Why Your Great Idea Is Doomed (and How to Save It)

A few years back, my friend Robin and I had a conversation over drinks that turned into an idea that we believed would change the world.

We would create a Kickstarter-like service for high school grads to fund their college education. Instead of a loan, people would “invest” in the kid’s education, and the kid would pay a fair percentage of his post-college earnings back to her “investors” for a set number of years — essentially buying stock in a child’s future instead of a publicly traded company.

We jokingly called it “Kidstarter”.1

“It’ll remove the crippling college debts! It’ll give parents and friends an incentive to encourage kids to excel! It’ll create an economy based on wanting people to become better!”

It was so simple, so elegant. We couldn’t believe no one had done it already.

The todo list starts out easy (and fun).

Out of the gate, we had a blast: we built a revenue model; came up with marketing language; assessed the underlying technologies that would make it work.

We talked for several hours about how Kidstarter could work to the advantage of everyone involved, and our pile of napkin sketches began to grow.

We exchanged a dozen or so excited emails discussing potential income streams, marketing partners, and safeguards against scammers.

We were having a blast. None of this felt like work.

After a while, things start to suck.

As our discussions moved more toward the concrete, we started to bump up against challenges that seemed less fun.

Was it a little fucked up to encourage people to make bets (investments) on children’s futures?2

Would investing in a kid through Kidstarter qualify as actual trading? Would the SEC need to be involved?

Was this even legal? And if it is, could we afford the inevitable lawsuits from the companies making a killing off student loans right now?3

Did we need to get investors? How the hell do you get investors? Did we need to move to San Francisco and start saying things like “disrupt” and “pivot”?

When reality sets in, the excitement is well and truly dead.

Ultimately, I emailed Robin a long list of concerns and told him I didn’t feel like now was a good time to pursue Kidstarter. I was ready to pack it in and toss the mangled, half-built corpse of the idea into the dark corner where all my abandoned projects lie forgotten.4

His concerns matched my own, so Kidstarter was over before it ever began.

In a matter of weeks, the excitement that had galvanized two ambitious people into working on an idea so fun and meaningful — so blindingly, obviously necessary — buckled under the weight of reality.

When the self-congratulatory glow of our brilliance faded, and the idea’s halo ran out of batteries, we were left with a mountain of work and a long road to travel between now and our first dollar.

The idea was easy to love. The work was a little more challenging.

The Difference Between Ideas and Work

We don’t become successful by having lots of great ideas; we become successful by following through on a few good ones.

People who count ideas as currency are doomed to end up broke.

It’s the ability to convert an idea into results that puts food on the table.

For a project to live, an idea needs to die.

The horrible secret behind bringing an idea to life is that you have to start out by killing it.

Before you start, an idea is pure thought. Talent and markets and physics don’t apply; the idea is only bounded by your imagination.

As soon as you start the planning phase, you dig an analytical knife into the abstract idea and start hacking it to concrete pieces — pieces you hope to assemble into a finished project.5

We each handle the idea-to-project transition differently, but we all go through the 5 Stages of Creation.

The 5 Stages of Creation

With every project, we enter a familiar arc. What makes this arc unique, though, is that we’re able to abandon the arc at any point — and we often do.

But when things go well, we all follow this pattern in our projects:

  1. Total Infatuation
  2. Furious Output
  3. The Creeping Realization That This Will Be More Work Than You Thought
  4. Despair
  5. The Slog

Stage 1: Total Infatuation

At this stage, the idea still retains its abstract aura. We love it unconditionally, and we can’t see — can’t conceive — any of its rough edges yet.

During Total Infatuation, we’re convinced that this is The Best Goddamn Idea Ever™, and we’ll deny any evidence to the contrary.6

We’re blinded by the benefits and potential gains. We can’t understand how this doesn’t already exist. We can’t believe how rich we’re about to be.

Stage 2: Furious Output

Hot on the heels of Total Infatuation, we tear into the early todo list with near-religious fervor. Our energy seems boundless. Things start coming together quickly.

We start to get smug.

Who’s better than me? we muse. Fucking nobody, that’s who.

