Two ways to deal with “idea paralysis”

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A while ago, I had a session with someone who had so many ideas, she felt paralyzed as to which to choose and where to begin. Every time she took a little action on an idea, another one of her ideas started to haunt her and she was sure that one was better. So she’d stop working on the current thing and start this other thing. And then the other thing wouldn’t feel quite right, and some shiny new idea would start hovering and she’d drop the current thing and start in on the shiny new thing. And so on.

I so relate to this. It doesn’t happen to me that frequently, but when it does, it is crazymaking. What’s going on when we’re knee-deep in a sea of ideas and we just can’t choose, or stick with one long enough to bring it to completion?

For me, there are one of a couple of things happening:

1) Perfectionism has reared its oh-so-troublesome head.

We’re wanting the idea to be the be-all and end-all of ideas, rather than a stepping stone to what the idea can become. There’s no way an idea won’t transform as we work on it, so most of the time, it’s not going to stay the same as the seedling in our heads. But if we have perfectionistic tendencies, we want to know it’s going to be great, it’s going to knock everybody’s socks off. We can’t know that at the beginning of the process. We can’t know that at the end of the process.

Our own interest in the idea has to be enough. The only thing we have an absolute guarantee of is that we will check in with ourselves about how we are responding to our idea, from day to day. And I can guarantee you that our relationship to it will change from day to day, week to week.

Perfectionists often feel “it’s not quite right, so I’m not ready to begin.” My question to perfectionists (and that includes myself!) is: Is there enough here for me to work with? Is there enough here to sustain my interest, for now?

When I was in college, I had a screenwriting teacher I remember really well because he talked a lot about things that I sensed were true, but didn’t yet have the life experience to know were true. He looked at twenty or so pages of the screenplay I was writing and said, “You don’t have to telegraph your themes to the audience. The themes that are important to you as a writer are going to be there because they’re important to you. They can’t not be there. So stop telegraphing your themes and just tell the story.”

This felt like a huge relief. And I think this applies to those of us who struggle over choosing the “perfect” idea. No matter which idea we pick, the common theme behind it is going to be US. Just because you decide to tell the story about the guy who goes fishing with his estranged father instead of the story about the woman who learns her teenage son is in trouble with the law doesn’t mean your usual themes of loss, loneliness, heartache and redemption are not going to be there. They’ll be there because you will be there.

So relax. You, and the things that are important to you, will be there, in spades, no matter what path you choose.

And, on the flipside:

2) You may be knee-deep in ideas because you are only knee-deep. And what you really need is to be completely submerged in one idea, so your heart is engaged. In other words, there may be a bunch of ideas swirling around your ankles but they’re not really involving the whole of you, so it’s easy to jump off of one and onto another.

I’m reminded of someone I know who, many years ago, was caught up in romantic involvements with two different guys. Time went on and on, and she just couldn’t decide between the two. Finally, she ended both relationships, realizing that neither of these guys was a “hell, yes!” for her and that was why she couldn’t decide. The question wasn’t actually “which of these men is the better choice?” but “who am I and what do I really care about?”

If you’re flitting from one idea to the next, stop. Take some time out and ask yourself, what do I really want? Why am I doing this (writing, artwork, coaching, whatever it may be)? How can you engage the whole of you — starting with your heart, which tells you what you care about the most — in your creative process? And go from there.

Looking at it this way, you’re not choosing the idea so much as letting it choose you. And when something chooses us, there’s no contest.

(On this topic, I highly recommend Miranda July’s wonderful memoir, “It Chooses You.”)

Do you struggle with “idea paralysis”? How do you decide which idea to choose? Or do you let it choose you? I’d love to hear, in the comments.

Work With Me: I have a couple of openings for new coaching clients, starting in July. Interested? See if we might be a good fit, here.

Image is “Sepia Bulb” © Graham Stewart | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The shark is working well enough … really.

