Put Your Effort Where It Works

Wishing for what isn’t is not way to live happily. Wishing that it were cooler (if you live here in the Sonoran Desert) makes it seem hotter. Wishing you were richer makes you feel poorer.

All those yellow flowers and green leaves? They’re not coming back.

In July, the serious heat sets in. July is the hottest month for most Northern Hemisphere areas, and we often have 30 days of more than 110 degrees–they aren’t consecutive,  but most of them happen in July and August. Each year, I buy plants that say “full sun” on the little white plastic spears that come in the pot.  Our “full sun” melts the little plastic signs, so the plants don’t

Each year I struggle to keep those plants alive. That makes as much sense as trying to keep the leaves on the trees in October in Vermont. It’s just not going to happen.

This morning I quit watering the straw those plants turned into and decided to put my efforts into the ones that could survive without a lot of extra work.

Not going to make it, no matter how much love I pour on it.

And that’s exactly what happens with your creativity, too. Put it in a place where it can’t possibly survive, and the struggle is ugly and non-productive.

Whether that’s a bad relationship, bad retreat you feel you should have loved, bad project you thought would be great, or bad book you are reading, there are some efforts that won’t be rewarded. Goethe, the German thinker and poet, said “Die Arbeit ist nicht immer mit Erfolg gekrönt,” —Your work is not always guaranteed success. (I know it’s not the literal translation, the interpretation was called for here.)

So why not eliminate all those dead projects that aren’t worth saving? Flogging a dead horse is not always noble or even what’s called for. Sometimes it’s far more worthwhile to be very honest, determine that you do not have the stamina, strength, materials, smarts or spirit to make this project succeed, or even move forward. The smart thing to do is to stop pouring your effort into a bottomless pit and spend more of your effort doing something that will give you a better result.

This is the one that will make it. This is the place to put the effort.

Half of being smart is knowing what you are dumb at and not doing it. The other half, of course, is knowing what you are good at and doing more of it.

Yes, this is different from stopping because you are bored or tired, or walking away from your marriage because there is something more appealing to go after.  You know the projects. You’ve been there. Spend the precious water you have in the Sonoran desert to nurture the plant that can adapt to the desert. Put your energy behind the projects that will work. They will thrive and so will you.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach.

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22 thoughts on “Put Your Effort Where It Works

  1. Knowing when it’s time to let something go is hard. I have a lilac that was here when we bought the house over 20 years ago that never bloomed despite all my efforts. Yes, I’ve been known to wait longer than I should. I made excuses for it – the foliage was nice, the hummingbirds perched in it, and it would be gorgeous if it bloomed. Then last year, just before I was about to cut it down, I discovered a blossom. Just one. That blossom gave me hope, and I let it live, maybe it was finally getting enough light to bloom. And this year, nothing. But the hummingbirds still perch there.

  2. Pushing water uphill with a rake is how I describe it – a few drops get there but somehow not enough to do much good. I’d rather put my energy elsewhere – it’s not quitting, it’s simple wisdom to not keep doing what you can’t do or even influence.
    Years ago I read ‘They can Kill You, But They Can’t Eat You’ a book by Dawn Steel, one of the first women to run a major movie studio in Hollywood. With a title like that I had to take a look!
    Each chapter started with a saying, most were her father’s I think. One that stuck was, “never try to teach a pig to sing, you waste you time and annoy the pig.” Sometimes it takes a while to identify a pig because any number of them come heavily disguised . . . but if you find it’s a pig . . .

  3. Sometimes it is not immediately clear whether the project is dead because it is no longer breathing and you should let it go, or because you are procrastinating and should just start, because that will wake the patient from the coma. For me, sometimes the voices are very similar.

    I have just given up on a houseplant that I can’t keep alive but I think I have been watering a dead plant for over a month! I struggle completely giving up, equating it with failure not efficient use of energy and resources.

    And not finishing a book?? It may get better on the next page, so it goes back onto my to read pile. I know it is a waste of energy reading a bad book when there are plenty of books I do want to read, but I really struggle with putting down a book and not finishing. Just the idea of it makes me shudder.