Stage 3: The Creeping Realization That This Will Be More Work Than You Thought

TCRTTWBMWTYT(_tuckert-twibbem-whitey-tee_ for the anagram lovers out there) shows up slowly, and typically doesn't announce its presence until it's well underway.

The easy parts of the todo list are knocked out, and what’s left makes for a short list of tall orders. That endless enthusiasm from before doesn’t go as far these days, and it starts feeling less like playtime and more like work. We start daydreaming about what we’d trade to have someone else take care of all this work for us.

Progress slows, and we reluctantly start to admit that — just maybe — this idea isn’t quite as easy to pull of as we’d initially thought.

Stage 4: Despair

What went wrong?

What felt like a dream is now definitely a nightmare. How much time have we wasted on this disaster?

The project is falling to pieces in our hands. And what’s worse, we can’t seem to care. We can’t seem to remember why we ever thought this was a good idea in the first place.

There is no way, we think, that this will ever, ever work.

Stage 5: The Slog

The worst of the crying jags is behind us, and through red-rimmed eyes we take a long, level-headed look at the situation.

We started this project for a reason. Our excitement and the potential benefits were (and probably still are) real. We’ve come a long way already, and — especially compared to starting another idea form scratch – we’re pretty damn close to done.

So we set our jaw and choose to trust the enthusiasm that made us take on this project in the first place.

We slog through the rest of the todo list, substituting tempered work ethic for raw enthusiasm. And — slowly, frustratingly, tediously — the project crosses the finish line.

Why Ideas Die

If we look at our history, and the histories of those close to us, variations of this story arc start to appear:

There are the ideas that are frequently talked about, but never even make it past the Total Infatuation stage

Then there are ideas that slow so drastically in the

TCRTTWBMWTYTstage that they're ostensibly dead.

And then there’s my usual struggle: the projects that scream along toward completion, only to shatter to pieces against the wall of Despair, or sink in the quicksand of The Slog — at which point I wander off in search of a newer, shinier idea and start the cycle all over again.7

Some ideas should die.

In the case of Kidstarter, Robin and I had a good idea that was bad for us. We had the enthusiasm and the technical knowhow, but — critically — we lacked the skills to find investors or deal with legal challenges.

So when we lost steam in the

TCRTTWBMWTYTstage, Despair was a necessary "exit" sign.

Had we pushed into The Slog, we might still be there now, years later, buried in a lot of work8 that we aren’t equipped to handle.

The

TCRTTWBMWTYTand Despair stages exist for a reason: they give us a reality check on our ambitions.

The trick is making the distinction between realizing our project’s requirements are out of our reach9 and coming to grips with the fact our project will require actual work.

Most ideas don’t make it past the Despair stage.

The truth is, most ideas can succeed.10 The reason they don’t is that they’re never finished.

When the full weight of an idea’s workload comes crashing down, most ideas can’t avoid being flattened. And once we’ve seen our ideas crushed, it’s hard not to abandon them as beyond repair.

Once we’re in The Slog, every idea looks extra shiny.

Even if we’re able to push through Despair, there’s an ever-present danger of being distracted by something shiny.

The Slog is the period between where your excitement for a new idea no longer masks the work left to be done, but the project isn’t in a place to bring you any external rewards yet. It’s the final 10–30% of the project where you’re doing tedious work and facing the most frustrating challenges. You’re forced to push through the remainder of the project on sheer force of will.

The Slog isn’t sexy, and its very existence is often offensive to our entrepreneurial spirit: after all, isn’t “working for yourself” supposed to be synonymous with “super fun party time frolics”?

The Slog shatters the illusion that self-employment still requires effort, and this can put a serious damper on our attention spans and spirits.

With decreased focus and increased frustration, the arrival of a new idea looks extra sexy, and it’s very difficult not to drop our boring, decidedly

unsexy current project to pursue this newer, shinier opportunity.

Worse, The Slog happens in a vacuum.

Easily the worst part of The Slog is the utter absence of outside feedback.

