Stop Starting Over

July 11, 2009

I used to draw quite a bit as a kid, and I was half decent. I attempted to compensate for my lack of talent with an intense work ethic. I would draw with an unmatched fervor, spending every free moment on my art, and every cent I had on supplies. It was not uncommon for me to produce a couple hundred drawings in a month. Unfortunately, I could not sustain this pace. I would burn out in a few months, and condemn everything I created to the dustbin. Some time later, with my skills considerably depreciated, I would start the whole cycle over again. It was always three steps forward, three steps back. What I had in zeal, I lacked in patience, and eventually, I quit in frustration.

Patience is the great multiplier. Obviously, had I simply been patient, I would have eventually reached my goals (or at least the ceiling of my genetic ability). In fact, I would have been better off working slower and steadier, because patience can partially replace intensity — the amount of daily exertion required for progress is usually well beneath your peak-output capacity. On the flipside, intensity is a poor substitute for patience — you can only do so much in a single day, and the quality of work you do after 20 straight hours is usually much less than what you produce in the first hour. For non-trivial endeavors in particular, an attempt to replace patience with intensity will inevitably result in burnout and failure.

Intensity can be a vice. If you are good at working hard, you will be tempted to try to trade patience for intensity. This might work in high school, but at some point, if you continue tackling progressively greater challenges, you will hit a brick wall. I became painfully aware of this during my sophomore year of college, when my programming assignments suddenly could not be completed the day they were due in a single marathon session.

If you are looking for a showcase of impatience and burnout, look no further than your local gym. Few people have the patience needed to stay in shape their whole life. Of those with the potential, many work too hard in an attempt to get faster results, ultimately giving up in exhaustion, frustration, and/or injury.

People who fail a fitness program usually do not plan to quit forever. Rather, they plan to start again at some point in the future. But if you quit now, you throw away whatever progress you made. It would be far better to lower your goals (If you really wanted to be an Olympic athlete, you would not be thinking about quitting, so why not strive to simply be fit?), adjust your program, and then trudge along. But this stings the pride, and trudging really is not all that attractive.

In contrast, a clean slate is very tempting. You get to wipe away your mistakes, ignore the fact that your goals might be too lofty — and this time, you are really going to kick butt. I have been there, done that. It is much more appealing than injecting modesty and patience into your current routine, but the problem is that it does not work.

The enticement of a fresh start is nearly always a Siren's Song, distracting you from the real problem: impatience. Although patience by itself will not get you anywhere, it is usually the limiting factor; and wiping away your mistakes, all the while vowing to work harder "next time," will not compensate for a lack of patience. Starting over is rarely anything more than the stuff of failed New Years resolutions.

Is there a time and place for starting over? Probably. But personally, the next time I feel the urge to start from scratch, I am going to ask myself if it is really the best choice, or if it is simply more appealing than confronting my impatience.

Update for December 8, 2018

Almost a decade after first writing this, I can report that I am at least a marginal acolyte of my own teachings. Humility helps: I have a hard time being patient when I am too puffed up with pride to accept slow, faltering progress (which is the only kind commonly found in challenging endeavors).

I have also recently taken up drawing again, this time receiving proper training through the Watts Atelier of the Arts. In a world ever more dominated by screens, I find it refreshing to put charcoal to paper and slowly cultivate my hand and eye — as well as my patience.