Shoot the Crow

I have to remind myself that there’s nothing noble about the writer who throws his manuscript into the fireplace or the painter who slashes her work with a razor.

“I hate the fucking product,” my client is saying and my mind drifts to Hollywood scenes of the angst-ridden artist. “I wake up, grab the app and feel sick. I want to tear everything apart and start all over.”

This pain, I say to myself, is real. This is pure existential suffering.

I remember when I was the editor of a magazine. I remember planning the redesign; the hours-long conversations about every meticulous detail. We debated font size, picas and kerning. We compared color scheme after color scheme. And when we were done, I felt a rush of pride as the first copies came back from the printer.

One month later I hated every damn aspect of that new design.

Why do we hate what we labor so long to create?

I think it’s partly because the song we hear in our head, the application we dream up late at night as we can’t sleep, the story we write in the car as we drive home is never the same as the song that is sung. It pains me when I see my clients, artists every one of them, frustrated that no one can hear the notes as well as them.

The founder who turns to CTO after CTO, engineer after engineer, to sit through yet another whiteboard session leading to wireframes.
“Make it like this.”
“Then have it do this.”
“And then this.”
Make it feel this way…or that.

And inevitably they blurt out: “No, no, no. NOT that,” grabbing the dry erase marker, “…like this!”

The designer shakes his head, the engineer slinks back to her desk, muttering, “What the fuck do they want?!?”

Sometimes our frustration grows out of boredom; familarity breeding contempt. We live with our creations, day in and day out, and come to hate them. Perhaps, in seeing only the flaws in the creation, we’re really facing our deepest insecurities, our deepest doubts about our right to be creating at all.

Who the hell am I, says a voice deep inside, to think that I can cause this impossible thing to come into being? Why would anyone want to use this thing, this service? Maybe I’m just wrong.

Or perhaps every day that the service doesn’t live up to our expectations (or, maybe just as bad, those of our employees, our investors, and our “friends” in the middle-school-like atmosphere of the particular startup community which we inhabit), we’re reminded of our deepest fear: failure.

I feel that most acutely when I write. Some days, I hate every single syllable I type. I took a few writing courses in college. The extraordinary poet Marie Ponsot would talk about the crow sitting on your shoulder saying things like: “That sucks,”  “How could you write that?” and “Are you kidding me?”

Diminutive, chain-smoking Marie would jut her tobacco-stained finger into the air, punctuating every word: Shoot. The. Fucking. Crow.

I suspect the particularly exquisite pain of hating your own creation may be yet another manifestation of investing too much of your own sense of being into the company, the product, the service. When we hang our sense of self on the whisper of an idea, what else are we to feel but pain?

Thankfully we live in the age of pivots, failing fast, and “iterate, iterate, iterate.” Those survival strategies are all clever and important–necessary, even, given the pace of innovation, competition, and change. But the most helpful aspect of that implicit mindset is its promise of freedom from the awful mental torture of hating your own company, your own creation, your own self. Failing fast and endless iterations are wonderful little bullets with which to shoot the fucking crow.

  • Adrian Bye

    upvoted :)

  • harryh

    > I think it’s partly because the song we hear in our head, the
    > application we dream up late at night as we can’t sleep, the
    > story we write in the car as we drive home is never the same as
    > the song that is sung.

    That’s because the one in our head isn’t real. We’re glossing over all the gaps and flaws and inconsistencies. It’s only when we make it real that we realize where the faults are.

    • jerrycolonna

      I think that’s one reason. There’s also the inability to express what’s in our heads. And then there’s the constant comparison with everyone else (in the middle-school). It’s fucking brutal.
      But I think you’re right and pushing through it. I was trying to make a similar point–use the constant iteration process to learn. Those were the bullets I was referring to.

      I find equally interesting though the question of why it’s such a struggle, why do we end up hating what we create. And if I only saw this once or twice I wouldn’t find it so interesting. But I see it every day. Damn. I even feel it myself. 

      • shiuanbutler

        maybe it’s the bad cycle of self-criticism and perfection banging on each other? it’s never good enough.. messages we received as little ones. I always like remembering the quote– paint like you’re a crazy woman.. helps relieves the pressure.

        • jerrycolonna

          Yes, yes, yes. I agree Shiuan. There’s a good line in the movie Ruby Sparks (where the main character writes into being a beautiful girlfriend). The therapist (of course I would love him. :) ) tells the writer’s block-bound main character to write a “bad” story. It unleashes him.

      • harryh

        I certainly agree about the bullets. Lots and lots of lead bullets.

        I still think that a lot of the hate comes from folks inability to acknowledge that how they saw in in their head isn’t real. It’s not an inability to express, it wasn’t there in the first place to be expressed.  No one has all the answers in their head already.  You’ve got to get it down on paper / in code / etc to see the mistakes and then work from there.

