The third and fourth questions
We are what we do, but half the questions that we can ask about what we [fail to] achieve are never really asked
Think back to the last task you put some hard time into — work, chores, personal project, volunteering…
Got it on your mental stack? Let’s ask four questions about it:
- Why did you start?
- Did you know what finishing looked like before you started?
- Why did you finish? / Why didn’t you finish?
- How are you different now?
We answer questions 1 and 2 with almost everything we take on — automatically and subconsciously, though probably incompletely. For (1) it might be: “I did it because it had to be done.”, and for (2) “Isn’t that sort of answered by (1)?”
Works for doing dishes, works for buying groceries. Works for doing something that is asked of you. It was a need and the need had to be satisfied.
But it is the second half of those questions, 3 and 4, that are possibly more important to who you are and what you do next; they are unfortunately rarely explored.
Let’s look at these two questions and why you should ask them of yourself and your efforts.
3. Why didn’t I finish? Why did I finish?
Answering why you finished or did not finish a Task is a more honest self assessment than answering why you started it. Deciding to start a task has best intentions, but minimum investment. When you decide to start, you have no more skin in the game than if you had never even thought about the Task, so instead consider the other side of the effort:
Alternate reality 1: Why didn’t I Finish?
After you take the very first step into doing the task, stopping means incompleteness. You started but didn’t finish. You Quit, even though it might be framed as ‘parked’, ‘put aside’, ‘other priorities required my attention…’ or something else less demanding of introspection.
Often, there is a partial excuse — I didn’t know what Finishing looked like. This happens a lot in projects. Finishing is defined at too abstract a level to realise the fractal nature of the path to get to completeness — it is a lot more effort and a lot more nuance. There is always a ‘crux’ problem along the way to finishing — the one sub-task that required more than you had in you — it is where you decided to turn back.
Exercise: When you don’t finish, ask yourself why not, and identify the crux — by definition there is only one, just like there is always one highest mountain. There may be many reasons not to finish but identifying the biggest reason should be the goal of asking “Why didn’t I finish?” Don’t judge the moral validity of the reason, just understand it as a cause and be aware of what brings you closest to quitting so you can spot it in your next Task.
Alternate reality 2: Why did I Finish?
This isn’t a victory lap question — it tells you a lot about yourself, specifically a lot about what we like in Heroes — toughness, perseverance, optimism, hope.
But it has a more practical side to it — what kept you from giving up? It might be something as simple as a looming deadline, support and peer pressure of a good team, relentless repetition, or a really well defined plan to get to the Finish. Maybe it is an internalized reason like, ‘I wanted to see it done’ or ‘it is my professional pride on the line’, or ‘I was really curious to see how things would work out’. All of these are different reasons for you finish, and although it is the same finish line, the fuel to get you there and through the crux is very personal to you.
Exercise: Ask yourself why you finished. Find the crux and figure out how you got over it. This way you know what you need to get over the next crux of the next Task. Is it a great team? Is it putting your reputation on the line? Is it curiosity? Maybe it is a mix, write them down and assign them weights. you might be surprised at what bubbles to the top.
4. How am I different now?
If an experience doesn’t change you, you weren’t paying attention. This does not mean a lifelong change either; or a monumental level-up. You can feel satisfied just cleaning up your financial paperwork till next month. Consistently finishing small dull tasks builds a discipline and trust in yourself — that you can hunker-down and grind, but there are also opportunities there to find new ways of finishing, of seeing details missed.
Finishing a big Task you’ve maybe never achieved before is where change is more obvious. You now have evidence you are different because you are now that person that did that thing, where as before, you weren’t. Will this make you want to challenge yourself more? Did you realize that in completing that task, you’d never want to repeat it? You know a bit more about you, and will not make decisions the same way again.
So yes, you did change, maybe in a small way, maybe in a way you wouldn’t tack onto your CV, but you the experience will subtly reprogrammed you. In fact, maybe you can share that new programming with someone:
Exercise: What note would you send back in time to the you that just started the task? ‘Are you sure you are not just scuba diving because you want something to post on insta?’, ‘Is this the right project, or do you just like the people on it?’, ‘Trust that you will dig to get to the root of a problem, ‘Steve: doing dishes is your Wax on/Wax off, enjoy!’
A note on never starting a Task
This is wisdom in some cases — there are a lot of people writing about how saying ‘No’ is powerful, and then defining what that power is. But there is a scary bad reason not to start something that you want to start and have the resources to start — you are a Perfectionist — and here is my little article on it.
Perfectionist thinking is poisonous to achievement: Why didn’t I finish? Because I was scared of what not finishing would be like — that incompleteness is already a failure — that he process is messy and the details are not knowable till I am mired in them. Perfectionists never even get to the starting line let alone to the point reflecting on sucess and failure.
Another note on never finishing a task
There is a pitfall in starting tasks driven by others’ goals or recognition — as you finish each assignment it becomes easier to forget to ask yourself “Would I do this had I not been asked? Do my internal motivations line up with my tasks in a way that I can answer?”
A healthy answer is not “because it’s my job” or “I like the recognition”— why did you choose to make it your job? Is the recognition a real reason to do anything? You will never really be finished a task if it is, ‘Do what is asked’ or ‘do what is appreciated’. Completeness is an internal thing, as is challenging yourself. Part of reflecting is understanding when you have motivations that are not your own, which takes ownership of completeness away from you and atrophies your motivation to start something of your own.
A note on clickbaitable titles
“To trigger unhealthy curiosity, i.e. the Fear Of Missing Out, and subsequent profitable link following, title your piece midway through a numerical list”
— Someone’s Third Law of Web Publishing
Managing Oneself (PDF)— Peter Drucker (15 min read, kind of painful like tearing off a bandaid or doing lots of pushups)
A More Beautiful Question — Warren Berger (Book, in the Gladwellian style of using an example-tsunami)
Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond — Gene Kranz (Book, biography, better than most management books because it is about failure and incrementalism and the unknown)
Between the Folds — Vanessa Gould (Trailer for documentary on professional Origami artists and explorers — it’s all about when to give up, when not too, and the nature of motivation nuance, boredom, complexity, magic and effort)