Throwing decisions into the bottomless pit

October 23, 2009 · 2 min read

The Incredibles is one of my favorite movies, and its director, Brad Bird, is intelligent and articulate. So a few years ago I watched The Incredibles with director's commentary. I remember two insightful things Bird said that were relevant to startups.

One of them is a story he repeated in an interview with the Museum of the Moving Image:

It seemed like for years I was throwing a thousand decisions a day into this bottomless pit, and I’d go, “Is anything going to happen with these constant judgments I’m making?” And, “Oh, yeah, we got them, we got them.” So it’s another day, another thousand decisions into the pit—where you’d never hear the splash, either—and it’s just (makes a wind sound). (Laughter) And you go, “Is this movie getting done? I don’t seem to see any...” “Oh, yeah, we got it, it’s getting done.” And, seemingly, nothing happens. Then, suddenly, you get these images, and they’re more complete than you could ever imagine them, and all the lighting is there, and all the details are there. It seems like it was made overnight.

Throwing a thousand decisions a day into a bottomless pit, only to see it all come together much later. Software can be like that. Getting more visibility is part of the motivation for Agile development and minimum viable product.

But you can still get that bottomless-pit feeling working towards any large-scale, long-term goal—such as building a product or a company from scratch. You have this grand vision and it won't be fully realized for years, no matter how many milestones you hit along the way. Every day you do small tasks—going to meetings, writing emails, reviewing specs and mockups—and you make decisions all the time, a thousand decisions a day on all sorts of little details. It's hard to hold on to the long-term vision and to believe that the mundane tasks you're doing day to day are adding up to it.

The best antidote I've found is to set goals—a hierarchy of goals. Then I can see how the day's tasks add up to goals for the week, the week's goals add up to the month's, the month's to the quarter's, and the quarter's to the year's.

Have you experienced the bottomless-pit feeling? What do you do about it?

(PS: If you liked The Incredibles, check out one of Bird's earlier, lesser known films, The Iron Giant.)

These days I do most of my writing at The Roots of Progress. If you liked this essay, check out my other work there.


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