Why Your Best Work is Hardest to Finish

"The professional does not over-identify with his art, but simply shows up every day to put his time in, to do the work."

  • Steven Pressfield, the War of Art

When I was 21, I dropped out of college to pursue the life I’d been imagining for years. The life where I could focus on meaningful projects that I enjoyed working on. The life where I could choose how to invest my time instead of being subjected to how others thought I should spend it.

I knew I had to put in the effort and time if I wanted to succeed - and I was doing exactly that. But despite my efforts, I struggled finishing many of the projects I cared about most.

Then I found The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. It’s a book that had a profound impact on my work and the work of many others...

But there was one sentence that I just hated.

"The professional does not over-identify with his art, but simply shows up every day to put his time in, to do the work."

My mind totally rejected this concept. I just dropped out of college to pursue what I loved, how could I not identify with it?

Luckily, I continued to deliberate over that quote for some time - months, maybe years - until it finally sunk in.

We Don’t Finish When Too Much is On the Line

Often when we start feeling that a particular piece of work has special, unique value we begin to identify with it.

  • “All that practicing is really paying off!”
  • “I can’t wait to see what Jessica thinks of this!”
  • “This is going to be my legacy."

As you continue to blur the lines between your identity and your project, the stakes begin to rise. If your project fails, it becomes less something you can brush off.

It's starts to feel like not just the failure of the project but a failure of you. What people say about your project turns into something they’re saying about you.

Maybe you show it to a friend and interpret some feedback as an attack—or maybe you just start imagining that feedback. But the more over-identified you become, the more determined you are make your work even better before getting your work out to a larger audience so that you don’t have to take any more ego-beatings.

Unfortunately, that doesn't get you any closer to actually sharing your work with the people who would benefit from it.

When We Over-Identify with Our Work, Finishing is Incredibly Hard

The root of the problem is simply that there’s not a separation of your personal value as a human from the value of your project.

It’s very unlikely that your project needs more tinkering. What it needs to some exposure. Get your work out to 10 people. Accept their criticism with gratitude and realize deeply that they are sharing their experience with your work, not their opinion about you.

There's no need to defend your work from their feedback whether you agree or not. Just accept it, say thanks and work it into the next iteration if you think it's worth a shot.

Love Your Craft, Not Your Projects

The reason that it was so hard for me to accept Pressfield’s ideas about over-identifying with my work is because I loved the products I was developing (and still do). I wanted to identify with it, I wanted it to be a deeply rooted part of my life.

What I came to realize over-time is that I was channeling that love towards the wrong thing: a single project. That makes you want to protect the project at all costs, which translates to shielding it from the world.

If you shift that love for your work to love for your craft the exact opposite happens. You realize that you improve so much faster when you get your work out into the world. You start sharing work as fast as you can to whoever it may help. 

Commit to your craft, don’t over-identify with your projects and let your best work see the light of day.