Thursday, 12 June 2014


I was listening to a really good podcast from Freakonomics the other day.  You can find the whole thing here.  But I am going to tell you about a really useful thing to do which Gary Klein, who knows about this stuff invented.

There is nothing wrong with failing.  So long as you don't stick with a lost cause.  It's best to do as Steve Levitt says and "fail quickly."

When we're starting a project we invest energy and time into it.  We want it to succeed, and we usually feel, in our heart of hearts, that it will succeed.  But any project is bound to have problems.  It's better to identify them sooner, rather than later.

Gary Klein suggests that you play a mental game.  He calls it a pre-mortem.  What you do is imagine that you've travelled in time to six months from now (although why would you - it's summer!).  The project has failed.  It's not just failed; it's crashed and burned.  Now think about why that happened.  You're only allowed two minutes.  This helps to identify things that could be done now to avert disaster, but it also helps to identify the times when failure is a sure thing, and help you decide whether it's worth going ahead anyway.  Sometimes it is.  Sometimes the project failing in its stated aims will still teach you important lessons.  Will still be useful in other ways.

To put it succinctly, here's what you do:

  • think about a project
  • imagine yourself 6 months in the future
  • your project has failed.  Why? (2 mins)
  • What action could you take now to avert disaster?
I tried it, thinking about my book writing challenge.  My plan is to finish the first draft by the end of the summer holidays (yikes, that's two months!), so in six months I'll be past that, hopefully.  I was getting a bit embroiled in the story for a while there, but I think it could probably be finished (first draft folks) by the end of summer, as it's picking up now.  Anyway, in six months, I'll have finished the first draft, and be working on polishing it up, or rolling it in glitter.  I expect I will feel like a failure.  I expect my first draft will be rubbish.  I'm writing it now (well I'm not, because I'm writing to you instead), and I think it's rubbish.  I think there's too much sex, and I can't write good sex scenes.  However, I'm trying to keep in mind all that Neil Gaiman says about writing (because I love Neil Gaiman).  He talks about the work of writing, the plodding.  If you want to write, he says, write.  Write when you're not inspired.  Write when you are.  Just put one word in front of another and keep on going until you're done. He doesn't expect his first draft to be any good, but it's the bones of the story, and you can make it good once it is done.  More from Neil Gaiman on writing here.  So in six months, if my book is rubbish, does it matter?  No.  I might take a break for a bit.  Some books can take years to come to light.  I might not.  What matters is the practice of writing.  Being paid would be nice, but as far as I'm concerned right now I'm serving an apprenticeship.  Payment will come later.

Try it for your project - any project from a corporate takeover to potty training.  What do you learn?

Other posts you might like:
Today I took my 99th picture for #100happydays.  I am starting my #10grumpydays challenge (a bit of balance for all these happy days) on Saturday 14th June.  Care to join me?  For 10 days you take a pic of something that makes you grumpy, and you share it on Facebook or Instagram (or both) with the hashtag #10grumpydays.

The book challenge
Words at 11/6/14 - 86,500.  
47,000 words done since the challenge began, 4,500 this month.
Where I'm at in First Draft - Chapter 20.
What I did last - Yet more sex.  I mean, I'm happy they're happy, but they need to eat!