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Not Failures, Just Currently Uncompleted Projects

alanhylands profile image Alan Hylands Originally published at ・4 min read

The Boneyard Of Unfinished Projects.

Overgrown, Unloved and Populated By Shame.

We've all been there. Haven't we?

I read a fine article about never finishing anything by Scottish writer and designer James Greig. The article, in turn, prompted a very good Hacker News comment page which really brought home the impact the associated feelings of shame have wrought on so many people.

(James Greig has a very readable blog with a lot of articles chronicling his difficulties with career burnout and depression amongst other things and is well worth a read, in and of itself.)

Where did it all go wrong?

This article about never finishing anything particularly resonated with me for obvious reasons.

Like most developers/designers/writers/creatives (delete as applicable), I could fill a skip with the number of started-but-not-finished projects I’ve accumulated or jettisoned over the years.

Websites without number, affiliate sites, content sites, e-commerce sites, this blog a number of times. Software projects like the football betting predictor (again several different iterations, none of them brought to market), plans for a football management game, the Cosa Nostra gangster game, the series of data science/analytics articles, the countless novels, the business style books, the book about England’s one cap football wonders.

Sometimes to look at the list of never-was, it seems like I never actually bothered my arse getting to the finish line on anything. Once the first flush of excitement was off on a project then it ultimately got consigned to the project graveyard. It might have taken an hour, a day, a week, a month, 6 months but ultimately it all wound up the same.

There is a distinct sense of impending doom that the perfection anxiety brings that leads to this. What if people laugh at me? What if they tell me it’s (read: I’m) no good? Mix in a healthy dose of imposter syndrome at any time and it’s a lethal cocktail.

Are we being too hard on ourselves?

One of the Hacker News comments about James’s article got it right though.

It’s better to frame these “failures” as being projects you haven’t finished yet rather than projects you didn’t finish. I know that I need to see small successes along the way and force myself to keep the momentum going. We just need to remind ourselves of that early enough on to not derail things when the going gets tough. And by tough I mean when the actual hard work of real creation begins.

There is an overriding fear of failure that I’ll cover more deeply at another time but it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The “project that never was” is no less of a failure than one poorly executed and ridiculed by peers. In fact it's more so.

Looking at the wins, not the perceived losses column

I have, of course, finished a great many projects.

I started State of the Game as a means of getting my football writing out into the world. It grew and grew, brought me into contact with a lot of interesting characters and got me the opportunity to write professionally for and the New York Times Company.

I got back into e-commerce after a long time away to help grow Liz's Lockets. Simple Analytical has brought me into contact with a lot of really good analysts and data scientists already. We have to credit the wins, however small they may appear in the grand scheme.

Launching a very small, "inspired by Hello Dolly" Wordpress plugin may not seem like something worth shouting about. Physically chalking it up in my wins column this month made it worth writing a blog post about building my first Wordpress plugin. It builds confidence for moving on to bigger projects with more at stake.

Good things happen when we ship, even if the first version is a little rough around the edges. We all need some small wins to get us moving along the path to the bigger ones.

Finish that first draft even if you think it reads like a hot mess. It's not called the vomit draft for nothing. Get it out, start to polish it in the second draft and see how far it's come. This applies equally well to web and software projects as well as art or writing.

What changed?

I'm no spring chicken these days which is maybe why my attitude has changed so much recently. Forty approaches and while it's not old (well...), it's not young either. That old clock is always ticking.

More than that, I want something to look back on to show myself I didn't just sit and vegetate creatively through all of my "prime" years. Working the day job and building a career is great but I think we all need something more beyond that. Something you can show off without being tied into corporate NDAs for a start.

When push comes to shove, we all need to Just Fucking Ship as the inimitable Amy Hoy puts it.

I take a lot of motivation from Amy's attitude. You really should too.

(Originally posted on

Discussion (7)

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dechamp profile image

great post! I love how both on James Greig and your, that the links to show projects, led to dead pages. It's a great example of how we mean to have concrete creations of our ideas, but they seems to always slip through the cracks.

I came over from your comment on my post 25 years of coding, and I'm just beginning. Thank you for taking the time to read mine as well and leaving insightful comment. I would reply to is, but unfortunately the comment replies are broken :/. I've reported it. Thanks again, I look forward to your future post.

alanhylands profile image
Alan Hylands Author • Edited

How embarrassing. Wordpress let me see the Projects page as if it was live when I tested the link even though it was still in draft. "Keep Learning" is my own self-advice for this weekend... :-D

dechamp profile image

Oh my bad. I thought it was a on going joke, you meant to do.

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alanhylands profile image
Alan Hylands Author

Now I wish it was!

codingmindfully profile image
Daragh Byrne

The processs of being engaged with work and taking satisfaction in the activity itself is worth way more in the long run than the project outcome itself. Outcomes are rarely exactly what you set out to achieve, so aiming for maximum flexibility and enjoyment makes sense. Waste is inevitable so there is no point in frustration.

Ironically though by taking this view, exercising patience and chipping away at it, you’ll end up getting a heap of things done in the long run!

alanhylands profile image
Alan Hylands Author

Can take a long time to learn that lesson Daragh but you're spot on. In the immortal words of Aerosmith "Life's a journey, not a destination" and the "failures" I talked about all built skills and knowledge to help with the big wins. Waste is indeed inevitable but no experience is ever really wasted.

codingmindfully profile image
Daragh Byrne

“No experience is never really wasted” - bingo