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Trying Again :: Setting Expectations for Contribution Based Projects (Part 1 )

:: I am embarrassed by my last post. It is vague and tightly wound. I alluded to thoughts that I don't have the skill to fully express. This is another attempt at the same subject ::

Setting expectations for any a project is something I tend to avoid or to overlook. This is because:

1) Defining success means that I am also defining failure. That can be frightening.
2) Setting realistic goals makes me think realistically. Which is a bummer.
3) I often think that the mechanisms of success are out of my control.
4) It is easier not to care, or at least to pretend not to care.

Defining success means that I am also defining failure. That can be frightening.

This is a challenge I face in all aspects of my life. I avoid setting personal goals for myself, and I am sure it is because I am terrified of failure. I don’t think that I will overcome the fear of failing. But I am learning to think of it as the price I pay for the best moments of living.

Setting realistic goals makes me think realistically. Which is a bummer.

Projects have this strange glow before they are released, even the bad ones. It isn’t based on anything rational; it is a secret wish. I think it is a feeling of unlimited possibility. I imagine that it is the same sort of feeling that people get when they buy lottery tickets. Thinking reasonably about what will happen to the project, and what would be “good enough”, pulls me away from that glow.

I could set my expectation for each project at “wild success”. But this would leave me perpetually disappointed. I could avoid setting a goal altogether and hope that I would be surprised by and appreciative of anything that happened. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. Without concrete goals, any success feels like a wasted opportunity to have achieved the next level of success. In other words I kick myself for not having spent the time trying to anticipate what happened - so that I could be in a better position to take advantage of it, or at least feel like I had accomplished something.

I often think that the mechanisms of success are out of my control.

This is particularly true when success is defined by popularity, as so many online projects are. There are certain things that are in my control, and there are certain things that are out of my control. Ideally I would like to set my expectations based on the things that are in my control, but it is sometimes hard to tell which is which. In terms of popularity, true exponential growth is the ultimate prize (I don’t use the term “viral” because it has lost its original connection to exponential growth, and therefore has become meaningless). Being a witness to this sort of growth is stunning, and it warps one’s expectations of all future projects. It is easy to confuse exponential growth with the logical extension of linear growth – things get bigger and bigger and then they become REALLY big. But it is a different force. The mechanisms that lead to exponential growth are vexing. More vexing is the tendency for people who have experienced it to rationalize in hindsight, attributing success to conveniently human attributes (desire, hard work, vision). This is true not only online, but in all spheres where success is measured by popularity – music, film, tele-evangelism. There is wisdom to be gotten from these people, but it has more to do with how to deal with the event when it happens… not how to cause the event itself.

But some things are under my control. And setting expectations means asking myself which things are, and which things aren’t,. This can be difficult and even sad.

It is easier not to care, or at least to pretend not to care.

This is a sad truth. Hope makes you both inwardly and outwardly vulnerable. It is exhausting to fail. It is exhausting not to know if you are going to fail. But I think the tension that hope brings is the key to vitality.

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Comments (18)

Merus:

I was going to be polite - every blogger gets to have a couple of illogical posts - but this is much better.

Yes, this version is cleaner. But to be honest I really appreciated the rawness of the first version. Sometimes it's refreshing to hear what people have to say before they've had a chance to fully edit themselves.

I find life is a lot easier - and therefore less stressful - when I keep personal expectations and necessities to a minimum. I feel more free to try new things, be myself, and let things go.

And yet, it's a constant battle fending off expectations (internally and externally). The pendulum recently swung over to aggressive goal-setting: I currently have 2009 goals broken down into monthly benchmarks divided into weekly targets and disbersed as daily action items. I think it's because I've recently gotten into project management at a success coaching company.

Joel:

Thank you for having the courage to reconnoiter this difficult terrain, Ze.

Ian:

I really liked reading this. I'm surprised you were embarrassed by the first revision, I actually thought it was rather poignant. Eagerly awaiting part 2...

Thank you for posting this - although I have never experienced any exponential success, I recognize and appreciate your description of the emotion at the start of a project, and the entropy that occurs when in process. Also the vulnerability that having expectations creates, the exhaustion caused by failure. It's helpful to know that someone whose work I admire experiences these things.

Ah, thanks again for your astonishing courage. Gratitude applies generally, and then specifically w/r/t these past two posts. The problem with the (over?)importance of expectations may lie in part that: you're too talented for your own damn good, and it can be tricky to decouple self-worth from output when you've spent a lifetime naturally generating such a trove of delightful, worthful, laudable treasures.

Well said, Ze. I can really relate when I think about a project I have on at the moment. It's a side project that I wish was my focus. Do I throw myself into it, risking dejection if it goes to custard? Or, do I play it safe, treating as less than it secretly means to me? Thanks for provoking thought!

James:

"In other words I kick myself for not having spent the time trying to anticipate what happened - so that I could be in a better position to take advantage of it, or at least feel like I had accomplished something."

