Project Insights and Potato Salad

Project Insights and Potato Salad

Last time I was at the supermarket, I was struck by the huge quantities of potato salad filling the deli aisle. Potato salad is one of my favorite foods because while growing up Asian, I was accustomed to rice as King Starch of the dinner table; potatoes are a kind of luxury food in my mind because it was relatively scarce. I found it particularly irritating, therefore, to know just how awful the supermarket potato salad is. It’s mediocre and acidic, doomed by cooking techniques that preserved potato chunkiness at the expense of taste, bound with an insipid mayonnaise that acts as a watery spackle to hold its form.

As these thoughts raged through my brain, I still had to wonder why there was so much potato salad in the aisle. That meant someone was buying it, and in great quantities. The supermarket was making money on this awful stuff, which meant maybe it wasn’t so awful at all. It suddenly dawned on me that perhaps I should be making metaphorical potato salad too.

I’m very much driven by the allure of making something great, and because of this I probably drag my feet more than I have to. Perhaps there is a balance between making potato salad and…something epic? Let me try to break this down…

Breaking it Down

There is an unspoken “spectrum of awesomeness”, I realized, that apply to the projects on my list. I found that projects fall into one of four categories:

  • Projects I know how to do that aren’t exciting on their own. They product commodity items, usually. Potato salad falls into this category. I tend to get bored by these.

  • Existing projects that I am improving, either by elevating their quality or lowering cost/time to make. This is marginally more interesting, but since these improvements are very incremental they are difficult to appreciate. In culinary terms, an example is learning how to boil perfect eggs consistently.

  • Projects I am in the process of making, but haven’t yet been nailed down in terms of process and equipment. These projects represent new capabilities, and because they’re about possibilities I am excited by them. Buying that finishing sander is an example of acquiring a possibility-enabling piece of equipment.

  • Challenging projects that will change the world and make me famous. The realm of dreams and long-distance desire, pining for the completion of a difficult project that represents a quantum jump in quality and personal reputation. Sometimes it’s the sheer time-and-difficulty factor that is exciting; making espagnole sauce from scratch comes to mind, or learning a new language fall into this category. Or, the challenge lies in adopting the pioneer spirit and pushing into unseen territories, building what you need as you adapt to what you learn.

The value axis ranges from “known and mediocre” on the low end to “crazy ambitious and unknown” on the high end. I naturally gravitate toward the latter types of projects, and apparently my attention follows. If I’m unexcited by some “known” project, I find myself surfing the net more. This is a big productivity hurdle that I sometimes overcome with timer tricks, but I hadn’t realized exactly what the root cause was. It’s this: I think they’re boring and dull, but not for any specific reason. It’s just that other projects are filled with more unknowns that yield exciting possibilities. The poor mundane projects get picked last, unless external factors make them more attractive. That’s what the Potato Salad Insight is. It’s the known quantities that can be turned into revenue. Once a project is mastered, this creates a product that can be applied or sold. And while a potato salad project may not be enough to stand on its own, there’s no reason why it can’t be part of a greater team of supporting products. A fabulous picnic, for example, could be anchored by an improved potato salad. On a pragmatic note, an additional value is that people already know what potato salad is: It’s a side dish that comes in many variations, and goes well with picnics. People are open to the idea of a greater version of what they’ve experienced before, and I just have to remember that. It will not do to let myself be dazzled by whatever is sparkling on faraway horizons. This may be one of the great challenges that face the designer seeking to become an entrepreneur. Our creative minds are tuned toward creating new and interesting approaches to every day problems. However, when it comes to being a successful entrepreneur the most important task is to ship a product that is reliably manufactured at a predictable cost. It’s not exactly the stuff of great mythology, but it’s incredibly fundamental to a successful narrative.

Shifting Priorities

With that in mind, I can think of a whole bunch of “potato salad projects” in my Trello docket:
  • Form Variations
  • Simpler Forms
  • Useful Documentation
  • New Digital Downloadables
These are all things I know how to do, but because of that they haven’t been as interesting to me. I have a tendency to believe that the hard thing I don’t know how to do is the best thing to aim for, but because of this I’ve neglected the real contribution of creating a finished product for distribution. This might be why I like to write blog posts about what I learn; it’s a way to produce something that is accessible and (hopefully) useful to others in a similar place.

Energy Management

Potato salad projects, however, get boring. There needs to be a periodic infusion of energy to keep my morale high enough to keep moving.
  • For the potato salad projects, short-term yields are what we’re looking for. This very blog post will give me energy, because I happen to like writing them up. Energy also comes from seeing products sell, seeing incoming links, or any other sign that I was “seen” and some reaction occurred as a result. I don’t think anyone likes working in a vacuum.

  • Moving a step up from potato salad projects are the improvements projects. Enhancements to the website to improve usability fall into this category. These are harder to appreciate because very little feedback comes back from completing something like a site upgrade. These types of projects are, usually, energy consumers, but can often take advantage of something I’ve made before. That includes the small potato projects.

  • The next step up are works in development. This includes things like the index card docks, the iPad ETP app, and the Creative Huddle brainstorming forms. They are longer term and won’t yield results for quite a while, but the anticipation of seeing a bumper-crop of goodies is what keeps me going. Small achievements also provide energy, but the main source of energy for me comes from collaborating with other people who understand what I’m trying to do. Half speculative and half productive, these projects represent the current “edge” of my work. Maintaining a balance of “ship” and “inspire” here is critical to keeping these moving forward.

