Starting a new business endeavor, especially one we're excited about, comes with a hidden risk. Hijacked by our eagerness to learn everything we can, we turn into industrial-strength vacuum cleaners, sucking up everything Google throws our way. We read the experts, maybe even attend some conferences. But unless we watch out, we may find ourselves falling into the all-too-common trap of over-preparing, and its seductive sidekick, over-learning.
I was reminded of this recently when I geared up to launch my new Life Story Coach podcast. Diving in to learn a new skill is one of my favorite things, and podcasting proved to be a nut I couldn't stop trying to crack. I wanted to learn everything there was to know, and learn it NOW.
Podcasting had everything I loved. Not only the opportunity to ask guests everything I'm curious about (hopefully the same things you'll be curious about, too!), but also the dive into the nitty-gritty of recording, editing sound files, playing with my new mic...yeah, it brought out the nerdy kid in me. The nerdy kid who likes technology almost as much as she enjoys taking notes, and hunting down new resources, and looking for just one more expert's tips on tagging MP3s. I was a goner.
After countless hours (because counting them would have made me feel guilty) of research, I hit it: the Wall of Overwhelm. It's when you cross that skinny-as-a-hair, super-fine line between absorbing new information and feeling like you're drowning in it. When suddenly the caffeine and adrenaline evaporate and you just want to go take a nap. Or eat cookies. Or do anything to distract your poor, over-burdened brain from confronting just one more Piece of Excellent Advice.
I should have recognized the signs sooner. It wasn't much different for me when I was first sticking my toe in the water with personal history. Back then I gathered information, I talked to working personal historians, I read books on how it was done.
All without actually doing any personal history.
It wasn't until circumstances—a move to a new city, divorce—kicked in me the pants that I finally got my business up and running.
A few months into it, I attended a large conference put on by the (sadly, now defunct) Association of Personal Historians. It was electrifying. I spent the better part of a week surrounded by professionals in my new field, amazing women and men who were willing to teach the skills it had taken them years to learn. I went home with a heaping sackful of handouts and my own scribbled notes—and with the sterling intention of transcribing this crazy mass of gold into an orderly assemblage that would guide me to success as a PH'er.
I found that sack the other day when I was cleaning out my attic. It's still full of those same papers.
What happened? It wasn't laziness that kept me from following through with my good intentions, but its opposite: I was working too hard. I had paying clients relying on me to keep their projects moving forward. I couldn't stop to sift through notes on how someone else did things, I had to plow forward and get on with doing those things myself.
Did I know everything I needed to know? Not even close. I was still at the start of my new career, but I had already accumulated enough knowledge to at least get me out of the gate. Getting it done was more important than getting it perfect.
Procrastination dressed up as "research" or "learning" is still procrastination. Do I think we need to spend time learning a craft before we jump in? Absolutely. What we shouldn't do is let that learning time replace the doing time.
If you're just starting out as a life story writer, or learning a new skill in any field, I hope these tips will help you skirt the trap of over-preparing and over-learning.
1. Get the input-to-output ratio right.
Sure, at the beginning it's natural to spend all your time studying up on your new venture. But gradually your time should shift from the input of information to output of work (or practice work). Know when it's time to put away the notebook and close down the browser, and go take active steps to get things rolling.
2. Don't just read about new skills, practice them.
Professor Gerard Puccio got it right when he said, "Learning without application achieves the same end as ignorance." By all means, read the best advice you can find about conducting a good interview with your new client, but don't just sit there with highlighter in hand: go out and interview someone. The same holds true for all the new skills you'll need to (gradually) master. Put those skills into practice now. Not only will you improve more quickly, you'll learn nuances not covered by the experts.
3. Learn to recognize signs of overwhelm.
For me, it's the nearly unconquerable urge to nap. For you, it might be a trip to Facebook-land. Whatever the impulse, pay attention to when your brain is seeking out a distraction.
By the way, this isn't something you'll only experience in the information-inhalation stage; you'll likely feel the need for frequent breaks from writing and editing even after you start working on client projects. You wouldn't expect your muscles to make it through a marathon without first building stamina through shorter sprints. The same goes for mind muscles. Build up your stamina no matter which phase you're in.
4. Don't wait till you know everything. Because you never will.
We've probably all heard the term "analysis-paralysis." Sure, there are some people who jump to action without a thought about all the things they don't know how to do. I'm guessing none of them are writers.
This warning is especially important for the perfectionists among us. Don't let a desire for mastery keep you from getting out there and doing. You're going to encounter moments of feeling lost no matter how much time time you take to prepare and to learn. It's part of life. And especially in this field, where every project you work on is different from the one that came before. Be open to learning new things, but don't be afraid if that learning comes mid-stream, rather than before you jump into the water. And that brings us to the most important point, namely...
5. You can't change direction until you start moving.
Get some momentum going with practice or paid projects; the forward motion will carry you along and make it easier to turn in a new direction when necessary. And when you're working on custom legacy projects, that can be often. No two projects are alike, and no two clients are alike. Each person will come with a different set of expectations and wishes, and most will know very little about personal history or how it works. Yes, come to the project prepared, but mostly, be prepared to adapt.
I hope these tips help as you move forward in your creative career. I'd love to hear how you've dealt with any of these or other challenges you've faced. Feel free to share in the comments, or drop me a line with the contact information below. Until next time, happy writing!