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Learn To Be a Completer

Successful innovators finish what they start.

Many stories about innovation talk about James Dyson and the vacuum. They point out that Dyson had his insight for how to create a bagless vacuum cleaner from his knowledge about saw mills. In order to recognize this parallel, he had to think quite abstractly. Many discussions of Dyson’s achievement stop there without pointing out that he spent five years developing the prototype for his vacuum before it was ready for production.

Many would-be innovators are most excited about the first part of this story. As a culture, we prize insights. We love stories like Archimedes running through the streets shouting Eureka after discovering the law of displacement. We are fascinated by tales of insight (many of them false) like Kekule discovering the benzene ring by envisioning a snake biting its tail or Newton developing a gravitational theory of the solar system after watching an apple fall from a tree.

In general, though, the insights people have are only the germ of a solution. They reflect the start of a process that ultimately ends in a discovery or innovation. The factor that separates creative people from true innovators is not the ability to have ideas, it is the willingness to finish projects.

Finishing projects is not fun. It requires solving lots of small and annoying problems that keep an idea from being a reality. Back when I was in college, I took a class in computer hardware design. The final project required building a CPU. I spent several weeks developing the microcode, programming chips, and connecting components. After all that work, though, the project still didn’t work. It seemed hardly fair. I understood all of the pieces that went into the project. But, I still had to solve some problems to get enough power to all of the pieces or it wouldn’t work. And the project was not actually finished until it could be put through its paces by the teaching assistant.

The agony of finishing projects is why so many creative people have mental workshops that are littered with half-baked ideas. It is more fun to cast about for interesting potential solutions to problems than to actually implement them.

If you are not a finisher, this is the year to hone your skills. And to do that, you need to start with small and manageable projects.

A good way to practice finishing projects is to take up a hobby outside of your area of work. Write a story and give it to someone else to read. Write a blog entry and post it to the web. Memorize a poem and recite it. Learn to play a song on a musical instrument and perform it for a friend. Paint a picture and give it as a gift. Fix something that is broken in your house.

What all of these activities have in common is that you are not done when you understand what you are supposed to accomplish. You are done when you have a finished piece of work. That means you are responsible for the details.

Think about learning to recite a piece of poetry. It is not a particularly creative act. However, the order of the words, the cadence, and the stress all matter. You actually need to test yourself to ensure that you have gotten all of the details correct, or you are not finished. It can be a frustrating experience to be 95% finished, but still have a few words that elude you.

There is a temptation when you are almost done to decide you have done enough. We have lots of phrases like “close enough for jazz” that give us permission to give up rather than spending a lot of time on the last few details.

From there, take on more elaborate projects. Focus on continuing to work even when you are feeling frustrated with your progress. If you need to walk away from the project for short periods of time to calm down, that is ok. But, don’t give up until you are finished.

It can also be useful to ask friends for help. Work that seems interminable when you do it alone may be more bearable when you have someone else who is there to give you support, encouragement, and advice.

One of the most important pieces of advice I ever got, though, came from one of my graduate mentors–Doug Medin–who used to say “Ideas are cheap.” From his perspective, having a great insight was the easy part. Running a good study, analyzing it effectively, and then writing it up for publication was the thing that separated successful scientists from the others.

You can get better at completing tasks. Like any other skill, though, it requires practice. That is why it is valuable to start small and work your way up to full-scale innovations.

Originally published at Inc

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