When Finishing is Easier than Starting

When you are young, beginning new projects is easy and finishing them is hard. As you grow older, beginnings get harder, but finishing gets easier. At least, that has been my experience. I think it is true of anyone of at least average intelligence, creativity and emotional resilience. The reason is simple.

When you are young, the possibilities ahead of you, and the time available to explore them, seem nearly infinite. When you try to start something, the energizing creative phase, (which comes with internal brain-chemistry rewards on a fast feedback-loop), gives way to exhausting detail-oriented work, maintenance work, and unsatisfying overhead work. You need to get through these to bank distant external rewards (money and such) that only come with completion. It is then that you are most vulnerable to the allure of exciting new beginnings. So you abandon things halfway. You bank the internal rewards of beginning, but not the external rewards of finishing.

But with age, this changes.

As you grow older, the history of a few completed projects and many abandoned ones in your past starts to loom oppressively in your memory. The early internal rewards of many beginnings are now a distant memory that offer no pleasure in the present. The external rewards of completed projects, which tend to continue to yield dividends (such as completed degrees, financial rewards) loom larger all around you: wealth, strong relationships and perhaps most importantly, an earned ability to see the world differently as the result of having been through many completions.

When a new opportunity opens up at 35, you evaluate it differently than you did at 25. You are able to estimate how long it will take, what the journey will feel like, what the early pleasure and distant pain will feel like, and what getting it done will feel like. You are able to react psychologically to the whole prospect in the form of a narrative that extends beyond the finish line, as a systematic leveling-up of your life. You see the transient pleasures of beginnings diminish to nothing in the far future and the enduring rewards of finishing as a steady source of dividends extending out beyond the horizon.

Calculative rational people tend to oversimplify their models of such narrative-modulated envisioning of the future and model everything with smooth discount models (such as assuming that future rewards are exponentially or hyperbolically discounted, irrespective of narrative context).

When you are able to instinctively react to the future in a narrative-rational way (and it is purely a function of age and “track record”, not intelligence), you find yourself reluctant to take on new projects that seem to be full of front-loaded process-excitement, but more willing to take on those that you can see yourself finishing, and come with real rewards.

It is one of the rewards of growing up. You become more goal-oriented in the deep sense of the term (in casual everyday use, goal-oriented merely means greedy).

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  1. Emilio Cecconi says

    This reminds me of marathon training. When I trained for my first marathon, I thought that inspiration and excitement would give me all of the energy I needed to train.

    Now that I’m training for my second marathon, I’m going about the process in a much different way — it’s much less about the initial excitement and more about the day to day commitment.

  2. Such a great piece.

    This is why I politely smile at anybody who comes at me overzealously with a crazy new project (or better, “Opportunity”). The excitement is fun, but it’s easy, and it’s fleeting. But you have to think of the inevitable pain and difficulty, and factor that in. [Analogy: Wedding vs. Marriage]

    The first thing we have to ask when faced with an “amazing” prospect that sweeps us off our feet is- how are we going to cope with the inevitable pain? (And then going ahead with it, THROUGH the tough parts!)

    Beautiful language isn’t nearly as holding the line when everything else is collapsing. In the end, I think we ought to celebrate neither the professed romantics nor the cynics, but the one that quietly go the distance.

  3. Aubrey Keus says

    This mirrors my experience. (41 year old software developer / manager).

    I now no longer feel the future pleasures and excitement of a new project as much as the pain of the maintenance and opportunity costs to be incurred. But, I do tend to be able to finished the things I choose to start.

  4. Strangeattractor says

    I feel like my perspective has gone through different changes over time, though there are some similarities.

    I do feel more selective about which project to begin and weigh opportunity costs and the experiences involved in the process of doing the project more than I used to. I also have less tolerance for busy-work that makes someone else feel less uncertainty about a situation but doesn’t actually accomplish anything meaningful or fun to me.

    That seems kind of similar to what you are saying. But some other things don’t resonate as much for me. I think my experiences have been different.

    For one thing, I started completing projects at a young age, and have a lot of experience with that. It isn’t so much something I grew into as something I grew up with.

    For another thing, recently I have completed some projects that ended up having negative external rewards upon completion. In retrospect, it would have been better to give up part way or to not start them at all. This is a possibility when undertaking something with large risks and potentially large rewards and a lot of uncertainty. It makes visualizing in advance what’s going to happen difficult too. It’s annoying to keep making tradeoffs without knowing which tradeoffs you are actually making until much later.

    So I think it matters how many risks one takes with oneself during a project, and how it turns out.

    I think most advice I’ve come across tends toward exhorting people to commit more, see things through, etc. And maybe for most people that is helpful. But there’s less advice for when you’ve been doing that too much. Not over-committing in the sense of doing too many things at once. More like, committing to what turns out to be the wrong thing for too long, in a situation where it’s not obvious what the right thing is.

    The advice also tends to emphasize thinking of the future benefits in order to get through short term problems. There’s not a lot of advice for when you’ve been doing that too much.

    Even with all of that, I still find beginnings exciting. At least, when it’s something that I want to be doing. The rush of beginning something new hasn’t worn off for me.