Taking on Impossible Projects
How to take on a project when you don’t know if you can complete the project
As I reach the end of the creation process of my story reference database — finally — I thought it might be nice to talk about how I got here. To the end. The same end as one might find at the end of a book, or the end of a trilogy, or of a series. The end of a project that was too large to fully conceptualize, now actually completed.
This is a project I didn’t know how to do on all levels. I knew a little HTML from running the website, but that was it. I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know the syntax or what form anything was going to be within these foreign computer languages to give me the results I wanted. I didn’t know the limits of what I was asking for, and therefore didn’t know the right questions to ask. I didn’t know the path to start on, to branch to, or if I needed multiple paths to get to my destination.
The only thing I knew was that if I was ever going to write again, I needed to take this journey, because my brain was too broken to be able to write without the correct support system.
That might seem huge, unrelatable, but it’s not. This is where I come from when it comes to tackling an impossible task — you have to believe it’s impossible for whatever reason. It’s for everything I haven’t done before, and therefore I don’t know if I can do. I don’t know how to do something until I do it, and I certainly don’t know how to do it well until I mess it up enough times. This is how things that feel impossible get done — by doing.
When I decided to make this database, it was when facing the largest psychological hurdle I had ever faced. I was very aware that my brain was the most broken it had ever been, and that I couldn’t write anymore (among other things.) In that reality was not only the impossible goal I wanted to reach, but during a time when my brain was struggling the most. It should have been impossible.
Why wasn’t it?
In some ways, I truly don’t know. Because it was impossible. How could I have gotten here when I couldn’t remember the names of my characters anymore? Where I had no visual concept of what they looked like in the scene, or what the scene looked like… But the thing is, these weren’t new problems. My brain had always struggled with visualizing what I was writing, it was just worse now. Yeah, I couldn’t remember my plot arcs, or how to stay focused to form proper ideas out of my rambling sentences… but again, not new problems. They were just presenting in new, more difficult to overcome ways. And I could see that without some foundation of support — without a brain outside my flawed brain — I was far too overwhelmed to be able to juggle all these aspects to move forward.
ADHD and Executive Dysfunction
I’ve always had ADHD, but I first truly understood it to impact my life in high school. I had been an obsessive reader, reading a book a day, then something had changed in my brain and I couldn’t focus on reading anymore. I changed my values at the same time, told myself that if I wanted to be effective and change my life, I needed to be present for it. But that was how I coped with having the thing that I did — my identity as a reader — stolen for me so completely. I adapted and pivoted so well, I could pretend I hadn’t lost a piece of me.
ADHD defined me after that point, the executive dysfunctions and cognitive fog becoming my identity when I wasn’t lost to impulse and novelty. It wasn’t until the end of my 30s that I even had an inkling that I had ADHD. When I started this database, I didn’t know of my ADHD and autism, and the many executive dysfunctions that go hand in hand with the way my brain works. I learned as part of the journey of building this database and getting back to writing. It helped me understand how my brain works, why what was happening was happening. And this knowledge gave me a much more useful perspective on my path going forward.
A Lifetime of Impossible Tasks
None of it was new. I had been adapting around my executive dysfunction since my teens. The most prevalent was my poor working memory, and difficulty in storing short term memory into longterm. I was blessed with a level of intelligence that allowed me to deduce in the moment answers that others could memorize. If I studied the hours before, I could hold answers that would be long gone a week later. I passed complex math classes that way, only to realize I had no memory of formulas later. And it got worse when my immune system was flaring from living in black mold, my cognition dropping. But in those moments I was blessed with a superhuman level of neurosis that I substituted for my broken motivational system.
Even as I say blessed for both these supposed “positives” that got me through, I understand they were also completely self destructive. Neurosis is such a painful mental illness — no one asked if I had OCD back then; no one noticed that the thing I was relying on to get through what everyone else seemed to do with ease was so damn destructive. And intelligence — there is no harder prison to escape from than from an intelligent mind. Especially when mental illness comes rearing from the chemical imbalance of a raging immune system.
I needed self awareness to break out of these two gifts turned curses — and to be fair, I would say self-awareness is the sharpest double-edged sword out there. But I did gain it in my 30’s, at the same time my body failed along with my brain.
