Hey there, Pollywog!
In another post we talked about picking your first project, and how some people believe we should choose one that yanks us out of our comfort zone above everything else.
One of my arguments against this idea was that challenges for the sake of challenges aren’t enough. We need projects that are exciting to us on a deep level.
Now that you have some criteria for picking a project, you might be wondering… just how big should it be?
Go big or go home?
Over the years, I’ve noticed that the same people who advocate challenging projects above everything else think a project should be huge. That our dreams should always be big and shiny, and anything else is just playing it small.
(From their tone of voice, playing it small sounds as heinous as stealing candy from orphaned puppies.)
I, on the other hand, don’t think it’s heinous at all. To me, big for the sake of big makes as much sense as challenging for the sake of challenging. Here’s why.
It’s not the size of the burger.
The thing is, Pollywog, a project should be whatever size it’s going to be, naturally. To force it to be anything else is unfair to the project and to you, because it overlooks the most important thing: quality.
To use a cooking analogy, inflating a project is like adding sawdust to a pound of hamburger. You may end up with a bigger burger, but the taste will be diluted, and you won’t be satisfied. After a few bites, you’ll probably find it hard to swallow.
The best serving size for polymaths.
Besides, big-for-big’s-sake isn’t a polymath-friendly idea. If you’re working on an unnaturally large project that takes up all your time, resources and energy, you won’t have much to spend on your other interests.
Ignoring other interests can mean losing sight of the true polymath dream: to do everything we love.
It’s also important to realize that some of us are still finding our way as multi-talented people. We know what we are, and we’re starting to see what a strength it can be, but we have some old ideas we need to get rid of, like I never finish anything… I’m such a failure.
We may also have memories of sticking with a project even when it’s not right for us anymore, for the sake of proving we can follow through. We know how completely freaking miserable it can make us. We don’t want to do it again, but we’re not sure if we can trust ourselves to quit when it’s time.
And so, what we need right now might not be a huge, intimidating project. It might actually be a series of smaller projects to show ourselves that we can finish when it’s time to finish and walk away when a project isn’t working out.
In other words, we might need some projects that double as trust-building exercises.
But how do we create nice, manageable, bite-sized sliders instead of burgers the size of our head? By injecting a healthy dose of minimalism into our work.
The concept of minimalism started out as an Obsession of the Moment for me, but I can see it making a transition to Lifelong Obsession. I owe that fact to one of my new favorite blogs, Be More With Less.
The blog’s author, Courtney Carver, helped me realize that simplifying has nothing to do with depriving ourselves. It’s about clearing away the clutter and making room for the things that matter most.
In her own words,
“Living with less is not about sacrifice. When you move the things that don’t mean much out of the picture, you can focus on the things that really matter. With the superfluous out of the way you can engage in meaningful activities, spend time with people you love and discover joy and gratitude for the small pleasures in your life.”
Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?
So how exactly do we incorporate minimalism into our work? By taking advice from another of my favorite bloggers, Tanner Christensen, who makes a point that most big ideas start out as small ones and grow naturally, organically.
“Forget about having big ideas,” says Tanner. “Focus on the small ideas, the things that make you wonder. It’s from those small ideas that big ideas evolve. Not always, but more often than not.”
In other words, start small and work your way up. Add the most important things, the best things, first. Don’t worry about the sawdust.
Everyone knows what a bead is…
I’ll use one of my back burner projects as an example. A couple years ago, I started writing an instructional jewelry book.
Writing the introduction was easy, and covering the techniques was nowhere near as scary as I thought it would be, once I decided to dictate the instructions into Audacity.
When I got to the tools and materials section, I slowed down because the whole thing seemed… boring.
I realized that there are plenty of books that explain what a bead is. I can skip that part and focus on the things that haven’t been covered over and over again — the things I do differently. This means expanding the techniques section.
I’m also toying with the idea that as long as I flesh out the technique section with plenty of examples, I don’t have to include a dozen projects… or any, if I don’t feel like it. I can see the benefits in it, but I’m not interested in giving students a bunch of projects to duplicate. I’d rather send them off in their own creative direction.
Of course, I also have room to change my mind, which is another great aspect of project minimalism.
One of my favorite beading books is all technique. Its author, Jamie Cloud Eakin, later published another book of projects. Another of my favorite beading books, written by Karen Williams, has challenged my assumptions of what book projects can be. They don’t have to be rigid and paint-by-number.
So when I go back to the book, I can consider my options and see what happens. Knowing that I have this freedom makes the project a little less daunting.
Starting small is the best way to end up with a project that has all the elements you love, with very few of the ones you don’t.
But what happens if you’re working on a project under the influence of the big project theory, and it’s getting out of control? Is all hope lost?
It’s not. If you’ve ever watched Tiny House Nation, you might have noticed that most of the participants come from traditional living situations — in other words, big places with lots of stuff. But they learn to downsize. To get rid of the space, and the things, they don’t need.
You can do the same thing with your project. Try paring it down, taking away one unnecessary thing at a time until it’s manageable again.
To go back to the burger analogy again, maybe you went a little crazy on the toppings. So pick off the onions, lettuce and tomato, scrape off the mustard, and start over again — maybe with a nice slice of cheese*.
To use another writing example, maybe you tried writing a series of novels and it didn’t work out. Try for a novel that can stand alone, instead — one with your best scenes and most compelling characters.
If a novel intimidates you, take an important scene and turn it into a short story. From there you can move on to another project, or you can add another story, and another, and another.
Of course, since a project should be whatever size it’s going to be naturally, sometimes you’ll end up with something that can’t help but be huge. I’m not against these projects, and I have some ideas for handling them — just wait and see.
*This post made me hungry. Anyone up for cheeseburgers at Crane Alley?