When you create products for a living, it’s not all sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. In fact, whether you create digital products (or work on any project at all anywhere really) there are very predictable patterns you start to see over time.
One of these patterns is the trough of sorrow. And just so we’re all on the same page, here’s how it’s usually understood in a handy little visual.
In a lot of ways, this makes a lot of sense, right? You have a great idea, you’re super stoked on it, and nothing seems impossible because of How Great Your Idea Is.
But then once you get started, you realize things are a lot more complicated than they seemed at the beginning. And from there, things start to plummet. Things like your confidence, your bank account, your pace, your motivation, your social life, your free time, etc. Everything except that weight you’ve been trying to lose.
Then, of course you feel like everything is going terrible and you’re never going to launch and things seem to drag on and on day after day with little improvement, indecision, or features taking longer than they should. Bugs being found — or not found and still happening. Whatever it is, there are some hard times. Even if you’ve done this many, many times. Trust me, I know.
And that, in a nutshell, is why they call it the trough of sorrow. You can’t hear the laughter anymore. It’s all hard work. Making things — actually doing things — and taking the hit. It’s grueling.
It’s not the sexy sax man lifestyle. It’s just not.
But there are ways to escape it. It’s all about perspective.
Speaking of perspective, let’s take a step back for a moment.
I went to a talk by Scott Belsky years ago down in Long Beach. Right around the time when he first wrote a book called Making Ideas Happen (which I’d really recommend reading). It’s a super practical and honest look at how to actually get things done and make progress.
The basic idea is this: Your creativity multiplied by your organization equals your impact.
So essentially, if you are incredibly creative but completely disorganized, you will have no impact. On the other hand, if you have only half of your creativity and a tiny amount of organization, the impact can be exponential.
I was never great at math but this makes sense to me:
100 (Creativity) X 0 (Organization) = 0 IMPACT
50 (Creativity) X 2 (Organization) = 100 IMPACT
I’m constantly hitting up against this. Trying to find ways to be more effective while trying not to sacrifice creativity and how I feel about what I’m making. Obviously in an ideal world, we’d all be fully creative and fully organized. But we’re dealing with reality here.
My takeaway from that whole thing is that creativity unorganized is creativity not experienced. And that’s stuck with me.
It’s not about being the best out of the gate or the rocket ship startup. It’s about applied creativity. The purposeful, (sometimes plodding) path.
It’s how you get through the trough of sorrow. It’s how you do great things.
This is how he talks about it:
We’ve all experienced it. After the high of a new idea fades, we enter the dreaded period of execution where nothing remains but the arduous task of actually doing. At this crucial juncture, our natural tendency is often to dive back into idea generation — to re-attain that new idea high — rather than seeing the original idea through to the finish.”
— Scott Belsky
In other words, the trough of sorrow is the “doldrums” of project management. The product plateau. The grind. The execution of an idea.
Literally execution in some ways if you think about it. It’s the killing and rebirth of your idea, as it actualizes, becoming a real tangible thing people can experience.
And that is beautiful, because it’s real. Including the journey to get there. Even when it’s sad or painful along the way.
That’s how ideas actually happen.
Which is pretty much the only reason that trough of sorrow chart is in any way helpful. It helps us know we’re not alone in our experience.
But that’s not the whole story.
If you zoom out, weeks, months, years even, that trough of sorrow — no matter how long it takes to travel through — is so small in the vast configuration of things.
Which also means, focusing on the trough of sorrow and trying to “get through it” limits our perspective and cripples our learning process, and our experience on the journey.
“We must find joy in the process of execution, not just the end product.”
— 99 Excuses for NOT Making Ideas Happen.
Because if we zoom out and get some perspective, we find that the trough of sorrow we’re so stuck in and worried about, is just a blip on the radar if we persevere long enough.
Too many people give up way too soon, and we all need some encouragement to stay in the game!
So, here’s how you escape the trough of sorrow
1. Keep working. Don’t give up.
Of course you’ll fail if you stop. Giving up is way too easy, and most people quit way too early. So like most things, forward motion counts for a lot. This is where the whole Action Method thing comes in handy. Pick 1–5 things each day you’re going to do. No more than 5, no less than 1, and just move the marker forward each day.
2. Prioritize relentlessly, tackling tough things first.
It’s easy to do the vanity or busy / urgent jobs before doing the real hard work on your plate. So start by getting at the core of what you need to do. If it’s planning, do planning. If it’s design, do design. If it’s development, code stuff. Don’t dink around with turd tasks hoping you’ll magically find a gold nugget that solves all your problems. This is the Oregon trail. You’re a pioneer on a journey to a better life, not a gold rush miner junkie hopping from place to place looking to strike it rich…right?
3. Actually ship. Incrementally whenever possible.
Simply launching something you’ve been working on is one of the best feelings. 10x that, or 100x that when you have real live people using what you’ve made. That feeling is incredible. Even if there are problems or things aren’t exactly the way you want, nothing compares to the rush of making things people actually use and enjoy. And as long as you care for your people and treat them the way you’d want to be treated, no matter what happens you’ll be okay.
The thing is, we’re all in this together.
You’re not alone if you’re feeling down or discouraged or like you’re not going to make it. I’ve been doing this long enough where I realize that’s kind of the new normal part of the process. So, in the spirit of camaraderie and making progress, here’s the Bonus Round:
Other ways to get out of the trough of sorrow
A.) Stay in community with others. For example, I’ve joined Justin Jackson’s Product People / Mega Maker slack team. That’s been super helpful even when I’m so busy I can’t be actively engaged. Just seeing that other people are building and being honest about what they’re doing and thinking is inspiring. And getting the chance to share and ask questions with other makers is great when you need to bounce ideas around, get some feedback, or even just simple encouragement.
B.) Give back and help others. I was also recently selected to be a volunteer for Out of Office Hours, and am really looking forward to giving back a little and helping people who are new to design or tech. Mentoring is the perfect way to not only lift someone else up, but in the process, be encouraged as well. You can learn more about Out of Office Hours on Medium too, but however you do it, find a way to be involved and pay your knowledge forward.
Whatever you do, don’t give up.
You can always hear the laughter if you’re listening and don’t take yourself too seriously.
Thanks so much for reading! If you made it here, why not share it?
A couple last notes:
1. I was really excited to write this as a guest for Maître. We’ve been using their product to collect pre-launch signups for our app Commons, and it has helped so much. I’d highly recommend it. And no, they didn’t ask me to say that.