There’s hope for your unfinished project

How many passion projects have you set aside? I’ve got an idea that will help us all finish those abandoned projects when passion alone isn’t cutting it

Illustration by Emily Du

A new year gives us an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve accomplished in the past twelve months, and what we have not. As someone who celebrates both the solar and lunar calendars, I get extra time to do this, in my own morbid way:

If I were to die tomorrow, I think, what would I be leaving behind? Memories shared with friends and family, a bunch of material goods, a decent 401K, and the most elusive of all, the half dozen projects or ideas I’ve left unfinished or unexplored.

The half dozen projects are a jumble: one is a family cookbook, another is an infographic that explores what our TV preferences say about who we are, there’s an audio story about my friend who delivered a baby on a transpacific flight, a series of short animations featuring people’s rituals before they go to sleep, a fictional writing project I can’t describe succinctly, and a look into the dark edges of academic science.

Something they all have in common? They are probably not getting done anytime soon.

I know I’m not alone. Friends and former colleagues have commiserated with me over being stuck and putting projects aside. Whether it’s building a car from scratch or writing a comic book, I’d bet there are millions of projects out there with owners who badly want to, but just can’t seem to get these projects done.

I’m interested in solving this.

Let’s begin with why, as in, why do I start a creative project super psyched, bright-eyed and pure of heart, talk about it to a dozen people, maybe even do 95% of the actual work, only to abandon it? A few reasons that come to mind:

  • No clear definition–– I’m having trouble defining a next step because it’s kind of hazy all around; there are so many potential directions in which the project could go, and frankly, I’m avoiding the hard work that goes into weighing options, and finally committing to one.
  • Too difficult — The next step in the project is laborious, mind-numbing, or expensive like transcribing 10 hours of audio, reading hundreds of pages of reports, or confronting a skill I don’t have at the moment like Python or water coloring.
  • No accountability–– When no one’s waiting for it, and I’m not getting paid to do it, well, it’s easy to de-prioritize. Also true if it’s not time-sensitive or essential to my portfolio or where I am in my career.
  • Life — Something more important comes up, and then something else, and then another thing. The momentum has died.

It’s also helpful to consider the projects I have gone on to complete so I can more fully answer what makes the difference. The two that stand out are an audio story about a professional cuddle therapist named Travis, and Make America Dinner Again (MADA), a volunteer-run organization that brings together people of different political viewpoints over dinner with the aim to build understanding.

What contributed to these projects getting done?

  • Heartbreak–– After I had been dumped, back in 2010, I decided I was going to climb out of the well of self-pity and put my energy and time toward a creative endeavor. I was determined to produce an audio story with no real experience except many hours spent listening to This American Life and Radiolab. After the 2016 election, my heart ached for a different reason. I felt distraught by the hate and distrust people felt toward one another and fearful of what a Trump presidency would bring. I used that as fuel to create MADA. When it comes to creating, heartbreak has been good to me. In fact, I feel a little bit sorry for anyone who has never had their heart broken, but that’s a blog post for another time.
  • A co-creator–– Sure, heartbreak was the impetus, but when it came to the actual making, both projects required a partner. For the audio story, I worked with my friend Mary; she handled all the sound editing and helped me develop the narrative. As for MADA, I recruited my friend Tria on day one to build out the vision. We’re now two years in with 40 dinners and six chapters under our belts. We tackled difficult roadblocks, held each other accountable, and kept things fun. There’s no way I could have completed or moved forward with either project without an equal partner by my side. They were as invested in the outcome as I was.
  • A deadline–– Mary and I worked on the audio story for months, but really hustled and got it done just before we moved away from each other, to two different cities. MADA had an external push, too. In the months following the election, the country was hungry for positive stories. After MADA’s first dinner was covered by NPR, we received a flurry of media interest including a production company that wanted to film our next dinner. They told us they could send a crew in two weeks. The sense of urgency motivated us to stay the course when otherwise, we might have taken a break or been content with a single dinner.

Heartbreak is not something you can will into your life, but seeking the right co-creator and giving yourself a deadline are do-able.

