Idea Debt: You probably have it (and how to ‘cure’ it)
If I said you had idea debt, would you roll your eyes and change the subject? Or shrug because you don’t know what idea debt is in the first place?
Allow me to explain.
Do you have a big creative project in store? Do you lie awake, thinking about what might go into it, what the characters or environment might look like, how it will touch the audience in a whole new way? Can you imagine what it will feel like to have this project under your belt, and what kind of effect it will have on your life?
Let me tell you about Forest Lords.
Forest Lords is a series of ten fantasy novels, each a 1000-page brick, about the epic adventures of Greenleaf Barksley, elf proletarian, and his journeys to attain the Golden Leaf and save his homeland from the scourge of the Curse of the Titaness Denox.
The thing is, none of this series exists—not even Forest Lords Volume One: The Elven Soul. There are binders and binders of “lore.” There are a hell of a lot of character designs (that look suspiciously similar to Elfquest characters).
There is the vivid, lively picture the putative author has in his head of how it’s going to feel to write a fantasy series that has everyone panting for the next book or movie or TV show.*
But there is no book. There is only Idea Debt.
*(As a matter of actual fact, there are no binders either. This concept was invented by Benjamin Frisch when he was a snotty teen to poke fun the massive Idea Debts being racked up by others he encountered in the comics scene.)
What is Idea Debt?
I got this term from Kazu Kibuishi when I interviewed him for Out on the Wire episode 7: Dark Forest. His name for the concept was new to me, but it solved a huge problem: what to call this struggle with creative sunk costs that I understand all too intimately. Here’s Kazu:
You have this dream, this idea, of this awesome thing for years you think, oh I’m going to do this epic adventure. And it’s going to be so great. And the truth is, no matter what you do, it will never be as great as it as it is in your mind. So you’re really setting yourself up for failure in some ways.
I used to go snowboarding a lot of times in the winter. And I used to like hitting all the jumps. And when I would go down the mountain, I would notice a bunch of young snowboarders who were waiting at the top of the jumps. They may look like they’re waiting their turn. But in fact, that they’re waiting there because they’re actually kind of afraid to hit that jump. And what they don’t realize is that over time, they’re getting colder, they’re physically getting colder. The idea debt of having to make that jump and land it and be impressive is getting greater. So that by the time they actually do it, they’re probably not going to fulfill that dream.
And so one thing I learned is to just hit the jump or just pass it. Just do it in the moment. Or not at all. And so you can move on and wait for the next time.
I try not to to look at the thing I’m going to do as being this amazing great grand thing. Because if I do that, I will probably not achieve what I’m trying to do. It would be like looking at the sun.
Idea Debt is when you spend too much time picturing what a project is going to be like, too much time thinking about how awesome it will be to have this thing done and in the world, too much time imagining how cool you will look, how in demand you’ll be, how much money you’ll make. And way too little time actually making the thing.
- You tell 15 friends about your screenplay idea, but devote zero time in your week to facing the blank screen.
- You buy a domain name, spend weeks or months researching and reading up on how to build a website, but you don’t actually install WordPress.
- You’ve got a drawer full of half-finished stories and novels and a to-do list item every week that reads, “work on writing.”
- You’ve read 15 free online guides to blogging, built three editorial calendars, have notes on a dozen posts, but you haven’t gone live with your blog.
- You have “binders of lore” and no book.
…you’re living with serious Idea Debt.
I’ve seen so many students struggle for years with Idea Debt. Carrying that debt crippled them. They were beholden to their 12-year-old selves, who had imagined their grown-up future selves as famous manga authors with 40-volume series under their belts.
But they did not have the tools yet to actually make the work happen. And so they invested more and more into this grand idea, making it less and less likely that they’d ever be able to pay it off.
They had binders of lore.
If you recognize yourself, you are definitely not alone. There’s nothing crazy about having Idea Debt. It’s the most natural thing to result when you have big creative ideas, but no real plan for working towards making them happen.
Perfectionism and “The Gap”
What Kazu’s mainly talking about is perfectionism.
Kazu later tweeted, “If I knew I would write/draw 9 volumes before starting Amulet, not sure I would have started. Glad I did!” Of course he’s right. Avoiding Idea Debt is about acting before you think too much and get overwhelmed by how hard, and how important your project feels. That’s what Kazu meant. Take the jump.
