This is one of my favorite metaphors.
Drowning in a teaspoon of water basically means getting stuck on a tiny, trivial issue, and ultimately failing because you can’t move onto the things that matter. It could also mean, I believe, “getting stuck” intentionally, choosing to focus on the minutiae precisely so you don’t have to move forward with something.
Case in point. A good friend sent me an email the other day with the following subject line: “FW: Use of Color.”
At first I thought it was a link to an interesting YouTube video. I procrastinate a lot when I’m working, so I opened it right away.
Turns out it was a meeting invitation sent by a colleague. My friend works for a huge technology company. You’ve used their products.
I read through the invitation. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss what color to use in the background of a new piece of software the company was about to release.
No, that’s not exactly right. The topic was which shade of blue to use. Apparently they had already settled on blue — after goodness knows how many previous meetings — and now it was time to tackle the tricky follow-up questions: Azure? Cerulean? Cobalt? Navy?
Any of us can drown in a teaspoon, often when it matters most. The way I see it, there are two reasons:
1. We’re so invested in a project’s outcome that every decision feels extremely important. So we can’t make any of them.
This is what often kills our progress on a personal project. When something feels very important to us — say, writing a first book — we can mistakenly treat every step in the project as though it were hugely important, every decision a major one. This can force us into an eternity of analyzing and re-analyzing even the smallest details, keeping us unable to move forward even a single step.
First I should read up on how to write a book, we might tell ourselves. Then we spend years reading every book and magazine article about authoring a book. And we never move on to actually starting to write.
In my experience, though, this is a far less common reason that we drown in teaspoons. The primary reason is that we’re engaging in deception, or self-deception.
2. We’re hiding, stalling.
The colleague of my friend who called that “Use of Color” meeting invited about 40 of the company’s employees — at least a half-dozen of them senior-level executives. Why would she do that?
Certainly not because she feared customers would actually be smashing their computers against walls or showing up at company headquarters with torches because they hate ocean blue.
It’s because as long as she was focusing everyone’s attention on color choices, she didn’t have to put that new piece of software out into the world — and take the feedback and consequences, good or bad. She was hiding.
The woman might not have even realized it herself. We often force ourselves to keep fretting over the small things in a project, rather than making decisions and moving on, because some part of us that we’re not fully conscious of is scared of being finished. Finished means you have to ship your work. Finished means you’ll be hearing feedback soon. Finished means you’re accountable.
So we orchestrate arguments about whether to use periwinkle or robin’s egg blue.
If you find yourself stuck on what seems like a trivial issue, take a step back and ask yourself if it’s possible you’re hiding, stalling, because you fear being “finished.”
Don’t drown in a teaspoon of water.