Check your ego

I came to terms with an idea this week that I’ve held for awhile: doing your own version is always better. I’m not entirely sure how that idea came together, but it’s underscored a lot of my decisions for at least the past four years working on my own.

Earlier this week while trying to write a system for managing projects, I caught myself. Last weekend, I’d been sorting through some boxes of old sketchbooks. While flipping through the pages of one book, I came across a sketch that more or less resembled the system I was working on. The problem? That sketch was about three years old.

I started to think, “I’ve had this problem for years, literally. Why am I still here, without anything to show?” The reality that came into focus was that mantra of always doing your own version. I’d become so enamored with the idea of building my own system from scratch that I barely examined what was out there. I was aware of other options, but didn’t stop to consider whether they were viable.

This isn’t an uncommon attitude. Both in and outside of my own industry, everyone is convinced that they can do it better. They’re probably not wrong either. They do know how to do it better. They have the vision and the technical aptitude to pull it together, so why don’t they? Because it’s hard.

In particular I’m talking about bigger ideas. Things that are achievable but have a lot of hidden details. There’s a joke (it’s actually 100% true) about web developers being terrible at estimating the time it takes to accomplish a task. “Oh, yeah! That? It will only take an hour or two.” Three weeks worth of eight hour days later, the task is finished. What happens?

It’s a blind spot. Early on, it’s easy to be ambitious about an idea. It’s easy to visualize the finished product, whizzing along, solving your problems. But it’s in those details that we get discouraged. An idea starts to fall apart. We lose focus and later, interest.

For me and the project I’ve described, it comes down to a reluctance to use the tools others have built outright. For the first few years of its life, I had a deep disregard for Bootstrap, a front-end framework that offers a set of pre-designed components to build interfaces faster. But then I tried it. How it looked wasn’t mind blowing, but it worked. It gave you the necessary baseline to get an interface up and running.

I was still a bit reluctant, but on projects where a glamorous interface wasn’t necessary, I used it. Those projects worked out. The clients were happy. I had the tool I needed. The work was done. With all this new consulting stuff, I relapsed.

I was absolutely convinced that I needed to custom design and build every little thing. I justified that desire, saying “it will make the customer experience better!” The reality, though, was that the bulk of what I was building would never be seen by a customer. Having a custom UI and code was certainly ideal, but not necessary. Holding this conviction slowed me down. What could have taken just a few weeks was stretching on for months. I decided to hit pause and evaluate what I could do instead.

When I put my ego aside and actually looked, I realized there were a lot of options. They needed some work to be “up to standards,” but the dumb stuff—the details I mentioned earlier—have been thought about. It’s not perfect, but I can save a lot of time, energy, and ultimately disappointment by starting with someone else’s thinking. Instead of fussing with my own thing from scratch, I can take that work and improve it to fit my own needs.

This is all coming together, so I can’t fully speak to the results or endorse the idea. But it does feel right. In the little work I’ve done—comparitavely a lot—I’ve accomplished a lot more. Time will tell, but seeing that notebook and then watching myself rehash the same excuses made it clear: check your ego at the door and admit that there’s plenty of great ideas out there if you just look.