So many people let perfectionism stop them. You picture how great the thing will be, and then you think about how inadequate your current skills are, and then you stop. Well, guess what? If you don’t try to make the thing, even with your current skill set, and learn to live with the difference between what you imagine and what you are now capable of, you will never become capable of bigger, better things. It’s humbling, but the flipside is that, if you’re willing to live with what you see as your shortcomings—or better, to just ignore them and keep moving forward—you will eventually bridge that gap between you-of-now and future-you, the creator of your dream project.
Radio producer Ira Glass has this to say about the Gap:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is a gap. For the first couple years you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. You know what I mean? You can tell that it’s still sort of crappy.
A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people, at that point, they quit.
Most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste, they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted to be. They knew that it fell short.
And if you are just starting out or you are entering this phase, you gotta know it’s totally normal and the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re gonna finish one story.
It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up, and close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.
Look, it took me longer to figure out how to do this than anybody I’ve ever met. It takes a while. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while.
You’ve just gotta fight your way through that.
Take the jump, or skip it
There’s another kind of Idea Debt, represented by the second part of Kazu’s snowboarding analogy. “Just take the jump, or skip it.” What happens when you carry Idea Debt for too long, and your life moves on, is that your idea hangs on like an albatross. You can’t move on to new, exciting, more mature work, because you promised yourself you’d finish this thing.
This is called the Sunk Costs Fallacy. You have what feels like a great idea at some point in your life, and then you grab onto it with a death grip, making notes and dreaming about it for years, until it takes over your imaginary space. But you never step back and think: is this really, still, a project I want to be doing?
Even if you’re extremely productive, you can have Idea Debt. There are only so many hours in a week, and you have to make choices.
We are weighed down by old ideas
If we don’t really, truly shake free of them, some part of our brains are devoted to processing on them at all times, and make it impossible to think clearly about what we should devote our time and energy to now.
I’ve carried a huge amount of Idea Debt. But I’m thinking it’s about time to dump it. So many of the projects on my “someday/maybe” list belong to other, earlier versions of me, not the me of today.
- Screenplay of one of my books? 2007. No one is asking for it, and I haven’t been in that headspace since at least 2009.
- Ebook series of my unpublished YA novel? 2006. Does that mean I’d have to actually read it again?
- Sequel in a series? 2009. After the first one didn’t work? Why would I do that to myself?
- Literary graphic novel idea? That one has been hanging around since 1998 or so.
The moment I made the conscious choice to fully, permanently abandon those ideas, I recovered huge reserves of brain capacity. It became possible for me to fully focus on the work that fires up the me-of-today. And that instantaneously upped the likelihood that I’ll complete that work, and I’ll put it into the world. That’s the power of choosing.
You’ve grown up. You’ve changed. And all those old ideas you keep returning to and investing more in just because you feel like you ought to—I mean, they’re your ideas! They need care and feeding!—when you kick them all out of the house, you’ll recover massive amounts of psychic energy. And that energy is what you will focus on the one thing you actually do want to be doing, right now.
Is Idea Debt dragging you down? Is it time to cast it off and move forward with new work?
If you’re ready to double down and finish a project that will take you to the next level…
The Creative Focus Workshop can help.
Take concrete steps to move forward with your work. Read the whole series: Are you letting thinking about your creative projects hold you back? Set One Goal and kickstart your creative work into gear. Identify all the Open Loops that are stopping you cold, and then break down your big project into Granular action steps. Finally, recognize that taking care of your creative process is the best kind of self care, and do a Review.
You can find an expanded version of this article, as well as the accompanying activities, in my book, Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life.
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This is so spot on! I definitely face a wall of ideas from time to time that keep me from pursuing anything at all. And I don’t even want to know how much time I wasted on procrastinating an idea to death. It is so tough to realize when to let an idea go because you were only attracted to the thought of working on that idea.
For the longest time I wanted to work for big animation studios. I wanted to work on their feature films. It got to the point where I didn’t allow myself to create anything at all that wasn’t going to get me into Disney or Pixar. Eventually I realized just how happy I was writing and drawing my comics and doing it in a style that came naturally to me. And all of a sudden these heavy weights lifted from my shoulders.
