Work With The Door Open

When is the right time to share progress with others?

I often struggle to get started on new projects. The first few days are especially difficult to gain momentum. It’s tough to justify putting time into something that may turn out to go nowhere, especially when there are better things I could be doing. This is the phase when most people quit — before they’ve even properly started.

Fortunately, the next few months are a fantastic opportunity to experiment with something new. Social distancing means that many of our hobbies have been canceled, leaving large gaps in our schedules with nothing better to do. All else being equal, these gaps should make it easier to start new projects. Time is the only thing you’re investing, and most of us have been given more time than we know what to do with.

Assuming that you’re able to get started, there will come a point in your project when you begin to wonder: when is the right time to share what you’ve been working on?

This question is intimidating. Having an idea worth pursuing is hard enough, and training your brain to come up with ideas will take some practice. Fortunately, this will get easier. By writing ideas down, you’ll build a system that captures your unique insights. If you’re able to commit to this process for just a few days, you’ll have your pick of promising topics to work on.

Let’s assume that you’ve had your idea and blown off your (now nonexistent) plans to work on it. Eventually, you will need to decide when to let other people in on the secret.

This timing is important, because it will greatly influence the direction your idea takes. In the early stages ideas are like seeds — their maximum size is determined by their makeup, but the conditions they’re planted in determines how much of that potential will be reached. Like a patient gardener, it's up to you to make sure the environment is tweaked in just the right ways to maximize your idea’s growth.

Too much exposure early on can kill an idea just as easily as neglect. Out of all the elements in your control, how you choose to communicate your work is one of the most important. It’s also one of the hardest to get right.

People tend to fall into two camps when it comes to sharing: those who work with the door closed, and those who work with the door open. I originally heard this phrase used in a speech from Richard Hamming at Bell Labs. During this speech, he discussed the difference between those who produce great research, and everyone else:

Another trait, it took me a while to notice. I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, "The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind." I don't know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing — not much, but enough that they miss fame.

I believe that choosing when to open your door is a key factor in the success of an idea. Share too early, and you may risk people dismissing your work as unpolished or incomplete. Wait too long for feedback, and you may realize that you’ve been working in the wrong direction. Getting it just right is the difference between your idea taking on a life of its own or wilting.

Working With The Door Closed

Early in your project, a closed door is beneficial. It’s also more than a metaphor. If you have a physical door to your workspace, you should close it. While you’re at it, turn off the phone too. And the television. Remove any external source of distraction that can interrupt your flow of thought.

You should be getting your idea onto the page as quickly as possible. Like a surgeon, your job is to pull the idea from your head and into reality without hacking off too many important pieces. Doing this is hard enough without distractions. It becomes downright impossible with someone looking over your shoulder.

Let your enthusiasm for the idea drive you. After all, you’re spending your own time doing this. Because you want to, not because it’s part of your job. The idea is yours and so is the process of getting it right. Work quickly enough that you feel slightly uncomfortable with cutting corners. Make notes about what to fix later, but keep moving. Speed is your friend here.

While you’re in this process, it will be tempting to tell people about your idea. You took the time, started this thing, and it’s actually happening! Resist this urge. Save it for later until your first draft is complete. Opening yourself to feedback now may threaten to blow up the whole operation. Ideas are fragile, and a slight swing in either direction can be enough to break your concentration.

Even worse, communicating too much during this phase can rob you of the enjoyment of sharing later on. It’s not unusual for the most satisfying part of a project to be the process of sharing it with others. If you do this too early, you’ll find yourself discussing what the project will be, rather than what it is. This can lead to two issues: inflated expectations and a loss of motivation.

Inflated expectations are a result of selling someone on a vision that is not yet created. When the time comes to share the product, your audience won’t be seeing something new. Instead, they will be comparing it with the idealized version that you painted. Unlike you, they won’t have gone through the process of filling in the gaps, so their mental picture will seem much better than what is in front of them. This kind of pressure can be daunting for such a small project. A better strategy is to keep it casual and let the first impression be something that is more complete, rough edges and all.

Loss of motivation is as dangerous as inflated expectations. When you’re working on an idea without much hope of getting paid, motivation is the thing that keeps you going. Being recognized by your peers is one of the best motivational tools you can give yourself, so you need to carefully prevent it from depleting before the work is done. If you share too early, you risk receiving this recognition before you’ve actually done the work. This will make the end result seem like a foregone conclusion, rather than an accomplishment. In essence, you’re borrowing enjoyment from your future self. And like any loan, you’ll pay interest on what you’ve borrowed. Unless you’re asking for advice, resist the urge to share.

Once you’ve got your first version of the idea on paper, you can reassess the situation. How does your idea look? It’s freshly born into the world, but you should be able to get a sense of how well it translated from your mental picture.

It won’t be perfect. But it should be uniquely yours. One of the benefits of working with the door closed is minimizing influence from others too early in the project. At this point, the idea is just for you. If you’ve got some of those notes from earlier, now is the time to revisit. Polish those rough edges and compare your expected product to what came out. You may find that some areas are lacking compared to the vision, while others are delightfully surprising, even to you.

At this point, with your first draft firmly secured on the page, it’s time to open the door.

Working With The Door Open

It’s helpful to have someone that you can go to with your early drafts. This should be someone who cares enough to spend the time reviewing, but won’t sugarcoat things. Family members, significant others, friends — all good candidates for your first audience.

Start with a description of your eureka moment. When did the idea come to you? How do you know this thing is something the world needs? What was the process of making it?

Give people a chance to see the world through your eyes, and guide them to the conclusion that took you time to reach. You’ve had the benefit of going through the process yourself, and now you can give them the shortcut.

Next, and this one is important, get the hell out of the way. Stop hovering and let them actually inspect the damn thing. Unless you have a reason to watch their every move, you should be giving them the space to critically examine what took you time and effort to make. If you’re too involved in this step, you’ll deprive yourself of any useful feedback at all.

It’s also a good idea at this point to seek out opinions from people who aren’t required to be nice to you. When you share your idea with strangers, you may find it difficult to articulate your vision in a way that makes sense. Our minds have a funny way of skipping over logic and ignoring the shortcomings of our own ideas. Ideas that seemed so crisp in your head often come out jumbled and confused. Sharing means forcing yourself to really look at your idea. Those gaps that you conveniently avoided will become glaringly obvious once they are in front of strangers. Articulating these gaps will be a painful, but necessary step in your creative process.

Part of having the door open means tuning back into what others are doing. While you’ve been heads down working on your idea, the world kept turnin’. Who knows what you might have missed in the meantime. This kind of inspection should be a pointed analysis of what brought you to create your idea in the first place. Compare what you’re seeing now to your earlier model of the world. This process should be focused on understanding if your fundamental assumptions still hold true.

If the answer is yes, then you’re ready to expand your circle. At this point, your door should remain open whenever possible. Interruptions are the enemy of productivity, but productivity in the wrong direction is like rowing a boat upstream — you’re working hard to get nowhere.


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