Keep your ideas big and your projects small.

  1. The allure of big ideas
  2. The power of small projects

When youth come to Powderhouse, they come with big ideas. Big ideas are what motivate us, but they aren't actionable. These are some of the ways we translate big ideas into smaller projects that stay true to whatever made the idea exciting to begin with.

The allure of big ideas

In our experience, defining a project is one of the hardest parts of supporting people doing creative work. Defining projects is how we bring big ideas to life, which is exciting. But bringing something to life means making it concrete and actionable, making it ambitious but achievable. This is a challenge because people don’t come to Powderhouse saying, “I want to study for the MCAS.” They come saying, “I want to get a high school diploma.” They come saying, “I want to start a clothing brand,” not, “I want to time track my process making a sweatsuit in order to calculate what I need to sell them for to ensure I make at least $20 per hour.”

But big ideas aren’t bad. We want big ideas. Big ideas are where excitement, passion, and motivation come from. But you can’t just “release an album” or “learn calculus” or “be your own boss.” Big ideas like these aren’t actionable. They need to be broken down, translated into concrete goals and then into projects, the smaller the better.

Small is good, but it’s not enough. No matter the size, good projects are complete. They are standalone. They are shareable. They aren’t exercises or practice problems—even if you might do some of these along the way—because if we do only exercises, we never experience the challenges of finishing. We might touch on most of the “content” of a project, but we lose the opportunity to grow other important skills like time and project management, frustration tolerance, or resisting perfectionism. We might also miss opportunities for applying the content we encountered earlier in the project. Small projects are also, therefore, how we balance process and product, learning and finishing, big ideas and small steps.

This balance is important for many reasons. Here are a few we’ve discovered.

Big ideas discourage exploration.

When CU entered Powderhouse, she didn’t know “what to do with her life.” In addition to building job skills, she wanted to explore other interests, like podcasting. She had a big idea: a series exploring childhood trauma, sharing strategies for working through hard times and encouraging listeners to hold on to hope. She wanted to release a season’s worth of episodes, line up guests, make cover art. We encouraged her to keep it small, make a single episode with a friend, and do it all the way through. She resisted but agreed and ultimately found even this scoped-down project quite hard. She doubted her own voice. She questioned if she had anything to offer as someone who was still working through her own stuff. She felt unsure as an interviewer. In the end, though, she finished the episode; she enjoyed the editing process; she was proud of what she’d made; she learnt something about what she wanted to do—along with what she didn’t.

JM was a first year fellow. She came in wanting to learn to work on cars, specifically doing customizations: wrapping, window tinting, etc. She tried wrapping but dropped it, did some coding but dropped it, explored joining the army but dropped it. Then she got curious about real estate. We encouraged her to reach out to a real estate agent to shadow them, see what the job looked and felt like, but she wanted to learn more about the field first. We suggested some YouTube videos, but she wanted something more formal. We worried she was avoiding putting herself out there more than looking to build a foundation, but she signed up for a licensure course: watching lectures, working through a workbook, and taking quizzes along the way. Days turned into weeks turned into almost two months and the course was dragging on. After a series of, “What’s really going on here?” conversations, she dropped real estate too, but not in a way that felt like learning. She just felt like she’d quit.

While some folks enter Powderhouse with very specific goals, most show up still needing to figure things out. This is where small projects shine. They let you dip your toes into something new without overcommitting, while still requiring you commit long enough to push through the early obstacles that make you want to quit. A PhD thesis probably isn’t the best way to figure out if you’re interested in physics. Taking on client work probably isn’t the way to get comfortable with design software. Renting out expensive time in a studio probably isn’t the best way to write your first song. This is why we start small, growing the scope of the work people do as they grow their foundation of skill, knowledge, commitment, and motivation.

Big ideas are hard to start and harder to finish.

JD and CP pitched a memory box that would live in the Powderhouse workspace alongside pens, cards, and a Polaroid camera, encouraging folks to commemorate special moments. They had very little woodworking experience between them, so we came up with a simple box design and asked them to build a foam prototype before cutting any wood. They were resistant to the foam model but ultimately agreed and discovered, as they measured and cut, that they mis-measured and mis-cut the cheap material multiple times. They didn’t want to make a second foam model and, while they still made some measuring mistakes on the wood—not taking the width of the saw blade into account—they were small and fixable. In the end, they reflected on the project and identified the foam model as a necessary part of the process of building the final box.

SM pitched a more complex box inspired by the woodcraft of their grandpa, who had recently passed, which would be filled with their grandparents’ favorite cookies and presented to their grandma as a gift. Sunny had some woodworking experience and felt certain they would find success tackling the final box first. We suggested a foam prototype and on refusal a prototype made of cheaper wood, but they felt many of the fabrication challenges would come from working with hard woods. Building the final box turned into a series of mishaps, learning to use new tools and techniques. They were learning, but they were frustrated—very frustrated. Eventually, they rescoped the “project” to be about figuring out how to fabricate each piece of the box, wrapping up the process so they could return to building once they’d had time to cool down. The final box is yet to be built.