Thanks, Maike! I feel the same way with projects that I imagined and fiercely planned with every intention of doing them…because they were going to lead me to a goal that I no longer have! (and there are a LOT of these projects.) When I realize that I don’t actually want what those projects would (or might) result in, and I let them go, it’s like…do you ever have dreams where you open a door in your apartment, and there’s a whole new room there? And you’re like, oh my god, this is so great, now I can set up a huge painting studio, or move all the kids’ junk here, or build a big new kitchen, or whatever…? Or is that only me… Anyway, that’s what it feels like.
I’m going to print this out and put it on my wall next to my work desk, because wow did I ever need to read this. I definitely have a problem with turning my grand ideas into a reasonable, workable project and it’s nice to hear that I’m far from the only one!
That was a great read 🙂
I’ve been facing something like that myself recently – a bunch of ideas for digital paintings with a folder of reference and mood images for each one (all 11 of them). Just a few days ago I decided to knuckle down and start working through all of them methodically, at the same time, because it wasn’t good having all these ideas grand banking up without actually completing any of them!
Now I know a name for this phenomenon 😀
I really enjoyed this. Last year I started considering how I’d wanted to do so many things and hadn’t had the time. Suddenly my days off became mine and I sat around making lists (terrible habit) and reading books I’d already read. In between immersing myself in some other reality I realized
That I was just making up world’s in my head instead of changing my own environment. I started a garden, restored furniture, painted stuff. It was very therapeutic and I think it saved me from being a total curmudgeon artist. It also took me back to a time when I could do whatever came to mind without over thinking it. As my painting teacher said for years, “don’t be precious about it.” Sorry my comment was cut in half.
Yes, god yes. So true. A few years ago I started a webcomic based on one of the dream projects I had held on to for almost 20 years; it had started as a novel, morphed into a play at one point, then a graphic novel, and so on and so on. Then once I actually started doing it, I lost interest – or more accurately, I was no longer very interested in that idea I had when I was 22.
Keep up the good work, Ms. Abel. I enjoyed the podcast and have been a fan of your stuff since the days of mini-comics in the 90s.
Oh my god! I thought it was just ME. All those ideas I have squirreled away on my Google Drive, just waiting their like patient children, waiting for me to foster them. And every time I set out to do work, I’m weighed down by not the ideas, but the IDEA of the ideas – the unfulfilled potential they all represent, each one a shining gem I should be polishing – and I’m off the track of producing and down a road of lament, regret, and distraction. Sometimes, just sometimes, I’m able to use that debt as an Idea Forest, and chop it down for supplies, intermingling disparate ideas into one cohesive narrative. But now, right now, it’s just debt. I simply need to move forward and log some hours in the Production Bank and not looking back all the time, lamenting future nevers that haven’t even happened yet.
One of the best posts I’ve ever read, anywhere. Resonated on a level that’s not even funny.
Thus was a pretty accurate summary of the very problem I’m facing. And many others I know too. I can never understand how others can keep the motivation for what they know will be a long term project.
My big project involves an expansive fantasy steampunk series that has required so much research and careful thought (including for future books that are linked to it) that I have written ten times more notes than I have pages in the book!
But I hope now that having a name for this and a better understanding will help me to overcome it. Thank you, for putting into words exactly what I’m sure so many others feel.
“Like patient children” – such an apt phrase! It’s hard to realize they are still just the idea of children.
The grand book. The short story I started in the 80’s. The website reviewing cloud-based apps (I do have binders of lore on that one). The Etsy shop. You have me pegged. I’ll be re-reading this a few times.
There isn’t idea debt, there is a lack of talent architecture work engaged in by the creator leading to poor choices in focus delivering results that don’t shine and command attention.
I kinda gotta therefore respectfully disagree. Your talent architecture contains the transcription of all your ideas, good, bad and neutral. You do not have to write them all, but it is crucial, essential and elemental that you allow them manifestation to a certain level of structure so you can progress to the authentic work you are best at doing after judging from greater objectivity afforded by greater detail improving germane, objective analysis of one’s own body of work.
How are your going to onionskin your originality and greatest meme contribution otherwise?
