At the opposite end of the spectrum from the people who can’t start their projects, are the ones who can’t finish them.
There are various reasons for that, but let’s drill down on one very specific niche group. Some people will consistently work on any large or small project until it is about 90% done, then they will mysteriously not finish.
That which is left undone is often the easiest part. They have done the hard work already. There is no lack of knowledge or time that keeps them from finishing. They are quite clear that there is a deadline and that missing the deadline will bring some negative consequences.
Nonetheless, year after year, their life is marked by projects not quite finished. And generally, if you were to explore the topic with the individual in a safe environment, they don’t have a clue why they don’t finish. They will agree with everything you say about how reasonable it would be to invest a little extra effort to finish, and how unreasonable it is to not finish.
So . . . what is the mysterious “editor” that whacks the project off at 90% of completion?
Often it is anticipated emotional pain.
You see, we learned early in life that when a project gets finished, it gets judged. Sometimes the “judgment” is formal such as turning in a piece of homework which will be graded. Sometimes it is informal as in the people around you telling you whether they like the dinner you served.
Regardless of whether you fear the critic from your childhood, or the critic in your present community, not finishing a project is a crude but effective way to avoid feeling the pain of having your competence criticized. Somehow, it is easier to have our character demeaned than our competence.
There is one other critic who needs to be considered and that is yourself.
I had a friend who declined to take a particular challenge. She explained it very simply. All of her life, she had been of the opinion that there was not much about her that was worth much.
While she was reasonably sure this was reality, there was always that shred of hope that she might have a little more potential than she thought she did. However, if she actually tried to do something big, and she failed, then it would prove to her that she really was the airhead she thought she was.
Therefore, she studiously avoided doing anything that might reveal what a truly useless gene pool she was burdened with.
While her case was extreme in that she clearly admitted to herself and to me her absolute aversion for anything remotely like a task or test which would be scored, judged, graded or otherwise evaluated, a lot of people out there have the same fear running unarticulated in the background.
And when you are your own harshest critic, any project that gets 90% done but doesn’t look stellar, will most likely be gently set aside, so that you don’t have to finish it and face the fact that you really aren’t . . .
To recap, you may have “tapes” running in the background with the voice of your father, your English teacher, or the playground bully mocking your accomplishments. Or you might have a spouse or boss or friend right now who is quick to celebrate every imperfection. Or . . . you might be your own enemy!
So . . . if you are avoiding completion to avoid being judged as inadequate, what do you do?
1) You start with the principle of design.
Who are you and what are you SUPPOSED to be great at? As a kid I watched the magical, mystical 4.0 GPA being flaunted by all those high achievers. Both the students and the adults assured the rest of us underachievers that the 4.0 kids were both intrinsically superior and highly desired.
I learned early on that the dust they had been created from was a little less dusty than what God used for me and my buddies. My grades ran the gamut from A to F which proved to me — and to the judges of right and wrong — that I was intrinsically deficient.
That insidious 4.0 virus did not contain its nasty little self to school. I somehow absorbed the message that people who are really together, excel at almost everything in life. So I tried to be universally competent. And failed. Proving once again that I was . . .
One of the most liberating truths in my life is that I am supposed to excel in some things and it is truly, absolutely OK that I am mediocre in others.
I no longer feel guilty that I can’t play the piano even though I assaulted Thompson’s odious red books for years. I know I am a lousy speller and I have worse penmanship. But I also know that I write a great article on occasion.
I am mechanical on audio editing — good enough to get by, but nowhere near as skilled as Niell Bester is. I can diagnose your plumbing problem but not your car’s problem. I know Spanish but not Hebrew. I am a very good painter when it comes to walls, but am sub-dismal at baseboards.
I know a good deal about how the digestive system works and how to heal it, but I don’t know what I would like to know about the human heart. So if someone reading this is a cardiologist, call me! I have some questions for you that might lead to a truth that will set a lot of people free.
So sort this out for yourself. Make a short list of things that are at the core of your design that you really ought to do well, every time. Make a short list of things you don’t care if you ever master. (HTML, the tax code and dream interpretation are on mine).
Then everything else in the middle will be done as well as the time and resources I allot to the task. I love to iron a sharp crease in my blue jeans and starch it well. I rarely have the time for such frippery, so I feel no guilt over wearing creaseless jeans in California. Now in Texas, creaseless jeans are a whole ‘nother kettle of fish . . .
2) Decide whether your childhood judges were fair and accurate.
My dad was. I was pretty schlock at a lot of things, but he usually did not exaggerate. The sixth grade bully wasn’t. My high school English teacher? Well, she had her days, but that one particular paper of mine which she shredded in front of the whole class — well, that was way harsh!
If those tapes stored in the archives are not true (even though they are loud and painful) try to disempower them. Two ways that have worked for some people are to talk or write about them. If you are verbal, sit down with a friend and talk through the original scenario. Describe how bad your work was, and how good it was, and what an appropriate evaluation would have been. Share the pain of the unfair words.
If you are a writer, craft that masterful letter to the miscreant, sharing the truth and how badly he or she hurt you. Then shred it.
It is often important to talk through the changes in you since the original incident. I am not the 14-year-old I used to be, and the judgments spoken against me there, don’t fit any more.
Often these kinds of exercises will put the past to rest.
3) Decide whether you care about what today’s judges will say.
This is a tough one, but sometimes it is necessary categorization for survival. Being high-profile, I get judged constantly. These blogs invite cheap shots and I get them. And there are some regular snipers out there who I can almost bank on writing a hurtful comment.
Some people’s comments I can disregard because I know how much pain they are in. Their words are not appropriate, but I am of the opinion that they would be kinder and gentler to me if life had been a bit kinder to them.
There are some others who I am fairly tolerant with because I know they are reacting to my role, not to me personally. Do you have any idea how many people out there have deep wounds from White, male, religious, authority figures? Since most of the above caste of people have rendered themselves quite inaccessible, I can understand why my openness and vulnerability would invite a pot shot from some of these. It isn’t right, but I can take it with a grain of salt.
Others are just career crabs because their mamas didn’t do too good a job. I can shrug them off too.
But some people’s opinion I care about. A lot.
But when I find myself flinching and not wanting to go somewhere or do something, because of anticipated pain, I take a step back and ask, “Who will fuss, and do I care?” I no longer have the blanket reaction to all anticipated rejection. I can easily deal with the rejection from most people.
4) Learn to face criticism with Christ.
For me, it helps a lot to envision Christ standing next to me while the other person judges me. Then when the drama is over, He and I get alone and discuss what He feels about the situation. Sometimes He is harder on me than the other person was. Often He sees some angles neither the other person or I considered. Sometimes He exonerates me.
5) Allow for a learning curve.
If you have trouble starting a task, learning to access your gear shift can come pretty swiftly. However, if you have a 30 year history of allowing fear of judgment to block you from finishing, then even with these tools, it will probably take you a little while to put that completely behind you.
So do an assessment periodically. If you have a history of completing 5% of the things you started and you are now up to 30% a month later, that represents heroic progress. What you are doing is working. Stay with it awhile longer.
At the end of the day, criticism stings. And if you have a history of being shredded emotionally for what you have attempted to achieve, it is not particularly surprising that you have the push/pull inside. You are drawn to express yourself because there is life and vitality in you, but you choke near the end, because . . .
To be continued
Copyright February 2011 by Arthur Burk
From the Quarterdeck, in Anaheim