The project’s not ready yet, so you don’t have anything to show for your efforts yet. You’re stuck in that awkward space where you are the only person who really understands what the project will ultimately become, and so much is lost by explaining the project to someone else11 that it’s ultimately more frustrating to share it than to keep it to yourself until you’ve made more progress.

This is a special kind of hell, because you’re doing the least enjoyable chunk of the project’s tasks, and you’ve already exhausted all the friendly ears in your life during the Total Infatuation stage, so you’re more or less locked in a room alone with a todo list and your own determination.

Without The Slog, We’re Stuck in a Loop

But for all the horrors of The Slog, it’s also the key to any kind of real success.

Without pushing through The Slog, we end up starting, losing faith in, and abandoning project after project, always getting this close to a finished product, but veering off course in the last 10% or so.

So The Slog is a necessary evil. It’s what allows us to break out of that endless, frustrating loop of half-baked plans. The Slog is — to sports it up for a second — our goal-line offense: the final push to get something done: the dedication to ensure we have a tangible outcome for all our efforts.

The Slog, in other words, is what separates finishing from failing.

The only real failure is giving up.

When we push through The Slog, we add punctuation to the story. It creates space for additional information, and for next steps.

When the project is a success, we add an exclamation point: “I made this!”

If it’s marginally successful — or even a failure — we still get to add a full stop: “I made this.”

After a success or a failure, you’re able to learn something:

  • “I made this! People like it, and now I’m working on a second version to incorporate their feedback.”
  • “I made this. It didn’t work out, but I think I know what went wrong, so now I’m working on something better.”

But if we quit before The Slog is finished, our project is a sentence fragment: “I made this…”

You made this what? What happened next?

When we don’t finish a project, we’re left with no lessons, no enhanced understanding — we’ve essentially wasted our time.

Finishing — win or lose — lets us gather information to help us succeed in the future; quitting is the only true failure.

How to Make The Slog Easier

While we can’t eliminate The Slog, we can take steps to make it less awful.

1. Keep your idea as simple as possible.

The business blog readers among us may be familiar with the term “feature creep”. What feature creep describes is the slow addition of new features and modifications to an idea over time.

Feature creep usually doesn’t seem like a bad idea when it’s happening — “hell yeah this thing needs a rocket booster!” — but its long-term effects can kill a project outright. Each new feature requires more time and effort during The Slog, and if we’re not careful, a series of small modifications can grow into an insurmountable obstacle.

So be clear about the idea: what features does it really need? what features can wait until later? what features sound nice, but ultimately don’t add much value?

If the project can survive without a feature, strongly consider cutting it.

This is what’s called a minimum viable product in the startup sphere, and it’s a way to get through The Slog and into the fun part: where real people are interacting with your project and giving you real feedback.

2. Spend time planning at the beginning.

Planning a project is decidedly not exciting. So when we’re riding high on the ecstatic waves of Total Infatuation, the last thing we’ll want to do is slow down and start tearing the idea into small, well-planned pieces.

But we have to.

A project without a plan still requires planning. But it takes a lot longer to plan things after they’ve already been done wrong.

So we can either take the time to plan our projects effectively, or we can spend far longer making up for poor planning during The Slog.

3. Have a clear idea of what “done” looks like.

For many ideas, we forget to create a target. We end up with The Underpants Gnome Problem, where we have a great idea, but no clue what happens between A) building our project and C) taking a McDuckian swim in our cash-filled vault.

Every project needs a defined set of goals. That can be very concrete, as in, “I will run the Boston Marathon without walking,” or very abstract, such as, “I will be better today than I was yesterday.”

As long as it’s something we feel confident measuring — and confident achieving12 — it gives us a target to shoot for and a clearly defined finish line.

Without a target, we might wander off course, lose our excitement in the absence of measurable progress, or simply run out of things to do and end up stuck.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

The Slog is challenging because we feel the need to present a “finished” project to the world. It feels like we only have one shot, and if we screw it up no one will take us seriously again.

This can lead to endless tinkering, revisions, and general adjustments-as-procrastination as the project draws to a close.

The software team motto to combat this problem is, “Ship early. Ship often.”

