Saturday, August 27, 2011

Six dozen failed projects

As I was laying in bed last night, I had a realization. I am afraid of failure. Not just a normal fear, like I think most people have, but a paralyzing grip-of-death fear. I realized that I was haunted by my failures in the past- when I let them, they loomed over me like black clouds which followed me wherever I went, and signaled to everyone around me that I was a loser. It actually goes a level deeper- I realized that all these failures in the past, of which I was so afraid, had actually been caused by the fear itself.
Allow me to explain. I’m a tinkerer and a project guy. I love to make stuff, and I’m constantly having ideas for neat-o stuff I could make. Right now it’s an electric bicycle. A few weeks ago it was a go-anywhere miniature portable speaker powered by an old laptop battery. For a long time, the idea of a fast electric go-kart has been in my mind. I’m always thinking of something cool I can make, and I have been since I was a kid. I often dig into these projects with great fervor and excitement. I have a whole bunch of junk to prove it- things I’ve purchased for a project, or little items I’ve found and refused to throw away because of how useful I think it could be for something I could make. I get really excited about how cool my new thing is going to be.
Here’s the problem, though: I don’t follow through. Of all the projects I’ve started, just a handful have been completed. The rest are either abandoned or languishing in various states of incompletion. Combat robotics was my hobby in high school. I successfully built two robots. I think I count three uncompleted ones, plus two more that were ‘done’ but incredibly lame because they were rushed together last-minute.  The three uncompleted ones weren’t just ideas I didn’t follow through on, they were projects I invested large amounts of time and (for a high-schooler) money in. Robotics isn’t the only thing- I bought a diesel vehicle because I thought the concept of biodiesel was incredible cool, and I planned on making my own biodiesel reactor and driving across the country on the cheap. It never happened. Then I got excited about it again after selling the first diesel car and bought another… and sold it. (At least I made a profit on both)
This cycle has happened many times with numerous projects- water-cooled computers, modifications to my car, several potato cannons, a motorcycle that’s now sitting non-running in a garage. Last night before I went to bed, I found out that my electric bike project probably wouldn’t be quite as fast as I had been hoping- only 17 mph. I was feeling like maybe I should give up on the project because it wasn’t quite as cool, not quite as worth it. What would my friends say, whom I’ve told about the project, when it’s not as fast as I made it out to be?
Then I started thinking about how I’ve done that so many times before, and how lame I was for it. I couldn’t make sense of that, though, because I thought I was pretty neat, and so did a lot of other people. God’s word tells me that I’m neat. Why did I feel so bad about giving up so many projects? Sure, giving up projects is bad, but why does it happen so often and why do I feel so bad about it? Then, I put the pieces together that explain why, on so many occasions, the same cycle repeats itself. I have an idea. I get excited about it. I make plans for the project. I start the project and get somewhere between 20% and 95% done- then I give up! Why? Why do I engage in such destructive, irrational behavior over and over again? It’s fear. The same thing that makes our economy run, that gives our political system its shape, that motivates beyond any other emotion.
For me, the fear block is stunningly effective because of just how excited I get for the projects. I have my idea and am convinced it’s just a ludicrously amazing idea and that when my project is finished, it’s going to be amazing. I jump into the project with the enthusiasm of a seven-year-old at his first tee-ball game. I make progress. I do good work. I overcome obstacles. But then, fear creeps in. It enters the space of my enthusiasm and starts replacing it. The expectations I had for greatness in my project turn into requirements or standards I must meet. The hype I built up in my mind is now looming over me as if some panel of judges is just waiting for my project to be complete so they can evaluate it according to the expectation of greatness I set up for it- and the prognosis is grim.
So what do I do when I feel like failure is looking over my shoulder, just waiting for my project to be not quite as great as I anticipated? Or perhaps when I’ve compromised some aspect of my vision for cost, difficulty, or time- did I just break a promise to myself? Now what? I give up. I just lay the project aside and do something else. After all, my track record shows a consistent series of failures, doesn’t it? Better to just give up- it makes more sense to abandon a project and guarantee failure than to end up with something that’s not quite as amazing as I thought it could be. I should just do something else that’s more fun- I’ll come back to it later … and then the terrible feeling comes on- the half-finished project is mocking me from across the room, or the never-attempted plans are calling to me from my computer, telling me I’m a loser for not bringing them to life. There’s always something more appealing to do than coming back to a sheer cliff named ‘Project Completion’ and beginning to climb it. Something easier and seemingly more fulfilling, and I, in the sinful human condition, have historically taken the easy way far more times than I’ve challenged that cliff.
So what is the cure for my problem? Well, it has these two prongs I asked about before: why do I keep doing this, and why does it make me feel irrationally terrible? The latter problem, I think, answers the former. I keep repeating this cycle of giving up because I am so afraid that my project will be a blunder- the fear paralyzes me. Here’s the key- I let all those failures make me feel worthless. Yes, it is true- I’ve failed many times before. The mistake, though, is letting those failures define me. I let my failure identify me, slapping a name badge on my chest that reads “Ned Funnell: Owner of six dozen failed projects”. I won’t say that success doesn’t have value, or that it’s wrong to draw conclusions about someone based on what they’ve done. However, however! Performance never dictates value. My accomplishments or lack thereof can never tell me how much I’m worth. The truth is that I have immense value that nothing and no one can take from me. God created life in me, and despite my inability to do anything good without him, he saw so much value in me that he, the self-existent author of creation, lowered himself to the position of a slave and offered himself as a sacrifice- to pay the very debt I owed and could not pay. God sees that much value in me.
I could believe what my fear is telling me- that I’m worthless because I’ve failed before. On the other hand, I could believe what God says- that I’m so valuable that he would die for me. I could do what the fear compels me to do- just give up and do something else. Or, I could do what God said to do in his book: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men”. God doesn’t judge me according to my successes or failures, he judges my heart. Which heart is more pleasing to God- one that gives up in the midst of difficulty, or one that takes courage from God’s promises and continues on?