests but I like to remind myself that whatever I set my mind to, with a bit of effort, and the right input (in my case a patient research supervisor) I can get better at what it is I am trying to do.

Carol Dweck, the originator of the fixed vs growth mindset describes how those with a fixed mindset believe that we are dealt a hand at birth: born with abilities, talents, traits and intelligence that are fastened securely in place and unable to change. Those with a growth mindset believe that despite the hand we are dealt, through effort, training and perseverance we can grow and continue to develop those abilities.

There are several problems with a fixed mindset

-Scientifically its just not true.Our brains are plastic, wired to learn new things all the time.

-Its very disempowering. If I believed that my first effort represented my fixed ability there would have been no point in continuing with my masters and I might as well have curled up in a ball and given up. What I realised was that the whole purpose of doing a masters degree was to learn what I didn’t know. 

-It makes us ashamed to ask for help. If we believe our abilities are fixed, we would want everyone to believe our abilities are fixed at a high level, that we are smart, or capable or strong. No on wants to look like they aren’t coping. If we recognise that in any moment we are capable of learning, then when we don’t know something, someone else will be more than willing to help. People love to pass on their expertise and if we don’t ask for help we will miss out on this.   

Have you been telling yourself certain stories about yourself? Next time you find yourself saying something like “I’m just not artistic” try adding the word “yet” at the end of the sentence

3. Allow yourself to become who you are by doing what you do

Hegel describes Labour as "man’s act of self-creation"
When we have a growth mindset we can begin to focus on creating an artist/ a writer/ a master baker by drawing / writing/ baking again and again and again. Its not about the perfect end product, its about the creation of ourselves. Who you are (the family and culture you were born into, your natural abilities) might impact on the activities you choose and how you perform them. The really exciting part though is that who you become will be determined by the activities you carry out and the effort you put into doing them, and this is a matter of choice!  From the very moment we are born, we are engaging in activity and each time we do something it increases our skill and alters our neurological landscape and thus changes who we are.

When kids are doing what kids do- making mud pies or drawing pictures, they lack the self consciousness that we develop as adults. Its less about a perfect mudpie and more about learning about the qualities and properties of that mud, and practising their skills.

Maria Montessori puts it like this:

"Adults work to finish a task, but the child works in order to grow and is working to create the adult, the person that is to be. If only we could think more like kids, if we could see the activities that we participate in as a way of creating ourselves, we might be less fearful about getting it wrong."

I have seen this play out time and time again in my work. Indulge me in a little nerd diversion into one of my passions, the science of occupation. I am an occupational therapist by training. Allow me to tell you a little more about this often poorly understood profession. OT is all about using engagement in activity to make people better.  I like this definition by Du Toit, who is one of my very favourite authors and who was part of the first graduating class of OTs in South Africa in the 1950’s. She describes OT as “The treatment of man the totality through active participation in purposeful activity.” Occupational science is concerned with what people do all day- or what we OTs like to call “activities of daily living.” We study what motivates people to act, to participate in life, and how that participation impacts on wellbeing and identity. To be who they are, human beings must be able to do what they do. In doing what they do, they become themselves. For example although a mother is a mother in name when her child is born, it is through the tasks of motherhood that she takes on this identity. The more she does these tasks the more efficacy she develops, the more she becomes a mother. As OTs we ask our clients what they want to do and assess how illness (mental or physical) is stopping them from doing these activities. We then engage them in activities to help make them better. 

Du Toit says that man can “actualise himself through exercising effort in action which makes maximal demands on his potential.” Each time we engage with our full ability we change our world and are changed by the effort.Think masterchef or strictly come dancing. When those contestants come in, they have a certain level of skill and ability, but with the tutelage that they receive, and the effort and perseverance they put in, they turn into remarkable chefs or incredible dancers who create something beautiful for us the audience to enjoy (or those lucky judges to taste in the case of masterchef). In the most recent Masterchef Australia the winner remarked of her final cook "that challenge changed me." How exhilarating to engage all our efforts to the point that they change who we are! 

Who could you begin to become if you were willing to try something and let go of the need for perfection?

4.  Spend less time consuming and more time creating

In this digital age we are swamped with information and it is very easy to be sucked in a vortex of media consumption, at the expense of creating something of our own. I recently saw the phrase “procrasti-learning” Boy can I relate to that. I could spend my entire life reading about how to do things but sometimes we actually just have to stop reading the manual and jump off the diving board. The articles and blogs we consume may have diverse purposes- to educate, to entertain to stir up. But if we get into a pattern where we merely glut ourselves on incoming data and do nothing with it we become flabby in our thoughts just as we would if our incoming calories outweighed our output. The outcome of never trying to create anything is that we are critical of others, thinking we can do better but too afraid to put ourselves to the test. 

There is a mantra in the twelve step programme that says “if nothing changes, nothing changes” This might sound very obvious but to start something you actually have to take action. Ann Dillard writes “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” Each day we have the same 24 hours (the same 1440 minutes, the same 86400 seconds) and a myriad of choices about how we use them. There are things that we have to do and things that we want to do. The worst use of our time (and therefore our lives) is doing something mindlessly- without really choosing. Despite some incredible scientific advances the one thing we are unable to do is change time. And yet time and our attention are the resources that we are most likely to waste in our media saturated, distraction obsessed society. 

What tiny action can you take today to begin? Don’t tell yourself you don’t have time. If you are anything like me cutting out just a proportion of your time spent mindlessly on netflix or facebook will give you back a valuable resource 

5. Find a tribe and make yourself accountable

 I think one of the best ways to dive in to something is to surround yourself with like minded people and then tell them exactly what it is you want to do and by when and then ask them to check up on you. Nothing like knowing your bestie is going to ask “so how is it going” to get you  motivated!

Who can you tell about your intentions? Ask them to check back in a week on how you are getting on.

6. Get a Round Tuit: Put yourself on a deadline

My toddler is in the throes of learning language. Recently I noticed him saying “at some point” and it occurred to me that I must say that quite often for him to have picked it up. I am working on cutting that phrase from my vocabulary! When I find it coming out my mouth I make myself commit to a deadline.

When I was little a family member gave us a plate called a Round Tuit

On it it said “This is a tuit. Guard it with your life as tuits are hard to come by, especially the round ones. This is an indispensable item. It will help you become a more efficient worker. For years we have heard people say “I’ll do it as soon as I get a round tuit.” Now that you have one you can accomplish all the things you out aside.”  

So I gift you here your very own! 



What will you do with yours?


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