Sometimes you get lucky and the co-creator is someone you already know and better yet, they have an incentive to help you out. This was the case for Alex Blumberg, CEO of Gimlet Media, who enlisted the help of his employee and friend Jonathan Goldstein. The premise of Jonathan’s podcast Heavyweight aligned perfectly with helping Alex get done a project he had neglected for 16 years. The full story is worth listening to.

Other times, making strides in your project requires a supportive community and the promise of mimosas. “Deadline by Fire” was a monthly potluck brunch featuring one ambitious artist sharing the next major iteration of their work. Each gathering featured a facilitator and event host as well as 5 friends of the artist and 5 strangers willing to be present and give feedback. Jared, a friend of a friend, started this event series because he believed the best way to help his friends achieve was to light a fire under them and create the stakes himself.

Not everyone has these communities at the ready. There are people who take their project ideas and needs to the public, enlisting help on Craigslist or bulletin boards at cafés.

Heartbreak is not something you can will into your life, but seeking the right co-creator and giving yourself a deadline are do-able.

Considering my experiences and the makeshift solutions already out there, I believe there’s an opportunity for a product solely dedicated to helping people complete their passion projects. Here’s the idea:

An online marketplace where you can find and recruit brilliant people to get your passion project across the finish line either through direct consulting services and skills or by forming a small group that regularly meets to critique work.

The only requirement is that the project be creative, personal, and driven by passion, not profit. This is not a place to outsource work for your startup or get help rearranging furniture. There’s Fiverr and TaskRabbit for that. And this would not touch funding; Kickstarter and Indiegogo have that covered.

Illustration by Emily Du

I imagine this to be a place where people seek community and co-creators, specifically:

  • Meaningful, not menial work–– The marketplace would be a live catalog of what work matters to people. I see it being a place where freelancers flock to find work that invigorates them, aligns with their values, inspires their own projects.
  • New friends–– My hope is people will form genuine friendships around their projects and interests, or decide to work together again. Maybe you even come across someone with a similar project to yours and agree to merge efforts.
  • Source–– I can see outside organizations using the marketplace as a source for new ideas and content not to steal, hopefully, but as as a place to initiate conversation with a project creator for potential work, licensing agreements, partnerships, what have you. It could reveal to you your project’s commercial value, whether or not you pursue that route.

Building something like this will come with challenges. A handful of things I haven’t figured out yet:

  • Project types–– What types and scopes of work make sense for this? How do we help users clearly and accurately define the project and its scope?
  • Vetting and Matching–– How do we create a fair and uncomplicated system of vetting projects? And then how do we ensure a good match? Are we immediately using and improving on an algorithm like the dating apps?
  • Expectations–– The personal nature of the projects can make them harder to direct without emotion or very particular, sometimes unreasonable expectations getting in the way. How would we address unmet expectations? How are people left to feel when no one wants to help them with their project?
  • Inclusivity–– I want the marketplace to be inclusive of projects coming from curious and creative people of all backgrounds and income levels. I’d like to imagine a system that allows for bartering so folks who can’t afford to put money down, can still participate. I’d also like people who don’t identify as “creatives” to feel welcome.
  • Business Model–– I’d prefer not to get ahead of myself here, but I can only think of two pretty standard ways to monetize: take a cut off each successful match, and/or charge membership fees for certain features.

Eep, I have many unanswered questions, and that’s why I’m turning to you.

I’m looking for your gut reaction, intros, links, and interest in helping me with the next step: more research. I realize this is all very meta; this is essentially a passion project about passion projects, my bid here on Medium.com, a pared down version of the product I’m envisioning, but nonetheless, here I am asking for feedback. You can email me at justineraelee[at]gmail.com or comment below. If you appreciate this post, I encourage you to share it with people or “clap” by pressing on that clap icon to the left or below (it’s fun!)

Above all, I appreciate you taking the time to read this. I don’t know what will come of it, but it’s been fun to think about anyway. Extra special thanks to Tria Chang for being my extra pair of eyes and to Emily Du for the lovely illustrations.