Small projects (usually) get finished, and finished projects are (usually) better than unfinished projects. They allow for faster iteration. They provide more on- and off-ramps. They are easier to keep in your head all at once. If you want to publish a book of poetry, the weight of the blank page is heavier than if you start with a few poems or a book proposal. If you want to create a website, opening a text file and starting with code rather than paper prototypes and wireframes will get you stuck real quick. By staying connected to the big idea behind a project but translating it into the simplest prototype possible, you stay connected to your motivation, compounding it by working toward a goal that feels within reach.

Big ideas make learning a distraction.

TL entered the program wanting to turn a side hustle from high school into a legit jewelry business, expanding into clothing as well. She had never used a sewing machine and wanted to learn. We were now on the search for a project through which she could do this. Her first idea was to customize a hoodie, and she didn’t want to start simpler. She got a practice hoodie and tried attaching letters. She found this frustrating and quickly swapped to sewing by hand. This wasn’t helping her achieve her goal, but she was now open to scaling back her project. First, she made a sloppy bag, figuring out how to sew sharp angles and strategically hide stitching. Next, she made pillows for the couches in the workspace. She put those same sewing skills to use and got to see people using and appreciating her work. She started adding liners to reenforce the pillows. She made more complex shapes and gave them as gifts, returning to the bag design to make a professional looking sack for a friend. The hoodie project was forgotten at this point, but she’d still accomplished her goal: learning to use a sewing machine.

DR was a second year fellow. In their first year, they were licensed as a nail tech and started taking clients in a home studio. Having mastered many basic nail services, they now wanted to grow their customer base and their nail art skills. They also love all things horror. At the intersection of these interests, we came up with a Halloween themed project. For every day in October, they made a set of press-on nails with custom designs to practice nail art. They documented the process and final product of each set, posting to their business Instagram, which in turn helped promote their business and reach more clients. And, of course, they got to lean into the spooky season. This project built their nail art skills, their photo and video skills, and their time and project management skills—think of the scheduling! It took the desire to “practice” and turned it into something with urgent deadlines and specific outputs but without the pressure that “practicing” on an actual client’s nails entails. In short, it took practice seriously by structuring it like a project, a project with learning as a primary goal.

It’s frustrating to unexpectedly realize you have some big, hard thing to learn in the middle of a project. Releasing a recipe book sounds like a great way to explore the culinary arts, but are you prepared to learn the graphic design, photography, and videography skills required to lay it out? Sometimes the answer is, “Yes, that’s part of the appeal of the project!” Sometimes, the answer is, “No, I want to learn knife and plating skills. That other stuff is a distraction!” This is why defining and scoping projects (a process we call pitching) is so central to work at Powderhouse.

Through pitches, projects are designed to achieve people’s specific goals. Sometimes, the project is the goal. If you want to publish a recipe book, making a recipe book is probably a good project (though maybe with fewer recipes than you’d first imagined, maybe releasing it digitally before worrying about the logistics of physical printing). If you want to get better at cooking, you should probably do something whose primary work is, well, cooking. In these cases, project design is even more important. Maybe you could cook meals for a local homeless shelter? Maybe you could cook lunch at Powderhouse on Fridays? Maybe you could take a cooking class? When you design a project as a way to learn something specific, it’s easy to turn it into a hands-on worksheet. Don’t do this.

Projects support learning in specific ways. They require that you manage yourself and your work, apply your new knowledge and skills in context, and design your work for and share your work with an authentic audience. Good project design takes advantage of these unique strengths.

The power of small projects

At Powderhouse, we don’t see small projects as failed big ideas, and we work with fellows to ensure they don’t either. TL’s pillows weren’t failed hoodies; they were successful pillows. CU’s audio story wasn’t a failed podcast series; it was a successful episode. DR’s spooky season wasn’t failed client work; it was a successful promotional project for her business that also served as a structure within which to practice her craft. And, in each case, the finished projects also served as contexts to support exploration and learning. But it can be hard to see things this way when you’re in the middle of a project and it’s starting to get hard. Try replacing “good taste” with “big idea” in this now-famous clip from This American Life’s Ira Glass.

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.

By keeping our projects small but our ideas big, we make sure the work we’re doing is driven by taste. While our craft might leave something lacking, our taste does not. Rather than quitting on ourselves, small projects ask us to follow-through on a well-scoped version of a big idea, giving us opportunities to reconsider the what and how of our work on a timescale appropriate to our skill and experience.

