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The Four Sources of Shiny Object Syndrome – Love Your Work, Episode 302

May 18 2023 – 07:30am

Four Sources of Shiny Object SyndromeShiny object syndrome can be evidence of a problem, or it can be a normal part of the creative process. If you can identify the four sources of shiny object syndrome, you can tell the difference between being lost, or simply exploring.

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Three first three sources are problems

The first three of the four sources of shiny object syndrome hold you back from finishing projects. They are: ambition, perfectionism, and distraction.

Before we get to the fourth source, a bit more about these three most dangerous sources.

Ambitious shiny object syndrome

You probably have a friend with ambitious shiny object syndrome. One day they proclaimed they were writing an epic fantasy novel. A few months later, they had dropped that and had a new plan: a feature film. A few months after that, they were starting a health-tech startup.

All the while, you were shaking your head, because your friend clearly didn’t have the experience or resources to take on these projects. They were writing the epic fantasy novel, yet had never written a short story. They were working on the feature film, yet had never made a short film. They were working on the health-tech startup, yet had no experience in technology, the health industry, nor raising funding.

Delusional optimism can be an asset. Maybe your friend will get lucky, and one of these projects will click. They’re more likely to get struck by lightning.

Instead, you know what’s coming when you ask how the latest project is going. They’ve abandoned that, and are taking on something new. Conveniently, your friend always has a great excuse for why. They find a scapegoat: You can’t get a million dollars for a feature-film without a rich uncle. They claim to have never been serious about it in the first place: Oh, that silly book? I was just dabbling. More likely, they shift the conversation to another subject: Oh my god, did you see the article about the celebrity!

If they had made a public prediction about their potential success in the project, you could hold them accountable. Yet they didn’t, so you have to take their word for it. Interestingly, you’ll never hear, That was foolish taking on that – I didn’t know what I was doing!

Perfectionistic shiny object syndrome

Or maybe you have a friend with perfectionistic shiny object syndrome. They endlessly tweak a project that could otherwise be called done. The “shiny objects” in this case aren’t other projects, but rather details within one project.

Your perfectionist friend has one project they’ve been clinging to for years. Their novel has been through eleven revisions. It started as a memoir, but after becoming an urban-fantasy novel, it’s now a thriller. They had a great-looking cover for each of these. But they’ve changed some details about the plot since the latest world-building workshop they traveled to attend, and they want to try a different cover designer. But before they spend money on another cover, they want to decide whether they’re going to publish in places besides Amazon, because that affects the design specs. So they’re taking a cohort-based course so they can ask a successful author what she thinks.

There’s nothing you could tell your friend to get them to ship this project. By now, they could be on their third book, having learned lessons from the previous two. Instead, they’ve convinced themself it has to be perfect.

Distracted shiny object syndrome

Or maybe you have a friend with distracted shiny object syndrome. They’re taking on projects they could conceivably complete, given their skills and resources. They don’t seem to suffer from perfectionism, but you can’t tell, because none of their projects get anywhere near the finish line.

Instead, once they make a little progress on one project, they switch to another, then another. Once their screenplay is completed for their short film, they start recording demos for their album. Once they’ve recorded demos for their album, they write their memoir. Once they’ve finished a draft of their memoir, they’re writing a business plan for a non-profit.

This “friend” may be you, and it certainly has been me. Shiny object syndrome is difficult to cure, because these sources are often mixed together. You may take on projects that are too ambitious, but also be distracted by the many other projects you’re taking on. The perfectionism that is keeping you from shipping one project, may divert you to one overly-ambitious project, or a mixture of smaller projects.

The fourth source is only natural

Yet there is a fourth source of shiny object syndrome that doesn’t have to keep you from finishing projects: Natural shiny object syndrome.

Natural shiny object syndrome is the diversions and dead-ends that are a natural part of the creative process. When you’re being creative and innovative, by definition, you are going to try some things that don’t work, or need to explore new areas with which you aren’t familiar.

[Projects are like halfpipes.] It’s fun and easy to skate into a halfpipe – to start a project. But once you’re trying to skate out of the halfpipe, you’ve run out of momentum. It’s more fun and easy to skate into a new halfpipe – to start a new project, or tweak a new aspect of the existing project.

But in the natural course of being creative and innovative, you’ll also start new halfpipes. When Leonardo da Vinci developed his painting style, he skated into many halfpipes. To accurately depict light and shade in his paintings, he systematically studied the way light traveled through the atmosphere, and interacted with objects. This led him into other fields, such as optics, fluid dynamics, and geometry.

Leonardo da Vinci’s natural shiny object syndrome

In fact, one of Leonardo’s most pre-eminent observations in astronomy greatly informed his painting style. He correctly theorized that the light area on the dark side of the moon was created by light reflecting from the sun, off the earth.

By understanding how light worked, he was able to make paintings with an unprecedented sense of realism. The “earthshine” caused by light reflecting from the earth is the same phenomenon that causes a lighter area within the shadow on the underside of the chin of the Mona Lisa. That’s caused by light being reflected off her upper chest.

Leonardo's shaded side of the moon and Mona Lisa's chin

Left: Leonardo’s sketch of the illuminated area on the dark side of the moon. Right: The illuminated area on the underside of the Mona Lisa‘s chin.

Okay, so Leonardo had the other sources, too

Leonardo of course was an infamous procrastinator. In addition to the natural shiny object syndrome he experienced, he also had shiny object syndrome from the rest of the four sources.

He had ambitious shiny object syndrome, such as when, over the course of decades, he failed twice to cast in bronze the largest-ever horse statue.

He had perfectionistic shiny object syndrome, such as the fact that he never delivered the Mona Lisa to his client. He instead carried it around fifteen years, until he died, and well after it could have easily been called done.

He had distracted shiny object syndrome, which caused him to run around Italy, trying to please his clients in art, architecture, and engineering.

Don’t fight the fourth source

You can do something about most sources of shiny object syndrome.

But even if you clear those sources away, you’ll still have to live with natural shiny object syndrome. To connect ideas from disparate fields, you need to wander into them. To find out what works, you have to try some things that won’t.

Image: Main path and byways, by Paul Klee

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Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »

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