There your find your original voice, original point of view, and of paramount import – the most valuable and important cultural memes you will ever contribute to your domain. These are not the things that make you rich of famous by default, although they can assist mightily. These are the things that make you an important creator contributing to culture, irrespective of the number of likes, reviews or dollars or fantoys.
This is maximum authenticity, and the ring of truth sells, and when you are selling the truth, you are never selling out. Pedestrian truths, which culture is bogged down by, characterized herein as idea debt, are actually the path to creator betterment. People simply do not apply the right tools to their talent and creativity, and the result appears as idea debt, when it is really an artistic ability refinement process in a form creators simply are not aware of because the tools are so new and require deeper commitment and administration of creativity instead of the sexy, feel good stuff creators addict their egos to.
To not do this work leads to that lingering sentiment after that of, “I kinda wish I hadn’t written that, because I could have been working on (this more exciting, vital and authentic work) something better.”
But you can’t have that thought in hindsight and be happy with the way your career is turning out. And, the inauthenticity shows in the dollars and days.
This is an aspect of what I do when I am fame consulting among other things. Getting people into maximum creativity, which is not found in production, or in imagination, but in your talent architecture, is the most important aspect of your creativity and if you take care of your creativity, your creativity takes care of your fame.
Not everyone who is artistic though, would undertake this additional workload for their creative career because the payoff is later rather than sooner. So they chase stars and have mediocre results at best.
However, were they to undertake an authentic fame architecture, the internal as well as extrinsic (what society values: revenue, acclaim and the like) – with an astonishing lack of unwisely spent money on PR – metrics coupled with rich life money cannot buy due to discovery through creativity most meaningful to you, you can have it all.
The Lone Comic TM
Defender of Creativity and Entertainment SM
In 1994, I vanity-published two issues of a space-opera talking-animals comic. I’ve been planning to get back to that comic for 22 years. It’s gone through so many revisions and iterations (the animals don’t talk? hard SF? social justice themes?), often ending up by sucking the fun out of it or loading more onto it than the original premise can bear. As much as I seem to want to make the comic, I never seem to actually get there. Now, after reading your article, I just want to blow that cat and frog out the airlock.
Wow is all I can say. As so many others noted they thought they where the only ones with unfinished ideas. I have been kicking around a screen play and short stories for years but still haven’t even touched them. I think they had there due and I finish them.
This is so me! Only this year, after years of ideas and scratched to do lists of ideas have I finally took “baby steps” of posting to my blog every week, writing a scene for the book and focusing efforts instead of the monster NOVEL OF MY LIFE weighing over me, paralyzing me. This post was awesome and helped me realize what a waste the chronic planning is.
Thank you for writing this. I had not heard this term before either, and it fits too well. Feeling not alone is a big step to recovery.
It’s great how you have pulled this huge concept into a small chunk to be digested *smile*. Good job!
There is a name for it now, but the underlying idea is in fact not new. It has been around for centuries or even millenia, and it is called ‘taking action’ and ‘if you want a future you’d better create it’.
The point is: if you want something, really, truly, you will do it. Even if you don’t know how at the beginning. Even if you are scared. Action and reaction. Physical principle.
I am so tired of people who only say that they want to do something and then never get around to it. I have done it for years, myself. Sat around with ‘ideas’ and ‘wishes’, talked about how I would do that and that I really need to start, but never did. And these plans never came into the daylight.
But if you desire a consequence you need to start taking action. And if you don’t start, it is better to admit to yourself that this great idea that you have is not important to yourself that much. Because, corollary, if it was then you WOULD take action.
Sorry for the rant, you ticked off one of my push-buttons.
Well said! I definitely have this problem with my illustration work. I come up with so many different ideas for new projects that I’m paralysed when it comes to actually choosing one to work on, and every time I finish a project I flounder while I try and figure out which one I want to do next! I end up not creating any new work because I’m too busy thinking about what I could do!
Someone might have already mentioned this but Ze Frank coined the term “Brain Crack” for this situation waY back. YouTube it.