Go out and buy some Spock ears and using eyelash glue, put those spongy tips on and view whatever happens as a fascinating experiment. If you are present to your beauty in the moment you will fall into the state of grace known as allowing. You will always be appropriate and you will know that what happened was meant to happen for the greatest good of all. But wear a knit cap when you go out or people will goof on you.

I know, I know, I'm not supposed to learn life lessons from chick flicks.. But, I just watched "he's not that into you", and then read this, and the lessons seem somewhat related. The movie conclusion was basically: There are rules that you can use to figure out if someone likes you, and for the most part you should follow them and not be an irrational crazy person, except for that .001% of the time when you're an exception to the rules. But, either way, (and here's the relevant part) never give up hope in the next great love, and always put your whole self into the process.

The movie also talks about the "spark" between new potential lovers - it seems to me that's similar to the tension between failure & success.

So projects = relationships, but one of them has more making out in it, and therefore makes for better films. :)

gabriela:

i love you. for whatever its worth.

and regardless of the choices i've made in this lifetime, everytime i read something written by you, i am reminded that it's never too late to really just live and allow oneself to be a participating human - even if it 'feels' messy.

happy soon to be birthday :)

Sherry:

Do you suppose it would be possible to find a way to define your idea of success so that it does not include your idea of failure? Or is it the nature of your idea of success that it also contains its polar opposite?

Could "someone just like you" define success without defining failure?

Todd:

Wait, is this why colorwars 2009 is taking so long to launch? You shit gold bricks in my book, thanks for being awesome!

I always smile to myself when I read something like this.

This particular post pretty much parallels my own life and constant inner 'struggle'.

The thing that makes me smile though, is that you have done and produced so many things I would count myself so very lucky to have created.. And yet we have the same issues...

No doubt there is someone else who thinks the world of what I've accomplished thus far.

No matter what 'level of achievement' or success or fame we have, we can still be very much the same at our core.

We all certainly have 'being human' as a common thread. :)

Jeff:

I'm late in finding this part of your site - and am disappointed to see that there's only one comment in response to a well thought out series of questions.

Since the most recent post for you here was nearly 5 months ago - would this be deemed failure?

If I could throw out a potential measure (a possible way to understand the real space, instead of simply creating another potential space) - rather than start with the goal of a project or its possible success or failure - why not start with *purpose* ?

No understanding of success or failure, and no ability to set or achieve a goal, is possible without understanding the purpose of the project. Is purpose simply to get people interacting? Is the purpose to produce a product (ie a specific result, not something necessarily to be sold)? Is the purpose simply to make others laugh?

Mike:

Ze,

In the science of control system engineering (the field that brings you cruise control and space station dockings) the word "best" without a defined "measure of goodness" is a meaningless word.

Yes you are defining both failure and success when you define a rubric, a measure of goodness. You could have neither of them without the rubric when what you actually want is success. Music is both assonance and dissonance, but so is noise. Children - some of the best gifts in life come wrapped in very challenging, and sometimes unpleasant packages. The alternative leave you much less of a richer man for having had that experience.

Yes you have to be realistic. Real success requires real performance coming from real people. I prefer SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and timely). It a much better meta-rubric.

A properly thought out measure of goodness will enable you. It characterizes not just what success is, but how it is achieved. If we stare into the abyss - the abyss stares into us. We are transformed into what we peer deeply into. If we peer into the darkness we become the darkness, if we peer into the light we become the light. Peer into the light - what makes victory - study it... it is empowering, inspiring, and transformative.

Mike:

Ze,

In the science of control system engineering (the field that brings you cruise control and space station dockings) the word "best" without a defined "measure of goodness" is a meaningless word.

Yes you are defining both failure and success when you define a rubric, a measure of goodness. You could have neither of them without the rubric when what you actually want is success. Music is both assonance and dissonance, but so is noise. Children - some of the best gifts in life come wrapped in very challenging, and sometimes unpleasant packages. The alternative leave you much less of a richer man for having had that experience.

Yes you have to be realistic. Real success requires real performance coming from real people. I prefer SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and timely). It a much better meta-rubric.

A properly thought out measure of goodness will enable you. It characterizes not just what success is, but how it is achieved. If we stare into the abyss - the abyss stares into us. We are transformed into what we peer deeply into. If we peer into the darkness we become the darkness, if we peer into the light we become the light. Peer into the light - what makes victory - study it... it is empowering, inspiring, and transformative.

max:

1) Defining success means that I am also defining failure. That can be frightening.
2) Setting realistic goals makes me think realistically. Which is a bummer.
3) I often think that the mechanisms of success are out of my control.
4) It is easier not to care, or at least to pretend not to care.


I see what you mean, but I don't really see how that makes you feel, you say you get frightend, that you're scared of realism, that things aren't in your control and that it's easier not to care about things. I feel similarity, but do you believe that these things are really problems?
Not worrying about succes is the biggest key to it, so:
not caring about succes, is one of the biggest keys to it, so the mechanism is in your control

The Idler:

hmm, you are pretty insightful guy.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 30, 2009 8:35 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Setting Expectations for Contribution Based Projects (Part 1).

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