Starting on Starting

How am I going to start this thing about starting?

I asked myself this very question countless times since given this assignment a few weeks ago. I thought about it while I drove, while pedaling to a measured beat on a bike to nowhere, while daydreaming in procrastination whilst doing some work (procrastinating via procrastinating, is that meta-procrastinating?). An unscientific estimate of the number of minutes I spent thinking about starting this piece about starting something: a million. Number of minutes spent actually starting it: zero. Unfortunately, taking that first step to get started isn’t an uncommon struggle for me.

Let me start by saying that I’m a great ideas gal, but I often get in my own way when getting them off the ground. For the last year or so, I have been in the process of setting up my own nonprofit consulting shop while working my “regular job.” I think about my new career adventure an awful lot. I’ve secured the simple things: an LLC status, a fancy planner with a business monogram so I can look very official. I have sought out advice about how to make this thing start and thrive. Yet, I have not done much to actually propel the work forward. I recently experienced a stretch of time during which I found myself vocalizing some complaints. The third or fourth time that someone asked me how I was doing and my response was a tired kvetch of what I wished I was doing, I realized that I was treading in that perilous space where discontent meets inaction.

There is something about that first step: that first key stroke while writing your ‘About Me’ on your fancy new website, that first cold call for a networking meeting that can inspire a kind of crippling case of inertia. And, with that, there is frequently an emergent chorus about the reasons not to start. There are a bunch of studies about how that the fear of failure can serve as a protective factor for some — if you’re afraid of what may possibly happen if you start, well, why start at all? Without that first step, you’re able to rest some sort of proverbial hat of “Had I really tried, I think I would have been great” — with no data to the contrary, how can it be disproven?

Each time I go to start something, that imaginary chorus pipes up again. But in light of identifying how stagnant things were, I’ve been actively working to turn down the volume in an effort to break things open. To do this, I’ve been re-referencing an old favorite. When I was writing my dissertation, I read Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott for the first time. I was particularly struck by her chapter on “Sh*tty First Drafts,” in which she advises people to let go of expectations and get something down. She writes:

People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated… Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it.

TL; DR? Just start. Beyond writing, there is a power in that first draft, in just getting started. From that first iteration comes data and feedback to drive the next. In my evaluation work, I often encourage my clients to adopt a pilot study approach or a formative evaluation before they focus on outcomes. This serves as a chance to try things out and generate feedback for reflection and necessary tweaking to ensure that the work reflects the intention and is aligned with the long-term goals. However, I realize I’m frequently hesitant to offer and apply that advice to my own process. While branching out, I have found that, although the points of feedback are different than, say, an annual review with a boss, they are constantly there, it’s just that the means by which to interpret and assess them are different and must be more intentional.

When we are looking through our singular, goal-driven lens it’s easy to get lost in the endpoint and losing sight of the roads that lead there. Sometimes it is as simple as the first step to spark a domino effect — and sometimes that first step leads you right into a dead end where you can dust it off, reset, and restart. All that matters though is that you make that first move, that you get down that first sh*tty draft.