Avoiding the Medium-Sized Stuff

February 2013

It’s about a month too late to be making New Year’s Resolutions, but here goes. From now on, I only want to work on big stuff. Important stuff. Stuff that takes guts and daring to get finished. Stuff that could fail badly, but just as likely could (hopefully, hopefully!) succeed beyond my wildest imaginings.

The small stuff is okay, too. Tweets and Instagram photos and Vine clips – stuff that’s easy to create and easy to digest. The small stuff can stay. The small-scale stuff is fun.

What I want to avoid is everything in the middle. The medium-sized stuff: projects that don’t really mean that much to me, but that take more than a trivial amount of effort to get finished. Recently, I’ve been taking on a lot of projects with timeframes measured in days or weeks. That’s not long enough to do anything very interesting. These projects are not horrible to work on, but, were I to pan out and see my life on the scale of years or decades, I realise it’s these particular projects that I’ll end up forgetting, these particular projects that will lead me to wonder, “Hey, what did I actually do over this year and that?”

Big projects are scary. It’s much more tempting to take on a bunch of medium-sized projects than one huge project, because in doing so you mitigate the chance of failure. But it’s the stuff that could fail that’s the stuff we remember, not the stuff that’s safe.

Freelancers, I think, are particularly liable to fall into the trap of operating exclusively on the medium-scale. In fact, freelancing is essentially built around medium-scale projects – projects that we can mark off as ‘completed’ and invoice for, before moving onto something entirely different. When you freelance, you’re usually insulated from any real risks associated with the project you’re working on. You complete the work assigned, and they (the client) worry about how to make that work make money. For the freelancer, the project is just one in a line of many, but for the client the project could be their livelihood, their life’s work.

I’ve always been sympathetic to freelancers who decide to shift away from freelancing and toward “becoming their own clients”. (See: Tina Roth Eisenberg’s Tattly; Coudal Partners’ Field Notes; Greyscalegorilla’s 3D modelling kits, Kai Brach’s Offscreen magazine, Frank Chimero’s The Shape of Design etc). Wanting to work on your own stuff isn’t about being selfish or hating your clients – at least, I don’t think so. It’s about wanting to change the scale of your life: wanting to move away from working on lots of medium-scale projects for other people, and toward working on one big thing that really matters.

I enjoy working with my clients too much to want to “fire them” just yet, but when I’m considering taking on a project, I’ve instructed a little voice in the back of my head to ask, “Is this something you could tell your grandkids about?” If it’s not, maybe I’ll take a stab at something else, even if it’s a little riskier and success a little less assured.