Becky Blades is a writer, artist, and consultant. She wrote and illustrated Do Your Laundry or You’ll Die Alone: Advice Your Mom Would Give If She Thought You Were Listening, which was named a Best Book of 2014 by Kirkus.
Below, Becky shares 5 key insights from her new book, Start More Than You Can Finish: A Creative Permission Slip to Unleash Your Best Ideas. Listen to the audio version—read by Becky herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Not finished is not failure.
The way we view the finish can keep us from starting. If we think any finish other that what we planned is failure, starting seems scary. But what is finishing anyway? Who gets to decide? By what standards?
Even with the most precise planning, what we end up with is rarely exactly how we envisioned it, whether we’re making a robot or a robot factory. As one entrepreneur told me, the finish changes the minute we take first action. This matters, because if we believe not finishing as we envisioned is failure, we might not start.
If we believe that pausing or stopping is failure, we won’t restart. If we believe we don’t have enough to take our idea all the way to a grand finish, we might not start, and we will miss all the unknown discoveries and unknown finishes that might be waiting along the way. But what I learned from hundreds of stARTists—from teachers to engineers—is that NOT finishing as planned leaves us with surprising rewards, often better than we envisioned.
Take for example my writer friend who began a novel only to discover that her plot worked best as a sizzling short story. Or the inventors in the 1950s who failed making textured wallpaper but wound up making bubble wrap. Or the engineer in the 1940’s who set out to make a shipping device and made that shipping device, but also made the Slinky. Or all the people who started support groups that became social movements.
I started a communications business in my 30’s that ended up much bigger than I planned it. If I had known I would one day have a six-figure monthly payroll, I can assure you, I would never have started. I wasn’t that brave in my 30s. But I’m also a visual artist, so I started my company like I start many of my paintings, with a loose view of the finish. Curious, and creative.
“Artists know that when we use the creative process, we change our designs constantly along the way.”
Artists are good roles models for viewing the finish. Most artists—songwriters, sculptors, fiction writers—work this way. They’ll tell you they begin work with a curiosity rather than a firm vision of the final product, and that they may even have a hard time deciding when their work is finished. Some will tell you it’s never finished.
Artists know that when we use the creative process, we change our designs constantly along the way. This open perspective makes it easy to lay down that first brushstroke.
But if we don’t know this, if we haven’t started enough things to see our ideas change and arrive at finishes better than we imagined, we may think we don’t have what we need to move our idea forward. So we don’t even begin. And untold creations and personal triumphs are lost.
We need to loosen our demands on the finish. Knowing when to stop, pause, pivot, or hand off an idea is a stARTistic superpower. When we learn that surprise pivots are every bit the masterpieces that engineered endings are, more ideas will get started.
To be clear, I did not write this book to tell you not to finish. Finishing is always the endgame. But if we want to get to our best ideas, we don’t need to listen to the voices that tell us not to start more than we can finish. Those voices don’t make us finish more. They just make us start less.
2. Starting is a skill and a muscle.
Acting on new ideas and advancing ideas we’ve begun requires creative initiative, a combination of initiative, creativity, and the creative process. I call this quality stARTistry, the art of starting and restarting.
Starting can be learned, practiced and improved. We can start more, more easily, and we can become better judges of good ideas. To do that, we need to learn what starts are made of and what our personal weak spots are. Starting is a process with four sometimes indiscernible parts: Imagining, thinking, deciding, and acting.
First, we use our imaginations to envision a future state, for example, a pot with a great new soup recipe in it, a song we write, or a building we design.
Next, we think about what it will take to make it real, how that imagined thing fits in our lives, what it will cost us—and give us. How we can find a cowriter for the song, since we can’t play music? How many onions we can put in the soup without the kids complaining? How long will our Tik Tok side hustle take to start making money?
Third, we decide to move the creation forward.
“We need to learn what starts are made of and what our personal weak spots are.”
And fourth, we take action—we do something that moves the idea from our imagination into the world. Where other people can see it or understand it or move it with us.
Within each of these parts is opportunity for skill building. We can learn to imagine bigger. We can learn to think faster, or maybe to think less, because often the more we think, the more we are inclined to talk ourselves out of things that are new or risky. We can learn to really decide—I found that people who put off acting on good ideas hadn’t decided not to start them, they had just decided not to decide—but by making some rules for our own decision making, some contracts with ourselves, we will decide to begin more and better things. It’s a game changer.
