Dream big and do a little, at a time

Pictured above is my Dad, sitting in the right seat of a Zenith Air CH-650. At the controls in the left seat is a test pilot, who flew out to conduct the first flight of this plane. They are getting ready to taxi over to the fuel pump and fuel her up for the maiden flight. You see, my Dad built that airplane. For those of you not familiar with general aviation, yes, that is a thing. People really do build their own airplanes, all the time as a matter of fact. Usually from kits like this one. Where the raw materials come pre cut with detailed instructions. Imagine an Ikea project that takes years, and considerable skill to assemble. No robots or assembly lines, just patience, care and some power tools.

Now, my father has been a private pilot my whole life and has had ownership interests in a few planes over the years, but this has been his dream. To finally build his own airplane has been something he has wanted to do and talked about doing for as long as I can remember. Which is why today, looking at this beautiful machine made from raw aluminum I’m feeling a bit inspired, and started questioning what it is that it takes to turn a dream into a reality. While I could wax poetic about the first step of a thousand mile journey or repeat a few pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned from Anthony Robbins, I’m feeling a bit more scientific today, so let’s talk about what I’ve learned about scheduling and prioritization in project management. It applies just as well to purely personal pursuits as it does professional, and I found it actually interesting, which I hope you will too.


Watch that first step, it’s a doozy.

So, let’s say for the sake of argument that we have some great goal in mind. Something that we want to do, like climb Kilimanjaro or say, build an airplane. If you’re anything like me, your dream has probably been lounging on your bucket list and in the back of your mind for some time now, but there’s a problem. It is going to take a lot of time, and money to achieve this goal. So, it’s been relegated to that back burner for quite some time now, and the longer it spends there, the more comfortable we become having it on the list, but not starting the project. Sound familiar? Yeah, tell me about it.

Well, before we go feeling down about our lack of progress, let’s examine some scheduling theory. When we have a list of things to do, and we have to do the whole list eventually, scheduling is actually pretty simple. Start on any item and get to work. It doesn’t matter where you start because the total time that it takes you to accomplish the whole list is fixed, regardless of the order. To make things a bit more complex, let’s say that the items on our list have due dates. Now, a good method of ordering our list is to start on the items which are due first. To get them done efficiently, we can simply order the list by due date and start at the earliest. Perhaps let’s say that our list is constantly full of items that we need to do, but they don’t necessarily have a due date. In this case, we will want to knock out as much as we can, as quick as we can. This is technically called minimizing the sum of completion times, and also has a pretty simple solution, just order our list by how long everything will take, and start with the quickest project to finish.

These examples are pretty straightforward, but they aren’t realistic. In reality, we have an endless to do list, with due dates thrown in there haphazardly,  important items which take a lot of time and unimportant items which can be done in a minute or two and vice versa. To really throw a wrench in the works, we have some items needing to be done before others can be started. If it seems like balancing it all is pretty complicated, well then don’t worry, because you’re right. It turns out that for most of the well defined scheduling problems in the world there is no optimal answer. There are no simple algorithms which can be readily applied to our real list of to do items. They are in a word, intractable problems. We would have to play out every possible scenario to determine the optimal schedule, which might be possible with computer simulation, but the time necessary to model it all makes that solution inefficient itself.  In fact the closest we can come to optimal is what most of us know to do instinctively. Schedule the stuff with due dates to be done before they become late, and with what is left of our time, tackle the rest of the list balancing that which can be done quickly with what is most important.

So, when we have something that is a personal pursuit that takes a lot of time and or money (aren’t they really the same for most of us?), our nature to optimally schedule everything in life can be what is holding us back from achieving those things. We constantly are putting work, family, honey-do’s ahead of those things, and for good reason. It’s the optimal strategy, but it makes starting a project, taking that first step pretty difficult. Sometimes then, the optimal method for achieving these goals is to get some help.

I get by with a little help from my friends._DSC4141

The plane wasn’t built by my Dad alone, there are 5 guys who all built it together. All five of them had their family and friends come down and help, even just to pull a single rivet. Above you can see a few of the signatures of those who helped on the fuselage. These 5 partners all belong to a club, the EAA to be precise. The Experimental Aircraft Association, a national club dedicated to well, building your own airplanes. My Dad has been a member for years, but finally an opportunity came along that made this particular project financially feasible. Zenith Aircraft gave away the wings portion of several airplane kits at the Oshkosh airshow, specifically to EAA chapters like his. So, with a few friends and a head start, he finally got to build an airplane. That strategy works well because it gets the project going, for little money and little time, it keeps you interested and motivated. When the opportunity comes, it will be easier to achieve your dream with the resources of your fellow enthusiasts. Perhaps then the first step is to find others who share your passion and spend time with them or find a way to get your friends and family involved. Join the mountaineers here in Seattle if you want to climb a mountain, join a tech Meetup if you want to learn to code. Get your girlfriend to share her knowledge of cake making with you so you might finally put something on your blog. (I promise, there will be more of that, and soon. ) Everything is better with good company and with all the ways to meet like minded people these days, I honestly think there is no better time than the present to start on that someday project, even if only trying to find somebody else who thinks thats a cool idea too. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t gotten started sailing around the world or whatever you would like to do yet, you’re probably great at getting things done, and that’s the problem. Dream big, and do a little bit at a time.

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