Finishing is a Superpower
When I was completing my master’s degree, I was excited to be working on new research. While some students in my cohort worked on understanding the literature, my supervisor gave me a novel project we thought we could eventually publish it. The concept was simple and straightforward, motivating me to build the experiments, collect the data, and write up a paper.
But then I began hitting obstacles. The project involved machine learning, and I found myself navigating a lot of uncertainty as to how to interpret my initial underwhelming results. There were many knobs I could tweak and no clear instruction manual on how to choose the settings for the knobs. Couple this to results which weren’t competitive with the literature and long training times for the models, and it’s not surprising that I got stuck.
I completed my master’s project with these underwhelming results, thinking that I would be able to work through the issues by the end of the summer and then publish. I was totally wrong.
I didn’t want to let go of the project. I had invested so much time in it that I wanted to see it through. But as I started my PhD, I had even less time and energy to devote to the project. Eventually, the project fizzled out and I didn’t finish.
Fast-forward a year and I participated in the Los Alamos Quantum Summer School. There, I worked hard on a quantum annealing project, only to then spend a long time in a zone of uncertainty, not knowing where to go next with the project. I had the same feeling of being stuck that I had felt during my master’s degree. I feared that this project was going to fade away just like my previous one.
Thankfully, it didn’t. With the help of others on my team, we finished the project.
What I’ve learned during graduate school is that jumping into many creative, undefined projects is tempting. An exciting conversation can lead to daydreaming and frantic work on an idea. In the beginning, there is is so much possibility that it’s easy to start. There haven’t been any roadblocks, which means motivation is at an all-time high. Everything is in your favour.
Soon though, problems arise. That’s the natural consequence of doing science (or undefined creative work in general). Practical problems, theoretical problems, and uncertainty about choices all come into play. Bringing a project to reality means transforming it from an ideal, perfect idea into a messy, imperfect form that is real.
But you can’t do this transformation half way. Either you persist until the end or you abandon the effort. This phase of a project is what Seth Godin calls the “Dip”. Sometimes, the Dip signals that you should quit. But the Dip comes all the time, which means you will have to persist at some point.
The Dip can also last for a long time. For my second PhD project, I spent many months doing the science behind the work. Once that was done, I felt that I would “just” write the project up and finish it quickly. Instead, I spent a similar amount of time writing and crafting the presentation of the idea as I did doing the work itself.
This is why finishing is a superpower. If you can persist, you get to share more work with the world, which gives you more opportunities. Finishing also reinforces your sense of capability. When projects become difficult, you can remind yourself that you’ve been here before and can get through it.
The difference between a project that you bring 95% of the way and one that you bring 100% of the way is that the latter exists in the eyes of others. And that’s a direct result of finishing.