Self-Awareness: The Prison Breaker
Self awareness allowed me to see that what I thought was me failing impossible tasks up until that point, was me looking from the wrong vantage. And when my body failed and my brain was inflamed, and I was the sickest I had ever been, I took on the first impossible task that I knew was impossible, and I decided to become a writer.
And I did it. Sick as fuck, barely able to lift my arms for hours upon hours every day as I was struck by weird, mysterious glitches. Having maybe 4 hours a day of mental clarity, of my body suddenly moving like nothing had happened at all. During this time — when broken and well — I wrote stories I didn’t know how to write. And I kept writing, and self publishing, and at some point it wasn’t about me becoming a writer. I was a writer.
I had done the impossible. And then the impossible decided to double down in my late 30’s. Something in my brain broke differently, bigger than ever before, and I found myself staring at the walls most days, unable to get my brain to focus long enough to collect a thought, never mind do a thing. I couldn’t write. My executive functioning had failed so greatly that I couldn’t remember to do most anything. I was completely defined by the walls around me because my object permanence was gone, and I couldn’t remember there were rooms on the other side of doors.
So I did it again. The impossible task to become “functioning” was met and conquered.
I didn’t magically overcome the impossible, but instead built an executive functioning board along half of a wall, using words and symbols on dry erase notecards to spark my memory. Putting items in a To-Do and Done column so that I could stay on track. And as long as I could remember to look at that board before and after each task, I could do things again.
Eventually, I was able to combine those tasks into routines, my brain growing back, reconnecting. And when it glitched, the board was there, waiting to help.
And then I didn’t need the board at all… but I was still broken. My brain couldn’t adapt to my limits like it did before. I still couldn’t write.
Looking at the Impossible from a Fresh Vantage
Pinpointing my mental deficits and learning the term executive functioning were the pieces to the puzzle I needed to eventually realize I had ADHD and find a doctor to help. It led me to understand the role hormones play in ADHD as we age. And when they finally noticed my adrenals weren’t producing enough cortisol and that I had adrenal insufficiency, I learned how the adrenals play a role in hormone production.
I’d say it took at least a year with the appropriate cortisol supplementation for me to fully heal from the severe cognitive decline I had been living in from the untreated adrenal insufficiency. I’ve gotten a lot of my brain back, and the ADHD treatment has given me much more executive functionality than I’ve ever had before. Now, when I look back to when I started writing, and when I started making this database, I am truly left in wonder and absolute awe as to how the fuck I actually got here.
Because I can see from this perspective just how broken I was. When before, while living in such a struggling brain and body, all I could see was the tunnel vision of task after task, goal after goal, step after step. In that place I never allowed myself to believe I couldn’t do something. My only question was how?
Self Doubt Cannot Exist When Doing Impossible Things
You can cry. You can rail at the universe for what it has done to you for making shit so unfair. You can fight reality all you like. But if you want to do what feels like the impossible, you can never doubt yourself. It cannot be part of your identity. You can never doubt that you are going to reach the goal you’re reaching for.
The reality is, you could drop dead tomorrow having never reached your goal. But that’s not how living beings get things done. We need to be oblivious to reality when it comes to these tasks that seem so impossible. We need to be blind to the time it takes, to sacrifices made, and to our emotions when something inside of us screams ‘I’m done and I don’t want to do this anymore.’
When it comes to impossible tasks, we do not start out being the person who can complete the task. We start out being the person who will be changed by the process of trying to complete the task. And even though this is everything in life, not many are aware of how this is just the way things are.
The Motivation Has To Be Bigger Than The Goal
When I decided to become a writer, it wasn’t any easier for me to read. I had stopped reading for years, and had only come back to it because I had gotten so sick that my body would freeze and refuse to move for hours on end. Chronic fatigue isn’t sleeping all the time. It’s being in a body that refuses to move, bored out of your mind, demanding an escape. All you have left is your imagination to see you through, to remind you what living is, and that impossible task to start a business when I could barely lift my arms didn’t actually feel impossible. It just felt like the only thing to do to get through the moment.
Making this database was the only thing that I could do to be able to be a writer again. I did not write during the time I was making this database, because I couldn’t write. Making this database didn’t actually give me back the part of my brain I needed to be able to be a writer again. But what it did do was keep me focused on my goal — my impossible goal — of being able to write again while my brain was broken. It gave me hope when I saw that I could learn a new skill, a new language. And even when my cognition would drop and I would lose it all, it reminded me that I could get it back again when it came back and the code would work.
