Taming the Paper Tiger: Submitting Abandoned Projects to Your Downsizing Judge

14 May

From childhood on, I’ve started a number of activities that I’ve left hanging before I made any real headway in them. As a young adult, a friend and I joked that we were going to hold an “Unfinished Craft Projects Fair.” Indeed, in my earlier years, many of these projects were crafty in nature, such as outfits I never finished sewing. I also started to learn to play a number of musical instruments without pursuing any level of mastery.

But among the abandoned projects of my adult years were many that I would call side hustles. Working for non-profits my whole life, I’ve had good jobs that never paid a great deal. I was often tempted to take on something else, especially during times of transition. At other times, I just wanted some variety in my work.

Of course, these forsaken schemes produced pages of paper remains that I kept in my possession--criminal evidence of lack of completion. I had many reasons for jumping ship—competing demands, shift in interests, lack of talent, inertia, difficulty in carrying out the activity. So, why did I feel the need to hang onto the remnants of these little failures? Guilt about not completing what I started, especially for a family member or a friend? A delusion that I might revisit the project and make new headway? An unwillingness to accept that a big commitment of time and/or money did not pan out? A belief that this abandoned quest, no matter what a poor choice it was for me, must be included in my whole biography?

Here is a sample of my crimes of abandonment, starting with the earliest, along with my assessment of each and the sentence I give myself (in downsizing terms, of course!)

Starting a life planning consulting business, with a focus on leisure planning (early 1980s). This was a growing field in the 1980s, and I was already an experienced career counselor with a plethora of extra-curricular interests. My biggest goal was to become self-employed. I did a lot of research, took a course in graphic design, and created a logo for my new business. I even had a few gigs, including teaching a course in leisure planning at the local adult ed center. But a better job came my way, along with graduate studies, and I postponed by self-employment goal. I kept up my own free-time pursuits.

Remaining evidence: Lots of workshop plans, handouts that I created, books on topics I was teaching.

Final verdict: That ship has sailed! But the good news is that I eventually became self-employed in a very different line of work.

The sentence: Scan the notes/handouts for the classes I created, keep the business card (small) as a souvenir.

Making hobby themed greeting cards (early 1980s). I was always artistic, and I felt there was a need for cards that represented people’s interests. I took a course on the topic, sketched out some designs, but never went anywhere with it.

Remaining evidence: Just a couple of pages of designs. I threw the notes out from the class in an earlier purge.

Final verdict. Interestingly, other companies and designers seemed to latch onto the need for interest-themed cards. At times, people have urged me to make greeting cards from my photographs or collages. But it’s a lousy way to make money, and then you have to sell the things! (See my reaction to selling in other blurbs below.) I found other ways to use my artistic talents.

The sentence: Not much to save. Scan the designs. Chuck.

Producing a book/database on finding the right career (mid 1980s). After I started the new job (also in career counseling), a colleague proposed writing the ultimate career guide that would help link self-understanding of one’s skills, interests, and values and the career paths that best represented these. We created a massive database, designed exercises, wrote chapters and a book proposal, and had my mother illustrate it. We worked on this project for about five years. But life intervened: my colleague adopted a child, and I began a doctoral program. Ten years later, as my mother was in the last months of her life, we revisited it and made more headway, but we still couldn’t bring it to the next step.  Of all my abandoned projects, I committed the most time to this one, and it is the hardest to let go.

Remaining evidence: The database has long since vanished (along with whatever software we used all those years ago), and I finally parted with all but a handful of the hundreds of job coding sheets and much of the background material. But, still in my possession—the chapters, the book proposal, my mother’s illustrations, and other related matter (about six inches worth.)

Final verdict: This one is so out-of-date it wouldn’t be worth revisiting, plus technology is so much more advanced now than our primitive little database.

The sentence: Scan a sample of each element for my archives (I already have a Word copy of the text), make a photo collage of all my mother’s illustrations, be thankful for the friendship that I sustained with my colleague during that time. (Alas, we are no longer in touch.)

Selling designed knitwear swatches to clothing manufacturers (early 1990s). Say wha’? (A swatch is a square of designed material that clothing manufacturers buy the rights to for their own use.) This one occurred because my sister, a London-based knitwear designer with an agent who sold some of her designs in the USA, thought we could team up and form our own agency, representing other British knitwear designers. It would be a fun way to work together. We did all the necessary groundwork to set up a business and ran it for nine months. I made eight trips to NYC, including two with my sister—the second time right after a blinding snowstorm. We started off with a bang, but each trip resulted in fewer sales and more frustration. As my own evaluation work commitments increased, I bowed out and Beth found another person to represent her and her other knitters.

Remaining evidence: Two tubs of Beth’s swatches, dozens of faxes (that was how one communicated quickly and cheaply in the early 90s), invoices, and other records from the business, which I had already purged once.

Final verdict: I am not a salesperson! I really wanted this one to succeed because of Beth, but it just wasn’t me, and the trips to NYC became more difficult to pull off with my other work obligations. But I did give it the old school try.

The sentence: Prune the records down to a few samples, file the faxes with my other personal letters from Beth and deal with later, photograph the sample swatches and keep for now. (I did frame two.) Maybe use some in a wall hanging. Consider making a memory collage. Another hard project to let go of because of its emotional significance and link with my late sister.

Selling supplements and phone plans (late 1990s). Around the time I left my last W-2 job, but before I really got my own business going, I flew to Utah for a training session for a company that sold health supplements. At the time, my sister was involved in the cosmetic end of the business. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d never been to Utah (used frequent flyer miles), the training was interesting, and there were opportunities to get in on the ground floor of the growing online sales market (an offshoot of this particular company). But, I really didn’t enjoy making the needed calls to drum up interest. I sold two phone plans.

Remaining evidence: Fortunately, I got rid of most of it in an earlier purge, but I still have some DVDs, a few notes, and certificates of completion.

Final verdict: Repeat--- I am not a salesperson!

The sentence. The less kept from this misguided effort, the better. Record it on my expanded CV and dump!

Real estate license (early 2000s). Maybe I was inspired by the wonderful realtor who had sold us our house in the mid-1990s. He was writing a novel on the side. The real estate market had been heating up locally (prior to the 2008 crash), and I had always been interested in houses. I think I was looking for something that was very different from my heady evaluation work. I enjoyed learning the ins and outs of the business through the inexpensive local training, and I passed the exam quite easily as I am a good test-taker. I was approached by local agents to join their business, but I was too busy with my own work to take the leap. I had some thoughts about ways I could use what I had learned—perhaps in relation to elder housing, but I never followed through. I did keep my license up by taking continuing ed courses over the next few years but eventually decided that as a waste of money and time. By then the real estate market had crashed as well. And wasn’t there something about my not being a salesperson?

Remaining evidence: A couple of books on real estate, certificates of completion of courses, and some letters from realtors inviting me to join their firms.

Final verdict: I’m not sorry I did this. I learned a lot about real estate that is personally useful, and I believe there is something to be said for challenging oneself in new ways.

The sentence: Chuck the notes. Give away the books. Keep the license as a souvenir.


Just because you invest money and/or time doesn’t mean you need to stick with something or keep the evidence of that endeavor lying around to haunt you. If the project felt worthwhile, but for whatever reason you did not see it to completion, tell its story, including why you did it and what you got out of it, and keep a couple of samples of it, preferably digitized or photographed. Remind yourself that it’s no crime to abandon a project. It’s just life. Focus on your other accomplishments.

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