How to stay motivated on a long term project

On the live webcast with Ryan last week, someone asked “How do you stay motivated?”

You can’t have a million dollar dream with a minimum wage work ethic.

Stephen C. Hogan

It’s an important question that I fumbled a little on camera. Turns out you can’t edit your thoughts when speaking in a live broadcast.

He was referring to my Airplane build project, which is now well into it’s third year. Most people I know don’t set out on multi month projects, let alone multi year projects. So the question of staying motivated is certainly worth exploring.

I don’t claim to have an answer for you, I can only explain what works for me.

Building an airplane can be daunting to even think about let alone do. While I’m guessing my build log will say I put in somewhere around 1000 hours to complete it, I didn’t keep track of all of the time I spent on research, skill learning, and other things. Let’s call it at least twice that amount of time. So 2000 hours, or a full work year to complete, give or take.

Whenever I think about this project, I’m always drawn to the many trail journals I’ve read of hiking the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. “AWOL on the Appalachian trail” is my favorite of these for many reasons, but mostly because the author seems a lot like me.

These two trails (there are many others around the world) are more than 2000 miles in length. To walk them all at once is an exercise in persistence. If you walk 10 miles a day, every day, you’re looking at more than 200 days to complete them. Not to mention the logistics of food and sleeping outside. Also mice, there is a surprising amount of talk of them in every trail journal I’ve read. Little buggers get in everything.

To think that walking a 2000 plus mile trip is all about getting to the end would be denying yourself the real joy of long term things. Surely you wouldn’t walk all day, every day for 6 months with only the end in sight, focused only on those final few steps when you finally make it. There are so many stops along the way. Smelling flowers is important.

Building an airplane is a lot like walking clear across the United States. And if you’re NOT retired, you have to fit it in between all of the other things that tug on your life.

I’ve learned to enjoy the very, very long walk that this project is. There’s much to learn, fret about, screw up, and push through. When I started I thought I was at least an above average mechanical mind, but I find that at almost every step, I’ve got to complete a step that involves me saying “well, that’s the first time I’ve ever had to do that”. There’s some real joy in those moments.

Most days, it’s a solitary project. Long, uninterrupted hours without looking mindlessly at a screen. I’m just a man with my project and my thoughts. It’s sorta romantic that way. The long walk is such a welcome change from the breakneck speed we all seem to be moving at all the time. Part of me will be sad when it’s over, because this solitary time will be over.

I suppose when that happens, I’ll do what the trail hikers do. I’ll just go walk the next trail. Which airplane will be my next? I don’t know yet, but I’m looking forward to the journey.

It’s one thing to not be overwhelmed by obstacles, or discouraged or upset by them. This is something that few are able to do. But after you have controlled your emotions, and you can see objectively and stand steadily, the next step becomes possible: a mental flip, so you’re looking not at the obstacle but at the opportunity within it.

The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday

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