"After we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed to find out anything. I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn't be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way." -- Thomas Edison, the January 1921 issue of American Magazine
It's worth taking up initiatives that might not work, especially if the end result is something that would be worth reaching.
"Let's take a crack at this... it might not work, but let's see what happens..."
If you're trying to break new ground that hasn't been done before, you have to do so knowing that any given way you try to move forward is unlikely to work. You make a rough hypothesis and plan, you give it a shot, and you see if it pays the desired result at a reasonable cost.
It likely won't, but you usually learn something.
This applies, too, when you're chasing down more normal goals. Empirically, most people fail with their first attempts at a fitness regime, at improving sleep quality, at improving efficiency, at reading more, at socializing more, at earning more, at all sorts of things. The second, third, and fourth attempts also often fail as well.
But if you're dead-sure it's worth getting, you keep trying it different ways. You might take the same fundamental approach with a different mindset or slightly different implementation, or you might try something radically different. But you keep trying.
Most people need a sense of certainty that their plans will work, or they won't start. So they'll engage in complete certain but not-so-valuable activities. It lets them feel good, and feel smart, sort of. But embracing the other way -- "hey, this might not work (and likely won't) but I'll definitely learn something" -- is not only more fun, but it seems to lead to a much more enriching life.
Certainty isn't required to try things, and isn't possible for any given way to breaking new ground.
Take a crack at something meaningful. You're only going to succeed, even if it doesn't work.
I call this approach "joyful negativity." I assume most of my efforts will fail and accept that outcome. In truth, most efforts are at least moderately successful, which expands my joy to something higher. The times when I really do something cool or find some other reward are sheer bliss. Set your expectations low, keep your effort on high, and you cannot help but be pleased with the results. That's just my personal philosophy. Sisyphus did it another way . . . .
Personally, I'd add a caveat: Take a crack at something meaningful so long as you don't die ... In other words, if the maximum possible downside is tolerable, and the maximum possible upside is tremendous (this asymmetry qualifies an activity as "meaningful"), then take the leap.
That begs the question: How do you know what the maximum possible downside is? and that's a topic for an entire book ... ('Antifragile' by Nassim Nicholas Taleb)
One excellent summary of the book here http://newbooksinbrief.com/2012/12/17/26-a-summary-of-antifragile-things-that-gain-from-disorder-by-nassim-nicholas-taleb/
That site has a lot of great discussions (along with podcasts) on the most recent books.
Question from a reader -
One thing that I'm wondering, and figured that I should send before I go to sleep and forget it... For certain kinds of tasks (having discussions about more abstract goal things, writing emails to friends, commenting on LW, etc.) I'm really motivated, and need to be restrained from doing them.
With other tasks, I'm nowhere near as motivated, and have trouble starting them. Since I'm still a student, not doing this kind of work just isn't an option.
In the long term, I'm hoping to just do more of the things I'm motivated for, and fewer of the ones I'm not. I'm willing to buckle down and do work in subjects that I'm less motivated for if I see how it clearly relates to my goals (last year I spent a few hours trying to work out the geometry kinks for a robot part -- it was a mess).
Right now, I'm just reminding myself that its really not hard once I start it, and that it goes quickly if I just do it.
Almost everyone I know is busy as hell. Running companies, contracting, doing creative work, and keeping a huge mix of projects going on.
Keeping busy is good, but sometimes it turns into a tragedy where you've got your head down doing work and duties, but you never get some of that real juice out of your life that you're wanting.
And many of the busy people I know -- myself included -- periodically have a day where they snap back to reality and really feel it for the first time in a while. "Oh god, I'm out of shape, my energy is low, I feel like crap, I'm not doing some of the key projects I love, I'm passing up a lot of really big opportunities stuck in the grind, I'm neglecting my hobbies and what I want to train... and for what?"
This applies just as much to entrepreneurs as people on salary, maybe even moreso. It's very easy as an entrepreneur or executive to get caught up in running around, getting stuck in the "errands" of business, dealing with what's on fire, and really neglecting the really expansionary projects that aren't urgent, your health, and maybe worst of all -- forgetting to have fun.
Is there an answer? Read on...