Whatever it is that you do, as you practice and repeat anything over and over, you’re bound to notice some interesting patterns that come up again and again. For me, that thing-that-I-do is working on projects, ranging from simple software applications to online publications to a small source of income through part-time jobs as a student.
And as I’ve continued to work on them throughout the last few years, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern in my life, and I’d like to share that with you today.
The first time I found this pattern, I thought it was a fluke. Me being an overambitious sophomore I was, I had an idea for website focused on STEM with some of my friends. At the time, I didn’t know how to make a functional website; I didn’t know how to recruit people (I still don’t really. Don’t ask me why all these people are working with me.); and I didn’t know how to bring an idea into reality and execute on it properly. I just had an idea – a dream – like any kid would at some point in his life during high school. It was unremarkable, and seemed unreachable.
But I took a small, additional step. I talked to a few of my friends about it. Then I built a small website for it (a sloppy, amateur job, but it did what it had to, which was show writing to people who followed links there), and eventually, I held a meeting with the people who were interested, talking about a concept for an online student publication that evolved and polished itself into Cafe Avant-Garde.
A few months later, I came up with a concept for an automatic citation generator that would plug into your browser to give you hassle-free citations for papers. I didn’t know how to write applications or extensions, and I had no plans on how the concept would actually work. I just had a sketch and a task. But one day during the summer, I took forty minutes out of my night to do some research and start it. After a few weeks of intermittent coding, I had a functional citation creator Chrome extension, called Apogee. Fast forward a few months, and thousands of people were using it.
It’s not a fluke. It’s not a mistake that these ideas that started as ideas with no plan or technological forethought could grow and become realized as real, tangible things. Then why could they be successful without a single planning before I started? Here’s a theory.
In talking about realizing ideas, I think there are two main ways to go about it. One, you could begin with an idea and a plan on how to execute it – a strategy, if you will – and follow it carefully to realization. Or, two, you can start with an idea, make it super clear what you want it to be, and start working on it, allowing that vision of the destination to be the sole guiding light.
Both have their own merits, but I think the first method, which is generally recommended, is overrated. It works well in a team environment, where a clear goal could be hard to establish and multiple people have to agree on what to do next. And that’s probably why we’re all conditioned to follow it. But for individuals, or even tight-knit, small groups, the second method often works just as well or better: sometimes, it’s best to work without a clear path to a goal.
The vast majority of the decisions and directions we have to make and take in life are not ones where the path and the results are clearly laid out. From college decisions and moving destinations to partner choices and personal values, the most important decisions we make are often like coming to a fork in the road in the pitch blackness of the night. If you try to look for a clear path to the destination in the darkness, it’s damn near impossible – you’re trying to get where you’re going by staring down at the ground and trying to find where the paved roads are.
Instead, I think we should try to look up more to see where we want to be, and let ourselves take a step at a time, not guided by the carefully paved roads and the plans, but shepherded by the light of where we want to be. In my life, I’ve found that traveling this way often leads to more exciting places.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, On powerlessness.
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