In Stop Waiting To Put Your Stone In I described a method of personal development where you focus on competently executing progressively larger projects instead of jumping into the deep end. A lot of people read this advice and say “Well that’s great JD but, where do I find these small projects to tackle?”. Indeed for most people the idea of starting anywhere is daunting, there are so many possibilities and so few of the things that immediately come to mind are anywhere near your level of skill and commitment. Help stop global warming? It’s hard to know where to even begin with that. Round up clothes for the local charity store? It’s something but you know you can do better. This post is about how.
If there’s a reliable way of finding small projects I’m not aware of it. About the best one can do is wander around until a project comes up and bites you in the face. The difference between people who manage to do a lot of these and people who are mystified anybody ever comes up with one is the ability to recognize when your face is being bitten. A few words on wandering however. Some environments have more opportunities in them than others. So one way of improving your odds is to deliberately spend more of your time in interesting places, friend groups, and organizations. But you could be walking around in a veritable wonderland of opportunity without the ability to take advantage and it wouldn’t help you.
Previously I wrote:
The question things come down to for ambitious young people with few connections and fewer resources is “What’s the cheapest, fastest interesting thing I can do?”.
So how do you identify an opportunity like this? The first step is to know your environment, really pay attention to it. Try to see things more in terms of what they are rather than just the role people give them. Telephones were for talking until someone invented a modem to let you connect computers with them. Social reality is a layer over the physical world we live in that determines how we think about things. Getting yourself to see past it will help get you in the right mindset for noticing things that other people don’t. Becoming aware of social reality will let you explicitly influence it in ways that wouldn’t have occurred to you before. On the explore/exploit dichotomy, you want to put many more points into explore. Go out of your way to read the news, proactively talk to people rather than waiting for them to talk to you, if you’re used to a daily routine walking by lots of other paths try taking some of them.
At first when you do this, nothing will happen. It’s not like a movie where you tilt your perspective and reality crumbles around you. On some level you have to learn to appreciate this state for its own sake. Slowly however, little things will start to bug you. Forms of suck and mediocrity you previously took for granted begin to seem less and less acceptable. Part of why it’s so hard to start a project is that most worthwhile projects are hidden behind some kind of social makeup so that mediocre performance can be excused as expected and acceptable. The most important thing you can do is cultivate what Paul Graham would call taste. It’s part of why learning some kind of hard skill is important, it gives you a basis on which to judge various sorts of craftsmanship. A project is biting you in the face when a problem is causing you pain and nobody else is going to fix it.
It’s when your expectations about the world are violated that you’re most likely about to stumble onto an interesting discovery or opportunity to improve it. Once you do, the first question is if you’re in a position to fix it. Most often the answer is no, but don’t stop at no. Get creative, think of multiple ways you could try solving the issue and gauge their relative chances of success. Still, usually the answer is no. Consider then how far away you are from being in a position to fix it, again most often the answer is that you’re too far away to consider fixing it as an immediate project. All of that is okay, because eventually you’re going to hit something within your power and skillset to improve, and depending on the effort involved that might be your project.
Once you spot one of these issues, it will often feel like a minor injustice in the world. When this happens you have two options. You can accept this almost as a duty, like the nebulous forces of fate have entrusted this problem to you and it’s your duty to solve it. Or you can let it go and keep walking. If you do the former, you will have an interesting and productive life. If you do the latter, you will have an uneventful and possibly peaceful one. Walking away is a tempting option for some people, it’s easy, you don’t want to poke your nose where it doesn’t belong, this is someone elses problem. But before you walk away consider that this problem has been here since you got to it, you are possibly the only person in a position to fix the problem. If you walk away you’re not ceding it to someone else you’re allowing it to remain broken, possibly indefinitely.
It can be hard to explain the sense of duty that often comes with spotting an issue like this, but a Jewish proverb comes to mind. “If not me then who, if not now then when?”, if you want to live in the world where all the little annoyances you encounter aren’t there someone has to go out and solve them. This time, this one glorious time that job has been left to you. If everyone who could do that did do it the world would be in a much better state than it is. And if everyone walks away because it’s too much effort, they have to deal with the consequences of others deciding the same thing.
Why do it?
Because it’s yours, there might be glory, there might be rewards, because it’s the right thing to do.