        If you keep comparing what you have to what you’ve imagined then that’s where the problems come from because those imaginings weren’t real.  It’s like people that think they had unlocked the secrets of the universe when they were high last night.  It never really happened.

        • jerrycolonna

          LOL. Yes. I can see that. I’d re-frame the language though because none of our imaginings are “real” until they are written or built. BUT your point about folks thinking they’ve “unlocked the secrets” is well made. The point is that it may not be functional just because it “functioned” in their mind.

  • Emil Sotirov

    True, true, true… been there, done that… but re: the last paragraph – the very practical problem with fast-failing and multi-pivoting is of finding ways to sustain yourself (family and company) economically. And taking the risk of becoming a life-long failure. I wonder what will become of all those thousands of now young ceo/founders that will fail to “exit” successfully. Most will discover that employers don’t like to hire failed ex-CEOs. I don’t believe in the “happy” scenario of never ending job hoping – specifically for people who have tried and failed to reach the stars. And that’s one other terror-inducing “crow sitting on your shoulder.”

    • jerrycolonna

      Yeah well that’s a whole ‘nother problem Emil…sustaining yourself and your company while you twist and turn. I suspect the fear of being a “life-long” failure may be greater in your head than in reality BUT the consequences of failure are quite real.
      So the crow feeds on fear.

  • Kevin Friedman

    Great post. Boy, do I know that crow. Reminded me of this quote from Warhol that I have been enjoying and finding helpful lately:

    “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

    • jerrycolonna

      Love that quote Kevin. I love the whole “just keep making fucking art” notion.

  • Charlie Crystle

    Fortunately customers and user testing can really help get past our own troubles with design. 

    I’ve had many battles with developers who would deliver something incomprehensible and say “just put it in the help”. Uh, no. No. If it needs explanation, it doesn’t go in the product. Painful principle but it works. 

    • jerrycolonna

      Sure. AND I suppose it’s important for the lead product designer to be certain that they’re not communicating in an incomprehensible way.

      • Charlie Crystle

        definitely and I know you’re focused more on the psychology around it. It’s definitely tough when the lead isn’t a communicator, or is passive aggressive. Shows up in the design…

        • jerrycolonna

          and when the communications process is broken or chock full of nonsense.

          • Charlie Crystle

            no doubt. relearning communications right now…

          • jerrycolonna

            A never-ending process

          • Charlie Crystle

            ever. 3 weeks later and finally had a breakthrough. 

  • panterosa,

    I strive as I create to bring you back to the very epiphany – the moment I saw it work in my own head. I have been able to do that. I know others who are able as well to do it and I have watched them and spoken with them about not crapping up an idea.
    I don’t hate my work, I never have, I love my work. I am actually able to bring the idea to life. Perhaps I am an anomaly. Also, Jerry, you managed to turn off what was left of the crow in my head. It stemmed from the Buddhist notion of seeing the use and beauty in things, and not always being a critic. It was like the inner mean girl. Mean girls suck, and they have no business living in my head.
    I consider myself very lucky. I present such a labor of love today. It is as good as I hoped, and it will be everything I hope for it to be in the future.

    • jerrycolonna

      I think you’re lucky too. BUT I also think you’ve learned over time the value of not listening to the mean girl (I love that image, btw).

  • William Mougayar

    Well said Jerry. You’ve described life in a startup. Putting out a new publishing book is no different from a software product. You’ve got to nail every element of it, and until you do, you’ve got to iterate like hell. 

    Nassim Taleb’s new book Antifragility reeks of startup stuff related to resiliency and becoming stronger with every mistake and iteration. 

    • jerrycolonna

      I think it’s the creative process. I showed my 15-year old son the post last night and he laughed and said, “Yes. That’s exactly what I feel when I write an essay.”

      • William Mougayar

        True. You can get to happy if you start with unhappy.

  • Joe Marchese

    Thanx for the right post at the right time. What you describe is exactly what I have been going through on a product that has been a dream for a long time (embarrassed to admit how long) and a WIP for over 2 years. I need more frequent reminders of a quote I use from Bob Knight (OK, maybe not a role model person, but a great coach): ‘Mental toughness is to physical toughness as 4 is to 1’. That’s what helps me shoot the crow: the recognition that I put him there, and only I can make him go away.

    • jerrycolonna

      You’re welcome Joe. I know a LOT of folks see themselves in this situation. And you’re right about you being the only person to release yourself from the worst of this.

  • Hide Harashima

    Thank you Jerry for this post. The pain we feel is real, especially when we have to market them to others and not point out every fault you see in your own head. Sometimes it takes a reminder that what we created is not perfect, but the collective experiences (especially ‘failed’ ones) contribute to something that we can be proud of (in our heads).

