The Creator’s Paradox Of Choice

Quite some time ago, I set up this blog with the intention of having it as some sort of brain dump for all of the things I enjoy writing about. Despite having many different interests, I haven’t created any content because I can’t find what to write about. In fact, the breadth of my curiosity has been precisely why I can’t find a topic.

This dilemma reminds me of the famous (and excellent) TED talk about the paradox of choice.

The interesting thing about that is that the paradox is often discussed in the context of consumers, but the problem also exists for creators.

I have been very busy lately building Lernabit, and that will always take priority over blogging. But my inability to blog has mostly been the result of being faced with so many topics that I’ve ended up not writing about any of them. I have interests ranging from business and entrepreneurship, to science, to programming and web development, skepticism and critical thinking, and even news items and opinions.  Not to mention that I could also create a blog in which I cover any two of those topics and how they overlap. For example, a blog looking at the world of business technology would be exciting to me. With all of these possible blog topics available and interesting to me, I didn’t cover any of them.

I don’t think I’m the only one who has this problem. As creators, builders, and tinkerers, we often have many ideas running through our head like a fire hose that is sometimes hard to turn off. It gets very difficult to just focus on one topic, or one project, or one business idea. Instead, we work on one thing for a few weeks or months, fail to get traction, and move on to something else. This is damaging in so many ways.

From a business perspective, it is bad because it often leads to us giving up on something that is fundamentally a good idea that just needs a little bit of tweaking.

As builders, it limits depth of knowledge. We cover a topic briefly, obtain a surface-level understanding of it, and quit. One thing I have learned from web development is the importance of building and maintaining a long term project, because it teaches a very different skill set than just hacking together a weekend project. When you maintain something over months or years, you learn a lot about good code structure, correct database design, building for scale, and so many other potential problems that aren’t noticeable after just a few weeks. A lack of focus can cause builders to miss out on those learning experiences.

I have been thinking about some possible solutions to this problem. For really big projects, it is helpful to think about it as a series of numerous small projects. For example, on Lernabit, I wanted to find a way to optimize the audio streaming to use fewer system resources. I took that on as a project of its own. Instead of saying, “How can I make Lernabit use fewer resources?”, I asked myself, “What is the most efficient method of audio streaming in general.”  I turned into a more abstract problem that ended up teaching me a lot more about how audio streaming works. And instead of just tweaking some code, I set out to make some rather substantial changes to the basic infrastructure that will make the site scale better in the long run. The whole project was like a game as I tried to squeeze more juice out of the system.

Another approach I use to overcome paralysis is to give myself some free time to just… tinker. It is very similar to Google’s “20% time” for employees (which I don’t think they do anymore), or more recently, their Google X Lab, which is a space to just experiment without any expectation of profit. This time is very valuable to me. I use it to explore new programming languages, tools, and just learn random things that may or may not end up being relevant to building my business.. This is how I have learned about Grunt, AngularJS, React, Bower, Java, TypeScript, and countless other tools. I’m only using a few of those on Lernabit, but all of them taught me something new and made me see programming from a different perspective.

Whether you are a writer, or a programmer, or a builder of businesses, it is important to find one thing and focus on it. But don’t be afraid to experiment, tinker, and just let your mind run. It’s better than doing nothing.