023: What Unfinished Projects Teach Us About Our Life’s Work [Podcast]

This essay is an unedited excerpt from my upcoming book, The Art of Work, which comes out next March. Here are three stories about unfinished projects and what they can teach us about our calling.

picture of unfinished street painting
Photo Credit: William Murphy via cc

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To listen to me read this essay, click the player below (click here if reading via email):

The Legacy of an Artist

Ernest Hemingway died believing he had not created his life’s work, lamenting to a friend that everything he wanted to do, he hadn’t done.

Beloved by the world, he died a lonely, depressed man.

Every artist faces the ultimate insufficiency of her work. Every worker, if he is wise, knows the limits of his labor. So what good, then, is it to pursue a calling if the pursuit will end in disappointment?

If we look at another author, we see a different lesson.

“Leaf” by Niggle

During the second World War, british author J.R.R. Tolkien, who would go on to write one of the greatest fantasy novels of the twentieth century, was contemplating death.

Would he live through such turbulent times or die in the middle of completing his life’s work? He didn’t know, and the possibility of not completing such a task haunted him. To process his fears, Tolkien wrote a short story about a man named Niggle.

Niggle was an artist who was always getting distracted from his work. Neighbors and friends would ask favors of him constantly, and as he neared the date for his long “journey” (a metaphor for death), he worried he might never finish his greatest work — a painting of a tree.

When it came time for his departure, Niggle looked at his painting, and as he feared, saw an unfinished work — nothing but a small leaf and a few details. The majority of the painting he hoped would someday happen never did. We can all relate to such regret, the pain of leaving some projects undone, fearing we will never return to them.

But there is an interesting twist at the end of Tolkien’s story. When Niggle completes his journey, essentially entering the afterlife, he sees something he can’t believe. Sitting there in all the glory he imagined it is the tree he never finished.

We all die unfinished symphonies

Everyone, I believe, fears what Hemingway feared — that they will die with important work still to do.

“We all die unfinished symphonies,” my friend told me one morning over breakfast. He was telling me about his dad who, on his death bed, made a half-hearted attempt to repent for his life of alcoholism and neglect. It wasn’t enough for my friend, nor should it have been, but he realized that he had to let it go. He had to be okay with a lack of resolution, at least in this life. Niggle learned the same thing.

When it comes to your work, there will be things you won’t accomplished. This is the work of an artist: bravely stepping into a creative field with bold aspirations, while recognizing that the work will never truly be finished.

“Art is never finished,” Leonardo da Vinci once said, “only abandoned.” The challenge for the artist — and we are all creating art on the canvas of our lives — is to do our work well while letting go of expectations and results.

If we don’t do this, we may very well drive ourselves, and those around us, crazy. It may even, as in the case of Hemingway, kill us. And that’s the real tragedy: not that we leave this world with work we still wish were possible, but that the work robs us of the life we could have lived.

The right choice isn’t to retire, to simply settle in and invite death. It’s to work hard and passionately, but acknowledge the limitations of what one life is capable of.

Einstein’s failure

Albert Einstein, on his deathbed, asked for his glasses so that he could continue working on a project he believed would be his greatest work of all. He was not interested in mere phenomena anymore. He wanted, as he put it, “to know God’s thoughts.” Everything else was details.

This “theory of everything,” as it came to be known, was based on Einstein’s believe that physics was an “expression of the divine.” He believed there was an explanation for everything, that God did not create chaos but order. He spent thirty years on this project, working on it until the very last day of his life.

This theory of everything was what many people believe to be a predecessor to string theory, a theory that attempts to explain what holds the universe together.

Though unfinished at the time of his death, Einstein’s final work is still fascinating today, inspiring fascination and awe amongst some of the world’s most notable physicists.

What we learn from these three men is that a healthy fear of death drives a person to continue creating until the very end, but with that fear must come the acceptance that even your life’s work will, in some ways, remain unfinished.

Why is this, and what do we do with such humbling reality?

The answer is legacy.

How I learned this in my own life

Perhaps one of my proudest achievements in my life is that I was a part of the very first honor code at my college.

Founded in 1843, Illinois College had never had an official honor code, a formal document of ethics and academic performance. Such documents were popular in most Ivy League schools, but our small liberal arts school lacked one.

Having done sufficient research on the subject, after a professor proposed the idea to the student body government, I realized why our school had never had an honor code. It wasn’t for lack of trying.

One faculty member gave me a list of student names who had attempted to initiate the very thing I was in charge of, and I followed up with each of them. One was a woman who had tried to create a student honor code over a decade before. I emailed her, asking for context, and she told me, essentially, that it never happened because there was just too much red tape.

To me, that sounded like a dare. For the next year and half, my friend Dan and I endeavored to do what this young woman didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, do. Little did I know how right she was.

After drafting dozens of versions of the document, constantly having to change things to appease students, faculty, and staff, I was ready to give up. There was no way to please everyone, and without being able to do that, I was confident we wouldn’t be able to garner enough support to pass the document.

Still, we tried: we lobbied the student body, wrote articles in the school newspaper, and met with any professor or administrator who would listen. And on the last day of classes, during our senior year, we submitted our proposal to the faculty for a vote. If there was a majority vote, the honor code would be instituted.

Waiting outside the lecture hall after delivering an impassioned speech about why we needed such a document, I tried to listen to what the results of the vote were. A minute later, the meeting was adjourned, and a hundred professors exited the hall. As one economics profess who had been a proponent of the code passed me, he turned around and not so discretely winked at me.

I sighed. We had done it. But the work was far from over. All we had done was take a theory and make it official; now, the code had been enacted. Committees would have to be formed and processes would have to be tested.

I had no choice but to pass the baton on to another student, a Sophomore named Josh who was passionate about our school and respecting the honorable tradition on which was founded. I may have been one of the champions for the honor code, but Josh and his classmates made it a reality.

So here’s the lesson

In any endeavor, you will come to the end of yourself, whether that means facing your own mortality or coming to grips with a limited amount of resources. At a certain point, you will either abandon the work, giving up in despair of ever accomplishing such a feat, or you will find a way to pass it on.

What I learned with the honor code, and what you might learn, is that when we share our life’s work, we not only help others find their calling but we leave a legacy that matters. And not just in the work we do but in what’s left undone for others to complete.

By the way, if you are enjoying these podcasts, would you be willing to subscribe either via iTunes or Stitcher and leave an honest review? That would mean the world to me, and it helps other people discover the show.

Free resource: If you want to read the J.R.R. Tolkien story I mentioned, you can read it for free here: Leaf: By Niggle.

Also be sure to check out the replay of the webinar I hosted with Danny Iny yesterday. Danny normally charges for this session, but he’s making it available for you guys for free until Saturday.

What’s something you’ve had to leave unfinished for someone else to complete? What does legacy look like to you? Share in the comments.