    • jerrycolonna

      I think the pursuit of perfection forces us to ignore the power of the process itself. There’s value in the iteration beyond the outcome.

  • Brian

    Amen…awesome post! I can’t tell you how many times I have to say to myself – just to get a blog post done – “Don’t get it right, get it written!”

    Thanks for sharing the agony! 

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Brian. In my experience, the “just get it done” notion applies to everything. There’s a whole flock of crows out there.

  • Alan

    One of the best things I have read all year! 

    The mental picture I get from  “Diminutive, chain-smoking Marie would jut her tobacco-stained finger into the air, punctuating every word: Shoot. The. Fucking. Crow.” has kept me smiling all day!

    • jerrycolonna

      Wow, Alan. Thank you. That’s a wonderful compliment.
      Oh and Marie would keep you smiling, thinking and laughing all day. She’s an incredible poet and teacher.

  • shurikenlord

    Got here via a tweet from Rand Fishkin, and you’ve earned yourself yet another fan. I noticed how accurate yet artistic you point things out. Give me 24 hours to dissect how this finesse we call writing is being done in this blog. 

    P.S. already killed the crow. Oh, and the muse, too

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Robrick. I have this sense that trying to write well enhances the message. At least it entertains me. 😉

  • Andy Crissinger

    Great post, Jerry!  What a pointed description of one of the biggest challenges to creativity.   My favorite line:  “When we hang our sense of self on the whisper of an idea, what else are we to feel but pain?”  So true.   

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Andy. Truth is, I liked that line myself. :-)
      Sometimes I wish the sentiment wasn’t so universal.

  • JLM

    Great post.  I can feel the heat, pain, tears and frustration.  I have lived it.

    In many things in life, we have to resolve only to test ourselves.  A real no baloney test.

    I went to military school and initially pursued a career as a professional soldier.  I went to Ranger school because to be a Ranger was to be the best you could.  When you reported into a unit with a Ranger tab and jump wings, there was a little aura of power that preceded your arrival.

    But I did not know if I was tough enough to make it.  Alone in my head, in that little place where only honesty exists — can I really do this?

    This sense of jumping off the cliff and taking a chance — a chance which I did not know whether I could master is at the core of almost everything that an entrepreneur does.

    You can never get fully comfortable with the outcome but you can steel yourself to take that leap.  And when you are the entrepreneur, you take that leap naked and alone.

    I built a high rise building once upon a time and I put my entire heart, soul and being into that building.  When it was done, I looked at it and knew I had done my very best.  I knew every element and detail of that building from head to toe.

    When I drive by it today, I am still filled — just for a second — with the dread, the angst and the terror of a million decisions I made in the course of building that building.

    And then, like seeing your children grow, I am filled with the most wonderful sense of triumph — because I did the best I was capable of doing.  Perfect?  Hell no.  But the best I could do.

    If you have done your best and you have poured your heart and soul into it, then I have some very simple advice.

    Eat the fucking crow!  All you can do is your best.

    • jerrycolonna

      My goodness JLM that was brilliant. Seriously…I think you hit upon the most liberating thought possible: recognizing and accepting that you’ve done your best (implicitly without ever letting up on the quest for excellence). In fact, that reminds me so much of the Buddhist notion behind mindfulness practice: we’ll never achieve perfection but the relentless pursuit of fully waking up is, itself, the point.

      And thanks for the brilliance of eating the crow. Amen brother.

      • JLM

        Thanks Jerry.  Damn you write some thought provoking stuff.  Well played.

        There IS a liberating peace of mind when we are able to say — “…well, I don’t know exactly how this is going to turn out but I am going to leap into it with reckless abandon and do my best.”

        We often find that our quest unveils a couple of things — new gears — that we did not know existed.

        There are no truly extraordinary people only ordinary people who rise to the occasion in extraordinary circumstances.

    • Kevin Friedman

      JLM, what an amazing comment. Thank you.

      This brought up a couple of questions for me that I would be grateful for you to offer your wisdom: how do you define “your best”? And, how do you know “when you did your best”?

      I ask because as I see things, isn’t part of the problem for an entrepreneur (and others) is that we have an unattainable idea of “our best” and, to steal Jerry’s line, “disappear into the fire” in the pursuit of our idea of “the best”? I know that’s my conundrum.

      • panterosa,

        Kevin, I grew up with my mother repeating her mother’s line  “Do your best. Angels can’t do better.”
        I ‘ve often heard JLM talk about nailing 85% on time, or  better – early,  as being far better than 100% arriving late.
        I have Jerry nailing me on “code freeze” – ship now!! for a few months now.
        And a voice in my head, my long dead father, asking where I lost the 2 points when I got a 98 on my first exam. 

        I have come to believe there is a happy medium. Freeze code, ship 85% now, and ship an update with the 2 points in it. 

