14 September 2015
14 Sep 2015
West Lafayette, IN
7 mins

Last time, I argued that the difference between the average person and those celebrated for their creativity isn’t any lack of creativity, but the ability of the latter to recognize great ideas and bring them to life – make their ideas into something useful or beautiful. In more poetic terms…

The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success. - Bruce Feirstein

I’m no Steve Jobs (have you noticed?) and I’m no skilled entrepreneur with decades of experience, but I’ve made more websites, apps, and services than the average person does in his or her life. Many of them complete flops, but the ratio of still-hanging-on projects to failures are going up. And that’s thanks to no other than experience – little things I’ve picked up along the way that help in making a website, building an app from scratch, learning a completely new skill, or setting up a business.

So I want to offer my two cents on how to make things – specifically, on how to go about translating ideas into something concrete. Take them how you will – these are my best advices on how to make (things).

What’s the point?

It’s fairly obvious, a few Google searches will tell you, that a sense of short- and long-term goals is always crucial to a successful venture. And while there’s some truth to that statement, I’ve found that to be something of a half-truth.

There’s a difference between the goals of some idea or project and the purpose of it. Goals are concrete, reachable, and quantitative. A goal for my website might be to grow my audience by 20% each month (which is harder than it sounds) or to have 50 subscribers by the end of the year. Those are measurable, very specific requirements. And they’re nice, but when projects are just starting out, they’re also a time sink and more challenging to come up with, given the limited information we have at the beginning.

Instead, I’d re-phrase the popular tip to say have a substantial point to every project. You might not know how much of it will be done by the end of the week or the end of the month, and you might not even know how to measure that work yet – both have happened multiple times in the past, and many of those projects turned out alright. But you can’t go without knowing the purpose of something you’re creating. If it’s an app, what does it do that people want? Business? What does it sell that makes customers a better version of themselves? Personal hobby-project? What’s the end product going to do for you? Have a point to what you’re doing.

Plan for the future

While we’re on the streak of breaking seemingly common-sense adages, this one caught me by surprise. You don’t have to know much to start anything.

At the beginning of a project, it’s easy to say, “I don’t know how to do that, so I won’t be able to do it. Ii don’t know anyone who can who would help, so that’s not happening.” But it turns out, most of the things you need to know, you learn along the way. So you shouldn’t plan with the present circumstances in mind, but think of what might be possible, and teach yourself those few necessary things.

If that sounds difficult, I’ve got two stories for you. The first is the citation creator extension I mentioned last time. I first started on the project the May of 2015, and I knew nothing about anything about how my idea was going to work. I knew what I wanted it to do – make a citation automatically from a webpage when a user clicks on it – but my knowledge pretty much stopped there. Everything else I forced myself to learn along the way, and three months later (those three months were in actuality two weeks, seeing as I procrastinated for 2.5 months – another pro tip is not to procrastinate), I had something that did what I wanted it to do.

The second story is more brief, about a little program I wrote simulating how networks of friends evolve over time. The details are different, but the moral is the same – I started knowing only what I wanted my result to do, not how I’d get it done. And somehow, I’d learned everything that I needed in between the dozens of to-do list check-offs and Google searches, and it’s a weird feeling to have started expecting not to know anything and end up with a working result. But it happens. The how comes sooner or later if you have the what part of the idea down. How? That’s the next tip.

Keep pushing yourself to do something.

First of all, are you using a to-do list of some kind? Scribbles on a napkin? Magnets on the fridge doors? Premium-tier cloud-enabled balls-to-the-walls digital list manager? Something. If not, you need one. It helps more than anything else I can say on this page. Stop reading this now, Go get a list, Fill it with things you want to get done. Now, this is a tip on how to effectively fill that to-do list.

My particular to-do list is an app called Todoist, and although it’s different for everyone, it works well for me. One of the things that it does well is scheduling to-do’s into the future. So a lot of what would otherwise fall into my calendar goes on my to-do list, and the app I use surfaces it when the day comes, so planning things out is a breeze. Just make a list of things that need to be done, put them in order, and schedule them spread throughout a reasonable time period.

The hardest thing about keeping projects going and following those schedules is that we, unlike enterprise-grade computers in server rooms, can’t work for more than a couple of hours at a time. And extended work gets tiring. It’s too easy to get burnt out, and what follows is a cycle of pushing back due dates and hitting yourself over the head the next day. A nice way around it, when the time comes, is to schedule micro-tasks – tiny things that can be done in less than five minutes that contribute something to the project, no matter how small. That might be trying new colors in a design, sending a single text message about a new feature idea, Writing a single line of code, or getting two more sentences written for that blog post that was supposed to be posted yesterday. It’s less than any substantial work you can put it, but it gives you the feeling that you’ve still done something to make a difference, and most of the time, that slight boost in motivation helps keep it going.

And no matter how big a project is, no matter how little you know about how the end result is going to work, getting something small done at a regular schedule makes a far greater difference than you can imagine. I promise you.

I hate to pull a cliché on you, but the process of taking an idea I like (never said it had to be a good one) and seeing it to its realization is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had, and there’s a certain feeling of addiction to this process of creation. Each successful project is a huge motivation to go out and try the next one, and each failure is a kick in the behind to try harder.

And that brings me back to the beginning. There’s no “if” in you having a good idea – it’s a matter of not dismissing so easily it when you do have one briefly cross your mind. And once you have that idea in your mind, the rest of this post distills down to two things: try boldly, and try every day. You don’t have to know much or have much to start making that idea something more than a daydream, and the biggest obstacle is the fact that you’re still sitting on your butt thinking about it.

But here’s the fourth and final tip: just make something. It’ll be a starting point, and it’ll be a heck of a lot of fun.

Right now. Go grab a notepad, get a pen, dig up one of your old ideas you jot down somewhere. What’s the purpose? What needs to be done? What can you do in the next 5 minutes to move yourself just a bit closer to that idea?

Usain Bolt's creativity

The democratization revolution

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