Whenever you are about to start something new, you risk ‘Blank Canvas Paralysis’, the inability to get started. It is frightening, frustrating and causes you to doubt yourself, but once recognized for what it is, it loses some of its power and you can find ways to deal with it.
Here is what Van Gogh had to say about it:
You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas, which says to the painter, ‘You can’t do a thing’. […] but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of `you can’t’ once and for all.
However, it is not only painters who face the blank canvas. Everyone eventually faces its petrifying stare. Retirement is a common blank canvas, paralysing in its vast expanse of freedom. Leaving university is another. Becoming a nomad is a third.
The nomadic life is a road less travelled, and thus there aren’t many ready-made role models to be inspired by. You will have to find your own damn way. Also, few geo-static people have geo-independent work, so when they become nomads, they will have to give up or drastically change their career.
This is where I stand right now. I have no idea what I am going to do with my work-life. The problem is not that I am lacking options. The problem is that as I stare at this blank canvas, Medusa stares right back at me, and I am petrified.
The three causes of Blank Canvas Paralysis
Too many options
Small fish swim in shoals to defend themselves against bigger fish. The big fish simply can’t focus on any one little fish long enough to catch it. It is the same thing with a blank canvas. You can paint an infinite number of things, and the choice is paralysing. Should you paint a fruit bowl? A landscape? Some red rhombi against a blue background?
The nomadic life has an awful lot of freedom, and it can be difficult to choose what to do with it. Do you go to Argentina, Italy or China? Will you work as a bartender, web designer or travel photographer?
To deal with the too-many-options problem, you should recognize that the problem only arises if the options are roughly equally good. If one option was clearly better than the rest, then the choice would be obvious. Similarly, if any of the options were clearly worse than the rest, then you wouldn’t have it in your short list to start with. (I am, for example, not considering to support my nomadic life by selling my internal organs.)
Having realized this, you can simply pick one of your options at random. After all, you can’t go too far wrong since the options are roughly equal. And in most cases, you can go back and make the choice again. Sometimes you just need to try a few things to see what sticks. Trying too hard to make the perfect choice first time around can waste a lot of time, cause an awful lot of stress and is still not a guarantee that you will make the ‘right’ choice.
Where to start?
Once you’ve decided what to do, the second part of the Blank Canvas Paralysis comes into effect. Where do you start? Most things roll on quite naturally once you have some momentum, but like in physics, getting something moving from standstill requires extra force.
Richard Diebenkorn (20th century American painter) said this about how to get started.
What I do is face the blank canvas and put a few arbitrary marks on it that start me on some sort of dialogue.
It is the same with most things. It doesn’t matter so much where you start; the important thing is that you start. So start with something small. (Buy paint brushes.) If your mind still winces at this small first step, make it tiny. (Google the nearest arts and crafts shop.)
What you should not do is plan excessively. Planning is not starting! Excessive planning is procrastination in disguise. It is the illusion that there is a perfect road to success.
There are two problems with over-planning. 1) You never start. 2) You lock your thinking into patterns based on the best ideas you have before you start, making you less flexible and open to the better ideas you’ll have half-way through your project.
The third cause of Blank Canvas Paralysis is the fear of failure. The subconscious argument goes like this. “I don’t dare to start this thing, because once I’ve started it, I will have put my self-esteem on the line. If it doesn’t work out, then I will have failed and thus be a failure. It is safer if I wait until I know for certain that it will succeed.”
Fear can keep us from doing stupid things, like betting the house on your new crochet business. But if the fear of failure itself is keeping you back, then it is time for me to dish out some tough love and break the news to you.
Not starting because you are afraid you will fail is in itself a failure!
You though it. You dreamt it. You want it. Don’t kid yourself that not giving it a go will save you from not feeling like a failure; you will feel like (and be) twice the failure for not even having had the guts to give it a go!
Ask yourself the following. Have you ever looked at someone who bright-eyed tried something new and exciting, bravely declaring that he has no idea if he is good enough to make it work but that he is willing to give it a try anyway, and when he only half-succeeds, have you ever thought of him as a failure? Or have you thought of him as brave and admirable?
The trick is this. Don’t say that you will succeed. It will make you seem cocky and arrogant. People love to see cocky and arrogant people fail. Instead, say that you will give it a try despite not knowing if you can do it. People will respect you for being humble enough to recognize that you might not make it, and they will respect you twice over for daring to do it anyway!
They fail, and they alone, who have not striven. — Thomas Bailey Aldrich