        • Kevin Friedman

          Ha. I like this. :-)

        • JLM

          80% right and done on time makes more money than perfection.
          Don’t let perfect become the mortal enemy of good.

        • Joaquín R. Kierce

          I like the last part mucho.

          When I was a kid my dad would tell me: “starting something is having 50% done”. Of course, I never really understood it (“the math doesn’t add up…” :-) until I “grew up” and began to plan too much and do too little.
          I think we pre-occupy ourselves too much. I like breaking that word up because it makes me SEE that preoccupying stands for doing nothing before doing something. 

      • Renita Kalhorn

        I think it’s a matter of continuously checking in, especially in those moments of fear or frustration, and asking yourself: “In this moment, am I doing my best?” (It’s a moving scale — so the standard for your best when you have the flu will not be the same as when you’re in good health.)

        If there’s something specific you can do better, than do it. If not, accept it and let go of the resistance to the way things are. But not taking action AND beating yourself up for not being perfect is a recipe for misery.

      • JLM

        Hey, Kevin, I think that your best is a moving target for most of your life.  You are undoubtedly better at things today than you were 3 years ago — and why not?You know when it is your “best” in some ways by the level of exhaustion and care that you have invested in the effort.I am damned by the sense that I always want to do my best.  I don’t always actually do my best but I always WANT to do my best.That is the curse and blessing of the entrepreneur.  It is inside YOU.We all may think we have 25 years of experience but really today we have one year of experience 25 times.  That is how fast the world is moving.

        Your best is a point target rather than a place you arrive.  You get it done once and then you move on.

        The alternative is silly.  Nobody ever woke up and said a prayer — God make this a mediocre day, please.

      • Carl Rahn Griffith

        We are all so attuned to the conditioning of The Layer Cake (Google the film clip on YouTube if not familiar with it already) that we are trained to question ourselves. We’re desperate for positive reinforcement and we gladly give it to our children and pets but all too often neglect to invite it for ourselves. 

  • Jeffrey Hartmann

    Profound comments, I think all artists struggle with this to some degree.  I manifest this by keeping things close to my chest and not sharing until I have made the Crow happy.  Once I can get over the hump and share, I thankfully have a pretty healthy relationship with art that makes it out there.  Nothing is perfect and I’m always proud of what I do, yet getting stuff past my critical inner eye is tough for me sometimes.  Depending on the situation and the product, I’ve occasionally made things into a real battle to get over that initial hump.  Shooting the fucking crow is great advice I’m taking to heart, especially framed with the fact that we iterate anyway.  Thanks for sharing Jerry.

    • jerrycolonna

      You’re welcome Jeffrey. One of my not-so-secret plans to rule the world is to make it safe for people to share (because as you note, sharing actually helps).

  • Donna Brewington White

    Hey Jerry — funny I was reading a post about mobile by Brad Feld and found myself thinking “What would Jerry say?” And maybe you did and I just didn’t scroll down far enough. (found this post because @disqus showed me a comment by @JLM)

    Love this post…needed to “hear” this…so many of us do.

    You included pivoting in your list of options. The “pivot” receives a lot of bashing these days… what is your thought on this?

    • jerrycolonna

      I think there’s way too much bashing generally. Anyone who cares to criticize a company for changing their strategy should probably spend a little time in those folks’ shoes.

      It’s hard enough to try to bring forth a company. No one needs the middle-school bullies to be out in force.

  • Carl Rahn Griffith

    Love this, Jerry – and the many great comments/familiar A VC/etc faces therein the feedback thread. On my own nascent blog a couple of weeks ago I posted an entry that drained me in its composition and exhausted me whenever I re-read it. In retrospect it seemed to be so cathartic it drained my soul; I guess that this is why (eg) blogging is such a powerful tool, even if only to oneself. If others read it and get something from it, that’s all the better. However, the key is (increasingly) I feel that we all create something/commit something to paper/etc. Express yourself, as the song goes!

    Doesn’t matter what it is. Just do it. It’s good for the soul.

    • jerrycolonna

      I love that combination of exhaustion and catharsis, Carl. It usually signals to me that I’ve hit on something important.

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  • Kenneth Vogt

    That second to last paragraph nails it. Don’t worry about the crow. Worry about why you are worried about the crow! Your level of commitment is not maligned if you acknowledge the reality that the company is not you. It is not even an extension of you. You are you and that’s it. So create, build, ship, whatever it is you do in this situation. But keep you sense of self “in here” and not “out there”.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Kenneth. I think ultimately that’s the only way to survive this crazy experience.

  • Roshan

    thx. this piece just scared off many crows from my head.

    • jerrycolonna

      Fantastic! That warms my heart.

  • Charlie Crystle

    I like the new look. 

    The crows I can live without. 

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