The logic behind the catchphrase is simple: every project will go through revisions, so as soon as it’s ready for feedback, start getting feedback. Don’t waste time trying to guess what people will and won’t like; just get it in their hands and ask.

Nothing is more demotivating that working without knowing whether or not your efforts will mean something. And that’s exactly what prolonging The Slog will do.

On the other hand, a wonderful way to give yourself a shot of new motivation is to have someone enjoy the thing you’ve created. Even if it’s not perfect. Even if it’s far from perfect. It means what you did mattered. It means you haven’t wasted your time.

So ship it. As soon as possible.

A Finished Project Is Worth a Thousand Ideas

The Slog is what kills most ideas. People who push through The Slog become Finishers, and Finishers are the people who get furthest in life.

In the story we tell ourselves about who we are, reaching the end of a plot line builds character. It boosts our confidence: “I’m a Finisher!” It builds momentum: our next project starts with a full head of steam.

Abandoned projects do exactly the opposite: they undermine our confidence and sap our motivation.

This is all the more reason to push through The Slog. If it feels like we never finish anything, we just have to start with something small.

Finish a blog post. Finish a sketch. Hell, finish a meal.

Just get that ball rolling. Because sticking through The Slog sucks, but a single, finished project is worth a thousand half-baked ideas abandoned in Despair.


  1. I just Googled it, and Kidstarter is already a thing. So to be clear, the “Kidstarter” I’m talking about in this article is a defunct startup concept, not the adults-helping-kids-do-social-good organization that actually exists.

  2. Technically, this is no different than what Sallie Mae is doing, but still — just because one subset of corporations has reduced children to risk analyses and probability charts, does that make it a good idea?

  3. We saw what was happening to Uber, and if cab drivers were able to give a startup that much legal trouble, well… We went a little pale at the thought of what a team of lawyers for a financial behemoth could do.

  4. On my lonelier nights, I’ll crack the door and peer inside, like a bored teenager checking the fridge. My parbaked ideas breathe in hopefully and don’t breathe out so’s not to jinx it and crane their semi-functional necks toward me.

    The moment extends heavily. My expression is almost hopeful. But then I turn, and the door swings closed. In the darkness the ideas hear me shuffling away, muttering, “I’ll get back to it. Soon.”

  5. To an outside observer, this process usually looks something like a butterfly emerging from its coccoon. But to the person who knows what the original idea looked like, the result is closer to Frankenstein’s monster: not quite right, and uglier than it used to be.

  6. Because fuck the haters!

  7. If an art film is ever made about my creative process, it’ll be a six minute loop of Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill while bragging loudly on his cell phone about how awesome his boulder is, then chasing it down the hill while angrily explaining to the cell phone that all boulders are stupid.

  8. Or, more likely, we’d be saddled with an unbelievable amount of debt and stress from hiring people to handle all the challenges we’d be unable to handle alone.

  9. When I say “out of our reach”, I don’t mean “impossible” — I mean that the amount of effort required to make it happen exceeds the benefits we can expect in return.

  10. Take that sweeping generalization with a huge grain of salt, but also keep in mind these ostensibly terrible ideas that succeeded: the app Yo is worth $5–10 million; someone put filtered water in a bottle and charged a 4,000% markup; oh, and remember the pet rock?

  11. “Okay, so imagine that it’s sort of like what you’re looking at now, except this area is a totally awesome animation, and this piece here uses your Facebook profile to create a Venn diagram showing the overlap of people whose pets you’ve commented on and who like Nickelback, and then that button causes Slash to come out and play a killer solo. Are you smelling what I’m stepping in? Sick, right?”

  12. Setting a goal that’s too ambitious — for example, a brand new freelancer with no network to speak of setting a goal to make $10,000 per month within six months — is probably setting you up to fail. With a goal like that, getting to $8,000 per month (a huge accomplishment) would be a “failure”. That makes what should have been a cause for celebration into something demotivating.

    A better way to approach an ambitious goal like that is to aim to grow revenue by 5% month over month, or to have a six-month operating fund set aside in cash. Both create a similar outcome — financial stability — without the extreme specificity that makes even a good outcome seem like a failure.

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