This post has really spoken to me, probably enough to make me cry inside and somewhat on the outside as well. Im just 20 years old but ive been doing this for as long as i can remember and i havent really pushed these ideas out into the world yet when what i needed to do was just that like you are saying. I had an idea, at age 14, which unfortunately involved me as a main character despite me hating doing that as much as my friends seem too. I not very self assured or have high self esteem but ive been building on that these past years. The idea essentially was supposed to represent me as a older, stronger, cooler guy at 17. Short story shorter, Im average height not that fit, at least im cool not that that matters to my future in, my opinion. I set myself up for disappointment and now i wanna change that and Stop making my 6 or 7 series’ each with planned sequels. About time i focus on creating these comics etc and stop conceptualizing. Thank You Jessica.
Yes, yes, most emphatically YES! I could never grasp why I could crank out fantastic art when it was someone else’s project (have in turns been a graphic designer, illustrator and tattoo artist) but when it came time to work on my projects I always crashed and burned. This escalated into a kind of artistic nervous breakdown where I did a 180*, joined the military and became an avionics technician. I continued to doodle but put every creative project on the backburner for 6 years.
I finally began to grok the issue when I came down with a mystery illness that baffled my doctors and threatened my life; very quickly I had to brush up on mol bio and bio chem (my background is in physics) and in seemingly no time at all worked out a protocol and methodology that has saved my bacon and is now helping other people.
Nothing quite like a brush with death to light a fire under your ass…..it became apparent that I was capable of producing a volume of creative work when I didn’t have the luxury of *over thinking*.
I’m out of the military and drawing a comic, not necessarily the comic I always wanted to draw (at this point that comic has evolved past the bounds of established physical reality) but
I am having a great time with what I am doing *now*.
Great article, thanks!
Jessica, but there is a book suspiciously similar to the one you described: Malazan Book of the Fallen 😉
As you may be aware, there is a discussion on Hacker News on your post: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11027684
Congrats for a nice write-up!
I used to have ideas on a to-do list, but it was torturing me (especially as it takes a few orders of magnitude to come up with an idea, however elaborate, than to do it; and doing it is also a reality check – some things seam clever until you start doing it and meeting contradictions).
Now it is a separate list (a plain text file, always open) with heading “n-th priority ideads”. And I try to keep no regret for not doing things.
For doing, as cheap as it may sound “just do it”. As I heard from one writer “Imperfect books have one advantage: they exist”. (At least for me perfectionism is the prime reason for delaying such projects.)
Advice from a friend of mine, when I was delaying (for 2 years) writing a quantum game (http://quantumgame.io, coming this March!): “the only thing you lack is sitting on your ass and writing code”. She was right.
Also, one of my write ups:
“If you have a great project, do moonlight. Don’t wait for better times, because they won’t come. Maybe you overstate the need of money, institutional support or social confirmation?” from http://crastina.se/theres-no-projects-like-side-projects
this is exactly me! spot on!
Oh, as if it was only one item floating in my debt collection.
My debt is colourful. Full with exciting ideas and projects… Some I’ve even tested and helped raise off the ground.
Nowhere on the internet have I found a piece like this that resonates with something that I started to feel intuitively now- the cumulative power of all the items in my idea debt have burdened me despite being unable to notice. It is a sense of desperately holding on to something that should in fact be transitory.
Not only that holding to old ideas can drain energy, but it can prevent new ideas from surfacing every once in a while. This is also true for old projects that didn’t took off. The best thing is maybe to let go and move on.
Working on my ideas now, in the present, a lot more is being done. And I will give myself time for dreaming only when the to-do of today is being met. Until then I will dream only through my ongoing project, and preferably, my daily tasks.
That was a really great article!
Succinct, yet with a lot of resonance for me.
Wouldn’t ‘execution-debt’ (caused by idea-excess) be a better suited term?
The issuer is spending ‘future execution’ on an idea.
Completely true. My brother and now sons have this pattern of just making shit without thinking about it. I envy them. It may come out now so amazing in the first iteration but its built and works. I think this is just a better way to go to just make stuff, not caring if its perfectly architected or thought through, just the act of creation and having something exists, let’s you know if its a good direction and can be perfected at a later time.
Sadly, I have been a vicitm of idea debt. As a young developer I had a grande vision of starting an online network of websites. I spent a solid month planning them all out, designing the logos and everything. Needless to say, when I showed the work to my boss he was less than impressed that I put off client work to plan our company’s world domination.
