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Forests vs Trees (also: Hot-Air Balloons)

Hexagon forest with one dead treeI wonder what the first guy to come up with the idea for a passenger-occupied hot-air balloon did when he finally sat down to start working on this bizarre idea of his. I wonder if there was a moment of thinking, “This is crazy. What was I thinking? It can never be done.” Actually, I’m pretty sure there might have been. Someone eventually did make one though, thus proving all those fears irrelevant.

I suppose it’s almost always scary to do something new – whether it is just new to you, or whether it is entirely unique to the world. That’s most likely because new things provide us with no internal frame of reference. There’s nothing we can compare it to in our past. And so it is with ideas. Even great ideas can suddenly seem impossible to execute when you start looking at the “how” of it.

But I think that’s precisely where we need to believe in a little “magic”; a little “suspension of reality” and just go with it. I’ve seen so many times how people kill great ideas prematurely because immediately after having the idea, and before giving it a chance to settle down and ruffle its feathers a little, people start questioning the “how”. And so often, because they can’t find an immediate answer to the “how”, the illusion gets shattered and all faith in that big idea is lost (it’s a bit like the Buddha’s parable of the poisoned arrow – worrying about who shot the arrow, what it’s made of, what kind of bow was used – before focusing on the fact that there’s a damn poisoned arrow stuck in your leg).

While doing a stint in design school, we were faced with some or other project one day and almost all my classmates (who had infinitely more experience with Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, etc. than I had) seemed to just calmly sit down and start working on their ideas. I must have looked somewhat panicky and the lecturer came up to me. I told him I didn’t have enough confidence with any of the software packages yet – I had no idea how I would execute this idea. Then, he gave me some of the best creative advice ever – really simple, but absolutely brimming with wisdom: “Worry about the idea, not the tools. The tools are merely there to help you execute the idea and it doesn’t matter what tools you use.” Basically – worrying about the how is entirely the wrong way around to start working on anything creative. It will most likely depress you if you start worrying about the how before worrying about the what. It will most likely kill the what. It will most likely get you right back to where you started from in the first place…

Even though I’ve had the idea for my game almost six months ago, I’ve really only started working on it in the past two weeks. Sure, I drew up some initial diagrams as soon as I had the idea. I made some drawings, wrote a note or two, and then I shelved it all. Not in any permanent sense, but I shelved it until I could glean enough knowledge to execute my idea.

I almost stepped right into that trap again – thinking that I had to master my tools first before I can execute my idea. And while I’m not suggesting in any way that mastery of the tools of one’s trade is a bad thing, I do believe that it is somewhat of an overrated thing. Especially when it comes to new territory. Why would I have to worry about having intricate knowledge of Unity to plan the mechanics of my game? Why would I need to know the secrets of three-point lighting in 3D software to be able to conceive of what the story arc in the game should be? These things are all details that can be filled in later.

So, hot-air balloons and trees…? When I picked up my notes and diagrams from six months ago and started earnestly working on this idea, things were going really well for a while. I felt invigorated, excited – life had meaning. But then I started seeing flaws in the details. Panic started setting in again – “What if this idea really isn’t as great as I thought?” But somehow, perhaps because I have too much invested in this project, I managed to cast my glance sideways and notice that, “Hey! This tree might have been struck by lightning, but look! There’s another perfectly healthy one right there. And hey! Look! There are hundreds of other trees all around me and the forest is fine. Even without that one tree, it is still a forest.”

It’s happened a couple of times already in this short stretch of time. But so far, I’ve managed to stay the course. Because each time it happens, I just set aside that particular issue for a while and continue walking around another part of the forest. If you start worrying that the hot air balloon won’t be big enough to carry the basket, read up about different materials that could be used to make the balloon from. If you can’t find any non-flammable materials to make balloons from, start reading about the density of different gases. Well, I’m not planning on making hot air balloons, but I think you get the idea. There’s nothing wrong with your forest. Stay there. Even if there are a few dead trees here and there. Have a little faith in your idea, because if you don’t, it’s guaranteed to fail. If you do, it might still stand a chance. And that’s the only guarantee that you’ll ever have (that, and death).

Finally, to paraphrase and expand on some counter-pop-culture wisdom I saw yesterday: doing that thing that really fulfils you might take a very long time, but going nowhere takes your whole life.

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