The End of Closure

I finally stopped looking for closure, because it doesn’t exist.

I was having a conversation with a good friend yesterday. She is, like me, type A — driven, passionate, motivated, outspoken, unlikely to stop to breathe. I respect her a lot, and I always take her advice very seriously. But yesterday she said something that made me unreasonably upset.

We were discussing our attitudes towards long-term projects and the inevitable distractions that come in our careers. She spoke about some of her current work and some of her current challenges, and she mentioned that she is sometimes reluctant to say yes to new projects. I asked why, thinking it was time constraints or a lack of interesting work.

Her next words resonated with me:

“I’m great at the start but I never finish.”

At this point I stopped in my tracks, because those were words I had spoken before. For years that was my self-definition: full of energy and ideas, but lacking in execution. I had desperately wanted to measure myself by my output, not by my motivations. I knew that good intentions were just that: intentions. I beat myself up whenever a project was incomplete, when I didn’t ship something, when my voice went unheard, when nothing changed. Hearing her speak those words, I was filled with empathy.

Then she said:

“There’s a sense of closure we all innately crave.”

Suddenly, everything clicked. Closure. That was the ugly word. The ultimate limiting factor. The delusion that somehow our work ends, that the product can be delivered, tied up neatly and perfectly, and then abandoned.

That was the punchline: Wanting eventual closure was what kept her from starting anything at all.

Here’s what I have learned about closure after countless attempts to find it. Believing in it is dangerous. Seeking it is a way of escaping fear instead of accepting it. And nothing has ever gotten better because I “got closure” — not for me, and not for anyone involved.

Let me tell you what else I know.

Closure is too often an excuse to make a mistake.

Closure is why people call their exes when they’re in town. Closure is why people send angry emails when they leave a job. Closure is why people make any number of bad decisions.

In the mind of this type of closure-seeker, time is clearly divided into two segments: Before Closure and After Closure. During Before Closure, there is internal mental strife — they have too many feelings, too much confusion, too few answers. During After Closure, the clouds break and sunlight pours through. Problems dissolve, solutions present themselves, and the closure-seeker receives a clean bill of health and a mental blank slate.

Here’s how time is actually divided: Before Mistake and After Mistake. Before the mistake, you haven’t done or said anything you can’t take back. After the mistake, it’s too late.

A lot of the time, we even know in our gut we’re making a mistake before we even follow through. Objectively, it’s probably obvious. We do things that we would explicitly tell our friends or family not to do. But when we do those same things for the “sake of closure,” somehow it makes sense to us.

Why do we so often make mistakes when we seek closure? It’s because we’re making decisions based on bad assumptions. And if you make any business or relationship decision based on a bad assumption — this person is trustworthy, this market is huge, this company is solvent — you’re probably going to make a mistake, and one that’s difficult to reverse.

So why is “closure” based on bad assumptions? Because…

Closure requires a narrative that you made up.

As my friend alluded to, humans are innately drawn to closure in the context of a narrative. Narratives have a beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning, there was an opportunity or problem. In the middle, there was struggle, learning, change. And in the end, you received closure.

That narrative structure makes for a great story. But stories aren’t real.

Stories are a creation of humans, not of nature. We tell them to others, but more often we tell them to ourselves. The story of our job, the story of our relationships, the story of our lives. There was a beginning — “I started a project.” There was a middle — “I struggled at my project.” Then there was an end — “I quit my project,” or “I completed my project.

One of those is a story of triumph. One of those is a story of defeat. But both of those stories are completely made up.

Why do we so badly need our lives to make a great story? Because we see shelves full of biographies. Because we want to have a compelling resume. Because stories are how we understand the world around us and how we know we are understood.

But a story that means something to us doesn’t mean the same thing to others — and ending that story doesn’t mean the same thing either. “Getting closure” with an ex only brings closure to the story you told yourself about your relationship. What do you really know about the story they tell themselves? What about your friends — the ones who told you that you were crazy? “Oh, they just didn’t know the whole story…”

When you seek closure, what you really want is a way to move on — not just because you need to end a story, but because you want to start writing yet another one. You’re trying to close one book just so you can open another. But you alone are writing all of these made up stories, and only you are responsible for the mistakes you make while trying to finish them. And guess what?

Closure is never the end.

Many of my friends are entrepreneurs, and many of my friends are writers. I’m convinced the entrepreneurs are more obsessed with narrative.

When they go to raise money, they’re telling the story of their company. When they sell to customers, they’re telling the story of the product. When they justify their decision to quit their jobs to their friends and family, they’re telling the story of their life mission.

Many of these same entrepreneurs start believing all these narratives they tell, and they keep looking for closure. “When I raise my Series A, then I’ll know I’ve made it.” “When we hit $10M in revenue, then I’ll know we’ve found traction.” “When we IPO, then I can relax.”

And every time, without fail, the end is never the end.

You do a disservice to yourself, your family, your friends, your employees, your customers, whenever you try to live your own narrative and works towards an end. It’s not the end for them! It’s not the end for your company Your closure isn’t theirs!

Imagine planning your whole life around the narrative of marriage and finally reaching your wedding day. Finally, you have closure on a lifetime of dating struggles and gross bars.

Except now you’re married, and you have another fifty-plus years ahead of you. Maybe your spouse’s story didn’t end at marriage, but yours did. These mismatched narratives are inevitably going to cause problems. You may find yourself writing a new story you never wanted to tell.

Imagine being an entrepreneur and planning your company’s trajectory around the eventual IPO — except now it needs to exist for the next hundred years, and guess what, you’re still running it. Your employees certainly aren’t ready for the narrative to end, especially the ones for whom the story is just beginning.

Your need for closure relies on the end ever being the end. And it isn’t, and it will never be. There’s no true stories, no beginnings and no ends — just a series of decisions that you hope aren’t mistakes. You owe this to yourself and the people who depend on you: stop telling yourself stories and stop looking for closure.

So closure is a myth, and seeking closure hurts. What now?

I’m not telling you all of this to scare you or shame you. I certainly don’t want you to end up like my friend — afraid to start a project, a company, a fulfilling relationship.

But if you don’t start something, it shouldn’t be because you don’t know how it will end or because you don’t trust yourself to complete it. It shouldn’t be because of fear. It should be because you know the truth about closure.

Some things are worth struggling for, but remember that nothing ever ends. Nothing stops moving or changing. You can’t force the world to stand still or follow your narrative.

You’re here to try things, not to finish them. Stop looking for closure, and you might actually find success.

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