I still have all the logos 🙂
Wow, this really hit home. I have been collecting material for an unfinished project for nearly 10 years. It was a documentary, then a blog, now a podcast. Because it’s real people and real lives I feel beholden to it and the truth is I want to keep an interest in the subject because it is important to me. I think I got wrapped up in the Fear and paralysis of making something great from day one and instead of working I bought a moleskin and filled it. I’ve recently enjoyed turning it back into a hobby and maybe it’s a way to beat the fear and just have fun with it? Wonderful article, thank you.
It’s 3 pm in New Delhi. I have been lying in bed all day dreaming about a fantastic project I will undertake and how I will be recognised for the great talent I am. I will earn so much from this one project that I can travel finally! That I can exude confidence wherever I go.
This has been my routine for the past two months. I am the queen of “Idea Rot”. Randomly came across this article and I feel maybe there is some hope. I might as well go down and sit in front my desk. Make something!
It’s the “shoulds” that are the real issue – the idea that there is any actual, ideal thing we should be doing. It’s all a choice!
Thank you, Michael!
dooooo iiiiiit. There is always another cat and frog to take their place. Ideas beget ideas.
Absolutely. OR! imagine yourself as an awesome 50-year-old and write THAT story.
wow– great story! Nothing motivates like life actually happening to us.
Yes, with one key difference: that book (series) actually EXISTS.
Hm. Possibly more accurate (I’m not sure). But with the distinct disadvantage of being way too easily misunderstood.
I have a lot of ideas for blogs, webcomics, and stories. I’ve wanted to make lots of them for over 3 years now, and there are tons that I’ve forgotten altogether or lost interest in because I wanted to wait just a little bit longer to improve before I started. But I always feel like my art and my writing isn’t good enough to do my ideas justice. But I’m getting there. I hope. The problem is that these ideas and these ambitions are always right around the corner, and I drive myself crazy telling myself to improve more, because then I don’t feel like I’m good enough to be doing anything and I fall into a slump. I’ve been trying so hard to break the habit, but sometimes even forcing myself to do it doesn’t work.
Very impressive and inspiring! Thank you so much!
I used to struggle with this a lot more than I still currently do. I’d come up with cool ideas (and believe me, they were cool!) but never seem to have/make time to work on them. I didn’t want to put the ideas down, because they were so interesting.
One thing that helped me a lot was to recognize this “idea debt” (although I didn’t call it that, back then) and then, because I still didn’t want to lose the idea, I would write it down in enough detail to be able to pull it back into my brain later, and then stash that note in my “ideas” folder. Then I felt safe dropping the idea from my brain. Over the years that idea folder has gotten pretty big, and every so often I’ll skim through it, just for fun. Normally I realize half the ideas were rubbish.
I don’t think I will, but if I ever do get into a low spot and can’t think of something creative, I can always pull out my “idea folder” and see if there’s anything in there to stimulate the creative process. I’ve done it a couple times, and each time I end up putting the folder away and working on some new idea, but it’s been helpful as a starter.
This is such a great post! I very much appreciate the ideas presented and believe that it comes into play with every individual at some level. Recognizing that “idea debt” is part of all of our lives is the first step in finding a solution to be productive.
I’ve dreamed of writing /drawing several comics, with its own lore and universe stuck in my head. since the last 9 years, the story has heavily mutated to my liking.. yet it’s still stuck in my head. this includes other projects which I dream to create a visual novel of, am rpg, or a webcomic. Sadly, all these ideas… are simply unexecuted ideas.
I would have an idea, focus and execute on it, only to be pulled away by another idea, or be involved in someone else’s project (thereby abandoning mine). This has happened a lot to me, until I stopped creating in 2013 when I started to work.
Just recently, I began to write a fan fiction on Final Fantasy 8. Someone told me to write and monetize on my own stories. But I can’t help it. The impulse to create… is simply too strong. Which is why I’ve dedicated the last 5 weeks to writing it. I still have another 5 more weeks to go, but I’m happier.
By focusing on one thing, I got to produce something which I’ve never done before.
You can move and get results fast but with no clear direction you are going to waste your energy pretty fast too. Balancing opposing forces is not easy.
Thank you for articulating an idea that has long plagued me! Given today’s culture of “revere the celebrities,” I think the problem is bigger than ever (everyone’s got an idea that will surely propel them to fame!). I also believe that this is why nearly every movie has a montage. Everyone likes the idea of working hard to get to something, but we figure we can do it Hollywood style–it’s really just a montage away.