Quitting also just feels bad, and it’s hard to avoid when you overcommit. Small projects are an attempt to prevent overcommitment. They make space for reflection, revision, and redirection. This is important because:

  • You might not really know what your idea entails. Exciting language can hide complexity within. This is why we ask folks to get specific about what they want to do and what will make it a success for them, allowing us to help scope things (usually down) to achieve those goals.
  • You might not already know how to do it. If you don’t have experience with something, you might have trouble translating from idea to project, project to plan, and even plan to first step—and the larger the project, the more translation it requires.
  • You might have feelings. When things don’t work the first time (or the second or the third), when they drag on (see Hofstadter’s Law), when they are hard (and most things worth doing are), it’s upsetting. Keeping things small let’s you grow your frustration tolerance slowly.

Of course, these things are true no matter the size of a project, but when something is bigger, there is more to lose: more time, more energy, more money. As a project drags on, those sunk costs keep growing: starting over feels expensive, stopping feels like quitting, and you’re frustrated enough that adjusting your process or pausing to build new skills feels deflating.

Still, translating an exciting goal into a small project isn’t exciting. For this reason, we work to keep small projects standalone and connected to their big ideas. For example, imagine you want to make a car.

Don’t start with a wheel then an axle then a chassis. Make a skateboard then a scooter then a bike. This way, folks are always working on something real (i.e. an actual scooter rather than a 3/4 finished car), are bought in and understand how the smaller project is connected to their larger ambitions (i.e. the scooter requires you understand wheels and axles, same as the car), and have many off-ramps leading to legitimate success (i.e. having finished a bicycle rather than failing to finish a car). But it isn’t just for the project’s sake that we take this approach. It’s also better for learning through the doing projects.

  • Small projects allow for quick iteration. At Powderhouse, iteration is the stuff of learning. It’s revision and improvement. It’s making a next draft, incorporating what you learnt from the last. Iteration allows us to center learning in the creative process. This means starting small and growing the scope of your endeavor as you develop the skills, knowledge, and perspectives needed to tackle something larger.
  • Iteration allows for moments of reflection. In fact, it requires them. You only learn from what you learn from: We don’t learn just from experience, we learn by reflecting on our experience. We need to take a beat to reflect on and synthesize experience in order to learn from it. The more you iterate, the more of these beats you have.
  • Moments of reflection support learning and encourage you to keep projects small. When things drag on, it feels bad, but a three day project expanding into a five day project feels less bad than a month long project taking six. Small projects don’t stop things from taking longer than expected. They give us opportunities to rescope and to grow our frustration tolerance, building the emotional muscles needed to tackle more ambitious creative work.

Doing projects is hard. They’re even harder when an idea is big and unwieldy. Unfortunately, some of the most exciting projects are born this way. Blue sky ideas with grand ambitions are motivating, but they are hard to start and even harder to finish.

At Powderhouse, we embrace this tension. On the one hand, we ask people to bring their grand ambitions, to tap into the things that truly motivate them, to put their hopes and dreams on the table, to take a risk. On the other hand, we ask them to start small, often very small, usually smaller than they’d like. Of course, the definition of small depends on many things: someone’s background with the content required, their self management skills, the audience and goals of the work. The same project that is huge for one person might be perfectly scoped for another. The goal, then, is to keep things as small as possible for the person doing the project.

We often talk about these patterns when we talk about our work, in relation to learning and education, but many domains have named this pattern. Whatever buzzword or mantra we use to talk about it, translating big ideas into small projects is an art form. When businesses design a minimum viable product, they must define what “minimum viable” means. What is the core of the product and what is just style? When designers make low fidelity prototypes, they must define what “low fidelity” means. What is core to the prototype, and where is the line between a bare bones and an unfinished draft?

At Powderhouse, the way we make these distinctions is through project pitches, which ask: What are you trying to make or do? Why are you doing it? What will make it a success? Often, folks struggle to answer these questions on their own, so pitch writing is a conversational process we guide with questions. If what they want to do is too large for their current capacity, we don’t just shoot it down. We look at why they’re doing it. The why is their big idea, it’s what motivates them. If they aren’t clear about their why, we talk about that first. With a clear why, you can return to their project and figure out its “minimum viable” format, moving on to define success in a way that is aligned with their why.

While creatives have identified these cross-disciplinary challenges in their own processes and professions, we have been surprised at how little folks at Powderhouse are able to make these connections around self- and project-management, even with support. While most folks in our programs understand things like “perfectionism” or “procrastination” as universal human challenges, many experience creative challenges like something taking longer than expected, not knowing how to get started, or needing a skill they hadn’t anticipated being involved in a project as personal failings.

We’ve found some success tackling these challenges with folks individually, but figuring out how to surface, discuss, and challenge these patterns collectively is one of the design challenges that feels most important to our future success. Of course, it’s an iterative process. We’re starting small.