Alana Cristante

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A theory: The graveyard of ideas

Started February 15, 2020, updated August 5, 2020, completed November 9, 2020.

I don’t believe we are qualified to be objective judges of our own ideas and work. After having a creative idea I often go through a phase of putting it up on a pedestal and worshipping it, followed by rejecting it at some point further down the line. How can this be possible? What happens to our psychology throughout the creative process, that can make us turn our backs on an idea we once thought so magnificent?

The digital version of a sketch I made about this idea during a flight in February.

This writing piece in and of itself has sat in the drafts of my laptop, unworked and reworked, for about nine months now. I do this often. It goes beyond procrastination; many of the times I have chosen not to work on this piece were because I decided it was stupid. When the idea first occurred to me, I thought it was worth devoting effort to – so what changed?

I won’t try to explain the psychology of this change or why it happens, but rather that it exists, and we must do something about it.

As time passes and I gather the information, materials and resources I think are necessary to bring a creative idea to fruition, I begin to dislike it. This even happens to half-completed projects, after much time spent talking about the idea with others, getting feedback, strategizing the perfect way to transform the idea into reality. Thinking of the idea for so long with such intensity, I begin to despise it or grow ashamed of it or both.

Then the project gets dumped. I will convince myself it was because it was mediocre or stupid, but can we really be the judges of our own creative ideas? I am sure marvelous ideas get thrown into the Graveyard as well. We shouldn’t make these decisions – even if an idea is terrible, isn’t it still better than nothing? To produce 100 projects, based on 100 ideas, with 99 of them being terrible and only one singular one being good – is that not the better alternative than having a Graveyard of 100 Ideas?

For the sake of providing examples, the most recent time this occurred was the Cow Costume Project of 2019-20. It all began with my morning commute to my internship at an engineering consulting firm. Taking the subway from the outskirts of the city into its core each morning, I dragged my feet, tired and groggy, through a crowd of other tired and groggy workers, through the entrance gates, down the steps, pouring and squeezing onto the train like sardines. We all wait, reach our stop, and follow the herd out of the grimy underground tunnels to our jobs, preparing to start our day. Enduring this exercise day after day made me feel like cattle, like we were all cattle.

I decided to create a short film in which I accomplish all of these daily tasks while wearing a cow costume - waking up, the commute, the office job, the lunch, the dinner, the tv watching, the brushing my teeth, the doing it all over again, and again, and again, and again. That was the entire point of the film. Just to symbolize how mindless it all felt. It was my version of Fight Club. I discussed it with my friends and family. Their feedback led me to create more of a character arc to the film - the aforementioned scenes would be Act I, followed by the cow reaching a peak contempt for their lifestyle and “breaking free” in Act II. Act III would see the cow ripping off their costume piece by piece, from the cow-patterned gloves, to the hat with its ears, nose and eyes, to the suit with its stupid tail and udders. The cow would live a life of excitement and adventure, the way middle-aged men seek these experiences when they reach their mid-life crisis. I compiled a storyboard.

My method of organizing thoughts and content for the flow of the Cow Costume Project.

The project began to get big, very big, and very unachievable. The easiest shots were taken first, of course. I had the camera, had the costume, had the friends to help. The more difficult shots got pushed back time and time again. Before I knew it, weeks had passed, and then months. “When are we filming that subway scene?” A friend would ask. “Where’s the cow video?” My mom would ask. As I lay in bed at night, I started to resent my own idea. It was stupid. Why did I even think it was worth attempting in the first place?

A snapshot of a scene from the Cow Costume Project.

The longer I go between having an idea, loving it, and actually doing it, the more likely I am to not only bring myself to hate it, but to begin to think that the idea is completely absurd and even stupid. This results in the ultimate non-existence of all my creative ideas in any real form, since they all eventually proceed to the Graveyard of Ideas.

I theorize that most projects, creative and otherwise, that present themselves with even the slightest challenge offer a point in the journey where the person doing them hates them. I have heard this is a thing with start-ups, and I have experienced it as a thing with design as well. There is a point where all hope is lost in the project, and I’m not fully sure why. It might have to do with looking down the road of effort left to invest and not believing it to be worth it. It may be that we sink so deep into our projects that we get sick of them, plain and simple. We doubt their success, their value, and their meaning.

Behind my mighty pile of unfinished projects hides this reasoning. The first project I completed in a very long time was my August stint as a Pandemic Mechanic. Facing car troubles, high costs at the mechanic, and lots of free time due to unemployment during unstable economic times, I took it upon myself to replace the brakes and front struts on my beloved 2008 Volkswagen City Jetta. It took me days, of sweat, grease, dirt and grime to complete these tasks. The car would sit up on jack stands in the driveway for what felt like forever. In the case of the struts, I made it through 90% of the challenge, getting the old and rusty struts off, before hitting a serious roadblock in getting the new ones in. I could absolutely not fit them into the steering knuckle. I grew sad, then pissed, then anxious. I would wake up randomly in the middle of the night, panicked about the car sitting in the driveway. Nobody would tow it without front wheels and struts. If I wanted to drive it again, the job would have to be finished. The differing factor in this project amongst the others was that I had skin in the game. It wasn’t up to me anymore; I had to tuck my despair aside and continue the job.

The before and after comparison of the front strut replacement; you can see in the first image that the strut is out of the steering knuckle. The second image was taken after the mechanic had put the new strut into the steering knuckle.

(For those curious, I hired a mechanic to walk 400m to my house, help me put the strut into the steering knuckle while I watched, and then walk back to his shop. It was great and I finished the rest of the job myself afterwards. I did however crack a bolt on the sway bar link that had to be replaced afterwards - but mistakes happen.)

We seem to spend more time birthing our ideas opposed to nurturing them properly. Having an idea and harnessing it are two very different things. A better plan is to simply bring ideas to fruition, not just ever but soon after their conception, offloading and presenting them for the universe to decide: are they marvellous, or mediocre? This judgement shouldn’t be for us alone to make. Is it not better to have created many things, some shitty and some good, rather than nothing at all? Intelligence is not always everything - sometimes, energy is. It’s critical to persevere and sail our ideas through the rough waters they may be faced with. It’s critical to try. Taleb Kweli said, “If you can turn your thoughts into actions, that is supreme alchemy.”

One of the best ways to learn is to just make, which tends to be even better than attempting to learn to make. Research and preparation can often be enlightened methods of procrastination. By simply making something, jumping into the deep end, you will learn much more efficiently and thoroughly. I learned that lesson in a documentary filmmaking project called In Your Palm, which I will write about with my good friend and film director Carter Kirilenko soon. Making things allows us to learn. It is as simple as that. This is why theoretical self-education can lack the productivity that personal or professional projects commanded by necessity have. Understanding the desired output of a project or task enables us to better train ourselves to reach it. Of course necessity can be born of plain interest or desire, but self-education without a specific, tangible end-goal beyond knowledge can lack the structure that projects create. What becomes the dividing factor in these self-motivated environments? Anyone can start a project, but who can finish it?

This piece may act more as a PSA than a PSA; a personal service announcement rather than a public one. Analysis paralysis is a dangerous trap. Do do do. Do now, think later. Do blindly. See what the world has to say. Persevere; employ relentlessness. Fail publicly, not privately.