OMG! “just a montage away”! I love it. Perfect summation of what’s behind that resistance to committing to the work.
I am so lucky I googled you to learn if you had a personal website! I deeply appreciate every word of this post, and the others in the series. It’s real stuff, no BS.
Literally yesterday I purchased 2 domains! One for an idea for a narrative audio show that I’ve been scheming while simultaneously reading Out on the Wire). The other, a personal portfolio website for myself: young content marketer, storyteller, speaker. One of the your points that speaks louder than the others is the reality of giving up old ideas that I *wanted* to do at one point but have no idea whether the work would be actually satisfying or fulfilling. The only way to know if it’s what I want is to do it. A creative non-fiction writing teacher once told me, “you sound like somebody who wants to have written.” Like you say, the only way is through!
I wonder if it’s not so much an idea debt but an idea abundance. I wonder whether some people have an abundance of ideas which others may want to implement. Is it possible there could or even should be a forum for ideas which others can pick up on?
My personal interests and therefore ideas could never be limited to any one project, it would drive me mad.
Society tells us we must specialise and we must focus. Well fine, but why can’t we focus on creating multiple ideas?
When I procrastinate I make a choice to procrastinate by playing tennis, reading a book, thinking up new ideas or new ways of seeing and experiencing the world. So is it really procrastination or merely me being me IE authentic?
Cheers from me
P.S. I’m off on another idea and asking the question why is our money system so broken?
I now have a diagnosis for what it’s that I have been doing, or should I say, not doing. I always thought that I was lost or trying to find my purpose in life. I am also guilty of getting my own domain in the hopes of telling my story. I’ve researched, studied, read and I’m not confident that I can get it done. I have faced many obstacles, as well as others have. The hardest one is being completely independent and then having that taken from me in a car accident. Do readers care about my journey? I am hoping to build a network of other people who have been in the same situation. Along with my mobility, I lost confidence.
The thing is, you can’t know unless you go out on the wire and try. Don’t wait for permission! You’ve got to just take ownership of your story and start.
Very much appreciate the introduction to “Idea Debt.” There are some fully fleshed out dreams floating around in my writer headspace, and I would like to see them realized. I carry dozens of notebooks for jotting down fresh thoughts, even as I use that action to let that thought float away and leave me to focus on the project that I have actually started and am most likely to finish. Thanks!
I am in this mode, always brimming with ideas but fail to sketch and execute them into completion. A great read on how to push the self. Glad to read it.
So interesting to see your take on this! I wrote a piece about Idea Debt last fall without knowing that other people were talking about idea debt as a “thing”. I found out about your article because we were both referenced in a writeup on Boing Boing.
My take on idea debt: https://medium.com/@heyjohnsexton/how-i-got-out-of-idea-debt-124d3cdc4031
BoingBoing Article: http://boingboing.net/2017/04/11/death-to-my-unfinished-game-de.html
I’m happy to report that since I wrote the article about idea debt and let go of all those old ideas, pretty much all of the stress and anxiety they were causing me has vanished!
Keep up the good work!
I enjoyed your article, too! (which I read due to it being on John August’s Scriptnotes podcast a week or so ago) My Idea Debt piece really made the rounds in January 2016 (especially once Hacker News picked it up…). It’s cool to see Kazu’s idea filter through the culture! The second it was out of his mouth, I knew it would resonate!
Wow this is spot-on, and just in time for a project I’ve been hemming and hawing on. Enough! Onward!
Yours is rapidly becoming one of the few newsletters that I will actually read – because it is worthy and speaks to things that we all struggle with daily.
I think this theory of “idea debt” is spot on. In most cases, it seems like the more that you build up your expectations for a project, the more you end up feeling like its insurmountable and put it off. Often I’ll be trying to work myself up to tackling “the big one” when another project pops up on the periphery and I shoot off down that tangent, getting caught up in an act of creation that turns into something possibly just as time consuming and difficult as the huge project I’m imagining, but its a lot easier to take a project to completion when you’ve already started, and a lot easier to start when you aren’t telling yourself how difficult its going to be.
Too true, Peter!