    However I have 4 books on my shelves that have been there for years in my I-will-finish-you-one-way pile and the thought of picking them up makes me want to poke out my eyes, maybe I should just get rid of them, rather than have them sit there staring at me. 🙂

  4. Dear Ruthee – I was in a similar state about a year ago and was gifted a coaching session with Quinn. That hour of discussion changed everything for me. With her gentle listening and concrete suggestions, I was able to formulate a plan to “get going” – I have been in my studio three hours at a time nearly every day since. It made a difference to me that I made a commitment not just to myself but to her as well. If you can and want to, I’d recommend signing up for a session with Quinn….

    • Thanks, Melissa, for the suggestion, which I can not ethically make myself. We do get wound around our axles creatively, and it can seem like a lot of work to move forward again.

  5. If I were really brave, the kind of smart-brave that stops watering plants that seemed like such a good idea, but weren’t, I’d make a list of all those projects floating around in my head, and on paper half-conceived, or half begun, and then assess the viability of each one. I’d be more productive if the dead wood could be removed. It’s a difficult task – what if i stop a project that is the golden one. Ha — gold vs. fool gold, maybe?

    Wish I had an instruction manual of baby steps on how to kill those dead weight projects…

      • Sure — in fact fifteen years is not all that long IMHO. Linus Torvalds is still leading Linux after 21 years, and Henry Darger’s 35,000 page (illustrated!) Vivian Girls saga took him his whole life. This one is a book, sort of. That is, it’s not a book in any genre I can identify but it’s more like a book than anything else. the secret is to not give one flying fig whether anybody sees it or understands it.

          • Hmm…I have to admit I really don’t understand what ‘making meaning’ means. But I gather it’s ore like making brownies than making trouble, so I’ll be making the best of it 🙂

          • Making meaning is a combination of self discovery, self-acceptance, discovering the connection between all living things, joining the universal unconscious. And it’s as good as making brownies.

  6. Right now, I seem to be at a crossroads with a major case of indecision weighing heavily on me. I want to be working on something creative, but just don’t know which way to head. I’m trying to read different books to get some inspiration, but it is still eluding me. It’s not as if I have too much on the go right now. I have some ideas, but just cannot seem to sit in the studio and work on them. Maybe summer is to blame and the weather is calling to me to make the most of it whilst I can enjoy it. It’s as if I have planted the little plants (my inspiration) and they are withering away despite my looking over them and trying to baby them along.

    I’m not sure how I’m going to resolve this and get back on track again, but I have a few ideas. First, a major tidy up which will free up all flat surfaces. Second, put the canvases I’m not happy with in a pile and deal with them at a later date. I’m pretty sure a coat of gesso and some sanding will make the canvases usable again and the process be therapeutic getting rid of the bad karma. Third, and last, do a cleansing of the energy in the room by burning either a smudge stick or some essestial oil to move all the bad energy out and allow the creativity back in. Sounds like a weird way to deal with my lack of creativity, but I’m all for anything that might work.

    I’m using the index card a day project you mentioned in another post to help get me through this dry spell and it does seem to help. I’ve been able to do some rough sketches that when put together make up a painting that will hopefully get painted soon. I’m not putting pressure on myself right now and just trying to nuture the creativity into actively growing and not withering away like some of the less successful potted plants on my patio.

    Here’s hoping for a week of quiet contemplation that leads me past the “slow artist moving” sign and on to a noisy, messy studio that is full of energy and work getting done.

    • After you clean out the studio (always a good idea), you might stay out of it for three days, then return, sit down and be still. Listen to your heart in your studio and see what it says. Sometimes staying away makes our needs clear. This is a hard time, but I know you will heal your indecision.

  7. Texas is not Phoenix, but we have similar temperatures. I have purchased those same little plants and apologized to them on the ride home, knowing it would be a miracle if they survived. Now I simply find interesting things to put in my colorful pots and will wait until October to think about planting again. But your point is noted and well taken.

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