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Anyone who knows me fairly well knows that I am obsessed with the movie Jaws. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen Jaws, but … just … don’t get me started. (Writers, study Jaws if you want to see a movie where every single scene moves the story forward. Nothing is wasted.)

If you know anything about the making of Jaws, you know that the mechanical shark, a.k.a. “Bruce”, didn’t work very well. In fact, there were so many problems with the shark that it wasn’t seen on screen nearly as much as director Steven Spielberg had originally intended. During production on Martha’s Vineyard in 1974, the frequent refrain from the loudspeakers was “The shark is not working. The shark is not working.”

Welp. As we all know, the shark worked well enough. In fact, the semi-working shark worked so well that Jaws was the movie for which the term “summer blockbuster” was coined, back in 1975 when it first appeared in theaters.

One of the main things I do as a coach, when I have a session with a client, is listen for stressful thoughts. Thoughts are stressful when they are not deeply true for us, but we believe them anyway. So when I hear something that strikes me as painful or stressful for a client, I scribble it down in my notebook. If it seems important, I’ll point this thought out to the client and we’ll work with it.

I was going back over some notes before a session recently, and it really hit me just how often our thoughts are perfectionistic. They have to do with how we’re not doing enough, not doing it well enough (whatever it is), and how our reality is not matching the vision inside our heads. (I say “our” because, like my clients, I have a strong penchant for perfectionism. I’m always teaching what I most need to learn.)

I’ve written a lot here about perfectionism in the past (you can click on the categories link titled Perfectionism to the right to check out more). But I don’t know if I’ve emphasized how important it is for perfectionists to make a point of noticing what is working — and what is working well enough.

Because one of the biggest issues I see perfectionists struggling with is decision paralysis. We’re so terrified of making an imperfect decision and the havoc it will surely wreak that we hang out in indecision until it hurts. And then, then, we beat ourselves up for not making decisions quickly enough! It’s a totally lose-lose scenario.

And here’s the thing: We don’t struggle with decision paralysis as much when we give ourselves credit for having made good decisions in the past. Most perfectionists have a pretty big story about being poor decision-makers (it’s in keeping with the idea that we never quite measure up). We are also control freaks, so we tend to think we have much more control over our futures than we actually do.

Therefore, we think, we have to weigh each present or future decision very, very carefully, so we don’t repeat our past mistakes and don’t screw up our futures.

Why do we have this story? Probably because when life happens, as it will, it feels more familiar for us to blame ourselves than to admit the truth: Life is messy, and life is not fair. No matter how “good” we are, we can’t escape this reality.

So what if we were to flip this story on its head? What if we were to look back and notice how we made good enough decisions, and how some of them were even really good? How would we proceed if we basically believed that our lives worked well enough?

I think we’d go on making our movies, doing our writing, living our lives. We’d trust ourselves to create something good. What if Spielberg had decided to resign in the middle of production on Jaws because the shark wasn’t good enough? (Well, probably Universal would have replaced him with a different director. And we’d have had a very different Jaws. Which would have been a damn shame.)

At the bottom of it all, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about our lives, are either helpful or not helpful.

I don’t mean that we should tell ourselves things we don’t truly believe. I’m not talking about piling positive affirmations on top of our fear like white-washing a rotted fence. I’m saying we need to really give ourselves some credit. I’m saying we need to lower our standards enough that we can show up in our lives and in our creative work (or creative play, as I prefer to call it).

Perfectionists, aim for the B rather than creating A+ work that exists only in your head. Make the decision that feels best to you and call it a day, knowing you can course-correct tomorrow. Admit that the shark at the core of your movie is working well enough to continue the filming. Create your flawed-but-amazing works of art and live your flawed-but-amazing lives.

Work With Me: I work with writers, artists, artisans and coaches who are feeling vulnerable and stuck. Learn more about how we might work together, here.

Image is Shark Kite by Ryan Somma at flickr; some rights reserved