How many projects have you started and never finished? Little bits of leftover code sitting around. Half written drafts of stories.
That shelf you were supposed to build and still sits like a lurking troll in the garage.
Yup we’ve all got some projects started and not finished around, but what if all you have is stuff you’ve started and never finished? What if you’re a “chronic starter” to use Jon Acuff’s term from Finish?
Well, that’s what Finish is going to try and help you with, finishing some of the projects you start.
Perfectionism is at the heart of not finishing
The entire book is a discussion of perfectionism and how it stops us from finishing the projects we start.
This isn’t the first lie that perfectionism tells you about goals: Quit if it isn’t perfect.
It examines the lies that perfectionism tells us. The ways it gets us to start something and then abandon it.
The ways it tricks us into never starting because we won’t hit perfect anyway.
That’s why a lot of people won’t start a new goal. They’d rather get a zero than a fifty. They believe perfect is the only standard and if they can’t hit it they won’t even take the first step. A dreary sense of “What’s the use?” settles about them like a thick fog. I can’t fail if I don’t try.
Acuff runs an online course called 30 Days of Hustle, and when he had someone look at his numbers, he found that most people quit on Day 2 of the course. That’s the first day that life hits them. The day they can’t be perfect.
Which leads him to this conclusion about chronic starters.
Chronic starters quit the day after perfect.
I know that a few years ago I tried to start a Github streak. I was going to commit code to something every day on Github. I got maybe two weeks, and then life got in the way. Did I pick back up and get a long series of mini-streaks? Nope, I quit, and if you looked at my Github profile you’d see long swaths of time where I did nothing for public consumption with a few days here and there that have a bunch of activity.
I’ve quit the day after perfect.
Perfectionism as Excellence
Unfortunately, perfection dies slowly. It’s persistent and particularly dangerous because it masquerades as excellence.
In his 30 Days of Hustle program, Acuff tells us that he asks participants to either cut their goal in half or give themselves twice as long to finish it. He does this because perfectionism masquerades as excellence.
We don’t just want to lose 5 pounds; we shoot for 40 pounds.
We don’t say we’ll keep it to two pieces of pizza on a Friday; we say we’re eating kale every meal all week.
We think we’re just setting a great goal, but we’re building one that is much too big to complete. We’re subconsciously setting ourselves up for failure.
Perfectionism Tells Us It Should Be Hard
Perfectionism believes that the harder something is, the more miserable something is, the better it is.
Yes, there are parts of any goal that aren’t fun, but the whole thing shouldn’t be one long hard slog from terrible task to terrible task. You should enjoy the goals that you’re aiming towards.
You should get some enjoyment out of the actions you have to take to reach your goals. If you’re not getting enjoyment, then something is wrong. You need to start building rewards in so that you get positive feedback from the tasks you’re working on.
The second part of being uncomfortable with a goal is that it’s hard to know if we’re making good progress or if we’re just doing something that’s wrong for us.
The middle of any goal is difficult and uncomfortable. How do you know if what you’re experiencing is genuine displeasure because you picked the wrong goal, or just the normal frustration that comes with the middle part of a goal?
While Finish doesn’t dive deeply into how to figure this out, The Dip by Seth Godin does1 dive into this question deeply and provides a great set of three questions for us to use to determine if we’re doing the right thing.
- Am I just panicking?
- Who am I trying to impress?
- What measurable progress am I making? If any?
By looking at these three questions, we can get a clearer picture of how our idea is doing and if we should quit or keep going.
Perfectionism Builds Secret Rules Around Our Lives
At the core, perfectionism is a desperate attempt to live up to impossible standards. We wouldn’t play if we knew the whole game was impossible, so perfectionism promises us that we just need to follow some secret rules. As long as we do that, perfect is possible. So over the years, as you chase goals, perfectionism quietly adds some secret rules to your life.
The last part I looked at, that our goals should be hard, is one of the lies that perfectionism tells us. It can also tell us stuff like; executives have nice luggage they carry around. They can’t have wheels on their luggage, or it’s not ‘fancy’ enough.
The thing about these rules is that they’re hard to catch and they are cumulative. We keep building more of them around ourselves until we’re walled in doing little and serving perfectionism.
Perfectionism Protects Our Dream Self
This is a classic benefit of not finishing. You get to hold on to the illusion that you could finish if you really wanted to. Rather than try to find out you might not be good, you hide in the myth of maybe.
I talked to a guy earlier this year who swore he had a great story. It involved a gun to the face2 and a great story of recovery. He went on a bunch about how it’s going to be a great book, and he’s writing it.
What he really meant is that about a year prior to our meeting he had written one chapter of it. Since then he’s written nothing. Not even blog posts talking about the journey he’s still on.
The deeper I dug, the more it became apparent to me that he was so convinced that it was a great story that he didn’t want to hear otherwise.
I do believe that he’s got a great story, but he’s stuck. He’s not doing the practice needed to turn it into something excellent, and he’s very hesitant to hear any feedback that might change the things he thinks are awesome.
He’s firmly stuck in the benefits of not finishing his work because it’s still perfect in his mind.
Acuff has actions
One thing I haven’t mentioned is that the end of each chapter has a number of actions and questions you can use to kick perfectionism’s ass.
If you’re going to read the book, take the time to answer the questions.
Do I Recommend Finish by Jon Acuff
If you’re a chronic starter, then yes Finish by Jon Acuff is a great book to get you off your butt and ship something for the world to see. I think you need to add accountability to it though.
You’ll need someone to help you stick to shipping work instead of falling back into your old patterns of striving for the elusive perfect. One other book to read, with my review coming, is Perennial Seller. It looks at the struggle that does need to happen to make something stand out from the masses. It pushes you to struggle just a bit more and expose your work to others so that it can get refined.
Perennial Seller isn’t quite the opposite of Finish, but it’s a bit more for those that are the Ready, Fire, Aim type. Finish is for the Ready, Ready, Aim, Aim, Aim…type.