  • The final level of project, requiring lots of energy over great periods of time, are the super-challenging projects. I’m not even sure how to define them beyond directions for now. The XNABS2 programming project, which is my desire to create a really good interactive museum exhibit framework, probably falls in this category. Then there’s the idea of writing some kind of book of collected wisdom, once I figure out what I’m collecting; it feels too soon to write anything substantive. The energy for this project, like WORKS IN DEVELOPMENT, comes from collaborators who get what I’m doing and share some of my ideals. These projects also benefit from work I’ve done before; perhaps these are the ones that have the most strategic bearing on my project selections. However, they are also EXCITING to me, because they represent awesome future capabilities.

Concluding Thoughts


p>The basic takeaway is that boring projects, which for me are projects that are already finished and have a known level of inconvenience, provide no boost of energy by themselves. It’s only after are transformed from “tedious list of tasks” to “potato salad ready-to-sell” that they tart to become interesting. Shifting my mental focus from “list of tasks” to “product available and in stock” is something I need to work on. That’s interesting to me.

A secondary takeaway is that there are three other kinds of projects that provide and also consume different kinds of energy. Dreams provide energy and inspiration, but making progress on a dream requires the combination of inspiration with the ability to push through uncertainty. Sources for that kind of energy tend to be other people who “get” what you’re trying to do, and are able to help out with specialized knowledge or personal support.


  1. Amanda Ramsay 10 years ago

    So… your favorite projects are the ones where you’re just exploring and the outcome is uncertain. (Which makes total sense to me, because I feel the same way).

    But you’ve said in the past that you have trouble getting started on big projects because you also want a defined and certain outcome guaranteed before you start putting any effort into it.

    I think I might have spotted your problem. ;)

    I love the concept of “Potato Salad Projects” — I need to remember the same thing: that when you’ve mastered something to the point where it becomes boring, you clearly have value to offer the world.

    Your super-challenging projects remind me of Charles Gilkey’s Quarterly Initiatives, which he describes as “just vague enough to be specific”. Things like “Become a recognized author” or “Be a major player in this field” (I wanted to link to it, but it appears that the page has been taken down, and now exists only on my Kindle.) But the point of the article was that, even with things that vague, you could still then do monthly and weekly planning for specific tasks and projects, knowing that your incredibly vague end goal was going to benefit from them, even if you couldn’t define exactly how it would.

  2. 10 years ago

    Great musings David. Indeed I find myself right now on the verge of beginning to execute on a project I have thoroughly planned out, but alas, it seems like all the energy spent in the planning sapped the energy needed to actually build it. As if the mental exercise of identifying all the steps and tasks to be done, was enough to prove to myself that I could do it….and that no more was actually needed.

    Sadly this pattern has led me down the road of creating and storing a bunch of great idea blueprints … awaiting to be built.

    But today, I’m gonna turn my grit in, and focus, and execute. For only in the application of the design, and the completion of the product will reveal the true satisfaction.

    A wise person once said “You are known by what you built last. If you want to change who you are… build something else.” And I declare right here…it’s time for me to build something again.

    • Big distances are covered through small steps –
  3. Author
    Dave Seah 10 years ago

    So… your favorite projects are the ones where you’re just exploring and the outcome is uncertain. (Which makes total sense to me, because I feel the same way).

    But you’ve said in the past that you have trouble getting started on big projects because you also want a defined and certain outcome guaranteed before you start putting any effort into it.

    I think I might have spotted your problem. ;)

    Heh…very astute, Amanda! Let me unpack this a bit further.

    • My favorite projects are ones that explore new areas of possibility; researching the proof of concept and verifying it is exciting. It’s the kind of uncertainty where you are playing on a hunch. I might call this a positive uncertainty, like a good bet that will deliver a large payoff in multiple areas.

    • The difficult projects (which sometimes are the favorite projects) are the ones where it’s the uncertainty is more negative. If I have limited time and resources, what’s the best course of action? Is someone demanding a guarantee from the work? Is the instruction manual for this critical piece of gear accurate? Does the tool I need not exist when it clearly should?

    This is actually the same continuum of uncertainty, except in one case I’m positive and the other I’m frustrated. When I have what I need, have control, and energy is being generated by the system in return, things are good. When I don’t have what I need, don’t have control, and energy is consumed with no immediate prospect of a payoff in the next few hours, that’s when the challenge arises. If the payoff is expected in weeks rather than hours, then this creates my personal management woes. More energy needs to be pumped into the system to maintain positive high levels of engagement.

    Another slowing force is my own level of interest in the task at hand. I don’t particularly like writing marketing copy, for example. I don’t like shuffling files around on my computer desktop. I find my home office isolating and lifeless. I’m bored by routine tasks. I am frustrated and irritated by bad software systems that I am forced to use. I don’t like accounting or arithmetic. I can handle these kinds of tasks if there is an external mission and if there are hard constraints, but it’s still an uphill climb.

  4. Author
    Dave Seah 10 years ago

    €, thanks for sharing your grit with us! I’m inspired by your statement! :)

    Yah, sometimes the energy of planning saps all the energy of doing. Breaking through that is one of the hardest things I have to face every day, and I’m not always successful. But like you, I’m heartened to know that this is just the way things are: starting stuff and bringing a system to completion is not trivial. By first acknowledging this, and getting to the task, I think that’s the first of many small steps that people like us need to take. A pre-step, perhaps!

  5. Nollind Whachell 10 years ago

    My favorite projects are ones that explore new areas of possibility;

    Just a quick follow-up question to this Dave. Even though you’re exploring new areas of possibility, would you say that you are exploring these new areas using your existing expertise or mastery? Or do you prefer exploring areas where you have no experience or mastery?