It gave me something to measure my achievements, small as they might be, while going through the process of my brain healing. While distancing me enough from my written works that I wouldn’t put my failures on to them. Because that was something that I was seeing as well. I was so focused thinking I couldn’t write, that I was going to ruin what I already created, instead of seeing that my brain was broken. It was easily promising to become a complex, and I knew that was detrimental to being able to go forward as a writer if it was allowed to sink in and take root. I didn’t want something else growing to trap me in this prison of a brain.
Taking the impossible journey was as simple as breathing. It promised something more when there was nothing. Taking on these tasks has to mean everything, otherwise why would anyone take on the impossible?
Preserving You During The Impossible Failures
Self awareness showed me where I was self destructing once again. I had learned by now, could see clearer each failure.
I transferred my end goal of being able to write, into the goal of being able to create a support system to write. The goal was the same, but when failure inevitably would strike, it was about the failure to create the needed support system instead of a failure to write.
Dealing with my vision disorder, and having my insurance provide the worst coating on what was supposed to be vision support screen glasses, was a failure of the support to help me see, not a failure of my vision. It was a failure of capitalism, of a society that thought any sort of glasses wasn’t automatically a vision aid, not on my failing sight.
It might sound so small, these little distinctions. These little transferences of where to place the pain and blame when things don’t go the way we need them to go. But it’s essential on this journey. It maintains mental well-being and self-esteem. In science, no one ever says your vision failed because you can’t see a virus with your bare eye; it’s that you failed to use or obtain the correct tools, and therefore couldn’t see what was there.
It’s a shifting of expectation and pressure that one places on oneself when we try to be accountable for everything we can’t control. It removes the question of if one is good enough, and again brings you to the how does one do something no matter abilities or talents. We’re brought to how to achieve the goal, instead of asking why all these parts of you aren’t good enough to let you reach that goal.
It’s not about owning the limitations, but about owning the solutions.
The Journey is the Goal, Not the Goal
I learned a new language and pattern of thought when my cognition was at its weakest. I held onto motivation when I literally had a failure of motivation as a result of ADHD. I was able to create the support tool I needed when my brain was at its weakest. And if I’m brutally honest, even with this support tool, at that point of my health I don’t know that I would have been able to write. I would have, because the tunnel vision would have allowed it, but without a healthier vantage, I’m not sure I would have been able to get past my perfectionist neurosis. But it would’ve given me hope and sent me looking for the answers that would help. And that is everything about taking on the impossible.
You need hope that it’s not truly impossible.
Our experiences don’t always change us into the person we need to be for the goal we’re chasing after. Sometimes they reveal that we want to be someone else. That the goal isn’t right. And that’s okay. Self-actualization is not an A+ B always = C formula. What we put in might define or shape the results, but that doesn’t mean we understand why our results are so unique and different to what we imagined.
Just like we can’t know the book we’re going to write until it’s written, wanting to be a form, a career, a completed task, an achieved goal doesn’t mean we know who we are going to be on that journey. So we have to be kind and forgiving, instead of trying to be that goal. Because if we are cruel and unaccepting of reality, fighting ourselves, filled with dissatisfaction and hate on the journey, that is the form we’re left in. The goal won’t define us; we define the goal.
So not only can you not doubt that you can do the impossible task, but you have to realize it’s not about the task at all, it’s not about the goal. It’s about you on the journey, because that’s what’s going to fuel and sustain as you do the impossible. It’s going to be why you show up. It’s going to be why you decided to take on the impossible in the first place when you have never done anything like it before. And it’s going to show you that you’re not as smart as you think you are when you look at something that seems impossible.
What we think is impossible is just our limits of imagination and experience. We haven’t become the people yet who know that it’s not impossible. It’s only in taking on the journey of the impossible that we ever get to discover the truth: impossible is just a concept, one we create. Our belief isn’t truth, isn’t fact, but just another limit we place to hold us back from meeting reality.
We’re a collection of scattered atoms with consciousness defining something we haven’t even attempted as impossible. It’s pretty nonsense the longer one even thinks of it. We have no idea what is actually impossible or not.