And finally, we can learn to act faster by building a bias for action.
By treating stARTistry as a learnable skill, we can up our success by designing our own rituals and environments for creative initiative. We can learn mind games to help us start on a dime. We can build creative courage with small-stakes projects. We can use hacks and habits to start more things easier, lowering the pressure of each idea.
3. The first step is a swag bag.
The act of beginning brings so many benefits, it’s a wonder we ever hesitate. It’s like getting a gift bag when you leave a fun party. Sure, sometimes you’ll get pens and tacky mouse pads, but you get good stuff, too—just for showing up.
When we step into the process, the swag bag powers up feel good benefits of creating: we release happiness chemicals in the brain—endorphins, dopamine and serotonin—and it fires up excitement, focus, and a sense of control.
Starting gives us perfectly formed questions. And it gives us answers in context. Say for example I want to start a comedy show. I could take six months to learn the comedy industry, research past shows and talk to my relatives and let them tell me I’m crazy. Or, I could haul off and start a comedy show. I could start booking a venue, and while I’m talking to the club owner they would ask me questions like: how many people are you expecting? What kind of sound and stage setup do you need? How many performers will you have and is their material G or X rated? Are you inviting your mom? This is a true story, and these are very real questions.
“Beginning something installs our creation as a beacon that calls us back to it.”
Starting gives us first-hand information. It’s a crash course in our own idea. Starting gives us the energy of ignition, the support of accountability, and it gives something called the Zeigarnik effect—a term psychologists use to describe our tendency to remember unfinished activities better than completed ones, or unstarted ones.
Beginning something installs our creation as a beacon that calls us back to it; starting makes us a homing device, zeroing in on solutions and insights we need, consciously and subconsciously. We’ve all experienced it: we’re in the shower on the drive home and something entirely random on the radio gives us the answer to a problem or the punch line for a joke—that’s the Zeigarnik effect.
Research shows that when we trust the power of the start, we get a swag bag of insight, clarity, confidence, courage, and momentum. And sometimes we get closer to the finish we want. Research also shows that when we don’t start, we don’t get anything.
4. The creative process is in charge.
Starting sounds exhausting if we think we have to do all the leading and thinking and pushing and pulling. But there’s good news. Once we take first action, the creative process takes the lead.
The creative process is described a lot of different ways by a lot of different experts, and they’re all correct. It’s a process of doing something… then doing something with what you did. It’s iteration, adding layers… it’s rounds of discovery, reexamination, and revision.
This is where the big ideas come from. All scientific discoveries, medical breakthroughs, hit songs and great books are products of the creative process. Really, when you stand back and look at it, the creative process is those four parts of starting—imagining, thinking, deciding and acting—over and over again.
It takes our ideas to their best finishes and it cultivates new ideas, next level epiphanies, and shows us the way to bring them to life.
5. Acting on our ideas is the best of who we are.
Each idea we have is formed by our unique interests, histories, and passions. Acting on our ideas is how we show ourselves to ourselves; it’s how we leave ourselves in the world.
Even if an idea ends up different than we planned, even if we decide it’s something we don’t like, or something that doesn’t work or something that deserves less attention than we thought—it’s still a thrilling part of us.
“Acting on our ideas is how we show ourselves to ourselves.”
Say, for example, you’re inspired to start a donkey rescue and you never begin it. Well, you’re just a person with a charming idea. But if you begin that idea, if you take action, you’d start by learning about donkeys. You might tell a friend, and maybe that friend would bring you a donkey they found—maybe you’d name him Pete, take him to your house, and learn what he likes for breakfast.
And then, six months later, when your roommate says, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t sign up for sharing our back porch with a donkey,” you might pull the plug on your idea, before you even rescue your second donkey. But now, you are a person who rescued a donkey and lived with a donkey and knows more about donkey rescues than 99.9 percent of people on the planet. Does that sound like failure? I don’t think so.
Whether we want to make a donkey rescue, a children’s book, or a taco truck, moving the idea out of our heads and into the world is an exhilarating act of expression and self-exploration.
We are not the sum of our missed opportunities or the unfinished projects we decide to call failures. Nor are we made only of our big wins, the few things that turned out just like we wanted. We are the sum of the imaginings we ignite and our ideas acted upon, the things we believe in enough to give them a shot.
We are the sum of our starts.
To listen to the audio version read by author Becky Blades, download the Next Big Idea App today: