Life Measured in Projects

I like to measure my life in projects. There was that time I worked on a zombie board game with my friend Andrew. There was the season of time where we were developing a Neo-noir tv serial based on a pulp fiction character we made up named Jack Sterling. I probably should’ve measured this time in terms most people would understand, like my sophomore and junior year of college.

I didn’t use those terms because I hated school at the time. I now realize I didn’t hate school; I just hated that school. But that’s not really what this post is about.

I’ve been measuring my life by projects as long as I can remember. You could say I have a history of taking on huge, chunky projects and letting them frame the narrative of what my life is like during a season. I’ve worked on novels, written the aforementioned tv-serial, produced large videos throughout my career, and taken large seasons of time to develop and change my art and design style.

Unfortunately, when those projects don’t pan out (like when my Texas Forever shirts didn’t sell well at an Art Festival, only selling 2 of 100 shirts I ordered), it can paint entire swaths of my life in very morose terms. When a project fails, and you define a season by that project, it can mean a season of failure. But that’s left me with a life-defining lesson.

Failure is not who we are

Failure is not who we are. Don’t let it define you. It does not describe a person. Failure is an instance of failing – of falling short – that is not only an expected part of life, but an acceptable one. It’s okay to fail

If it’s not okay to fail, then growth is nearly impossible. When people marvel at how good I am with After Effects (this doesn’t happen as much anymore), I qualify whatever supposed wizardry I just did with a caveat: I know [ blank ] because I learned by doing the wrong thing over and over again. I have failed repeatedly to carve out the skillset I have.

Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash

Building Through Failure

If you were to take stock of your own life, you would probably notice the same thing. We build skills – we learn – through failure. Every misstep that requires troubleshooting. Every meltdown that forces us to take stock of our emotional intelligence. Every stubbed toe makes us keep an eye out for the corner of our bed. In this way, every little failure creates a moment of education.

And so I measure my life in project increments. What was I working on these past few months? The unfortunate problem in this is when I take on big projects and fail, I run the risk of not learning. You stub your toe, you immediately know what went wrong – you didn’t notice that desk leg – and you can correct almost instantaneously. But on large, complicated projects, it’s much more difficult to take stock and glean the lessons that you desperately need.

How do we examine failure?

So I’m starting to find that if I don’t take the necessary time – a post mortem, if you will – to make these observations, then I won’t find the insights I need to get better. And now it leaves me with this bit of instruction, mostly for myself.

Quick Steps to Improve

  1. What worked

    Start with what worked. If you start with all the bad mistakes you made, it will inevitably lead you down a dark path you’ll never return from. Take time to tally the ‘wins’ before the losses.

  2. What didn’t work

    What went wrong? Was it something in under your control? Often times, I find myself dinging my self esteem over things that I couldn’t control – decisions made over my head, an inopportune turn of outside events, etc – and shouldn’t be directly applying to myself.

    Also, these events can sometimes be a fluke, and you can’t prepare for flukes. However, it’s good to write them down anyway because sometimes what you think is random happenstance is actually a pattern hiding in plain sight. Those things can be changed or strategized against.

  3. Examine what didn’t work more closely

    Take into account the what, who, when, where, and how of the events that led to the failure. Make sure you are seeing it clearly. Allow others to weigh in, if they were close to the situation. Preferably, you want to ask people with a vested interest in your success these questions, as they will want to see you improve!

  4. Create next steps

    Make actionable items for failures based around your observations. If you can create an actionable item – even after getting advice from colleagues or mentors – you may be dealing with something outside of your control. Put a pin in those items. You my want to come back later and see if they are forming a pattern of their own.

  5. Take action or plan for next time

    Make the necessary adjustments to learn from the failures. In the case of ongoing projects, do that by taking action right then. If it was a large project, add your newly found insights to your next plan of attack for the next big project.

I hope this has helped you out. It’s something I will be looking at in the future to help myself learn from my mistakes. Maybe together we can make great projects!

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