In my day job, we frequently talk about the “sunk cost” problem in technology deployments. The idea basically goes like this: a company will invest a million dollars into a technology based on the sales pitch. Then they invest thousands of hours into deploying and adopting the technology across numerous personnel. After some time, though, the company realizes they are millions of dollars into a project and have zero returns to show for it because the product didn’t work as advertised. Yet, they continue to push the product because, “We’ve already invested so much…”
If you want to read more about that, do an internet search for the “sunk cost fallacy” and I’m sure you’ll find plenty. However, if you don’t want to read up on it, just keep this in mind. The more you invest in a thing, the harder it becomes to walk away from it.
This applies to artists of all types. Maybe you have a painting or an unreleased song that you keep returning to in the hopes you can finally finish it off. I have a few of these too. I have songs, I have paintings, I have drawings – things that I return to but am never able to finish. One song was added to a previous blog post a couple months ago that I’ve invested so much time in, yet, it remains unreleased. No matter how much I’ve changed it or worked on it, it’s just not right.
I’ve modified the song multiple times including replaying parts, changing the lead instrument, adding new instruments to the mix, completely reprogramming the drum track, and so on. Despite all that work and effort, I can’t release it because it isn’t right and I haven’t been able to fully delete it yet either. I’ve just spent so much time on it.
With paintings, I have this problem less because I’m working completely in a physical medium. Paint is mixed with mediums and applied to a support suitable for the type of paint I’m working with. When you add too much, everything becomes a muddy brown and there’s no real way to back out of it. Sure, sometimes you can just go over the top with an opaque medium and essentially reset back to stage one. But depending on your support, you might hit weight limitations.
Point is, I’ve hit those physical limitations many times with paintings and that led to a very natural end point. “This painting is not done and there’s nothing I can do to change it or make it better.” It gets thrown out.
Working with the music I create is similar to digital painting. Every component exists on a separate layer and it becomes incredibly easy to remove a layer or add new layers. So it’s easy to keep going ad infinitum…
So how do we know it’s time to walk away? You have to take a break from it. When you return to it again, if you feel inspired, keep working on it! But if you don’t feel inspired and you just want to work on it because you’ve already invested so much… walk away.
Your best work will come when you feel inspired and that inspiration will lead to a finished product. It’s not likely that you’ll produce your best work when your goal is to simply finish.
If you have some unfinished projects you want to tell me about, feel free to hit me via email or at Twitter.
P.S. Hey, don’t forget – walking away from something that isn’t working isn’t a sign of failure. Getting fixated, stuck, and frustrated leading to you being unable to get your whole creation out into the world because you didn’t walk away? That seems more like failure to me.