How do you know when you are done?

Dan Harmon, creator of the TV show Community, asked someone this question during his live show and podcast, Harmontown. Then he asked another person. And the next night he asked two more people. Apparently it is the punchline to an old joke:

"What are you doing?" asks the comedian.

"Oh, nothing," she replies.

"How do you know when you are done?"

But for some reason it really stuck with me, maybe because I do not have an answer. Harmon says it was just a joke in response to someone who said they do "nothing" but I think it might have resonance for him too.

How do you know when you are done?

My first thought was it was asking "when do you stop working?" a different question I also do not have an answer to. Apologies for getting meta, but the first sign I am done is if I am writing one of these and I go over 1100 words I need to stop entirely and cut things down or rewrite it with a better tack so the word limit is not a problem. But how do you know when to stop working on something that always could be better? How do you know when you have enough that you can even dare show it to others? I feel like I am still taking the first step to figure out the answer to that.

How do you know when you are done?

Really though I think the question is asking "how do you know when to stop trying?" or "how do you know when to give up?" I think that it is a meditation on failure and knowing it when you see it.

As a person who blindly assumes I can do anything (but realistically accepts that this is not true), anything is possible with enough work. If you cannot do something, it only means you did not work hard enough. But of course there are physical and mental limits and extenuating circumstances. And maybe you just did not work hard enough. But how can you tell?

How do you know when you are done?

When I first started interviewing for jobs in college, one piece of advice really stuck with me in a negative way: if they ask you a technical question and you do not know the answer, just say "I do not know". In that situation "I do not know" is the right answer because it is obvious when you are talking out of your ass but admitting you do not know the answer is a sign of character.

The problem is that this quickly became a crutch. The idea that I can both not know what I am supposed to and still get the happy brain chemicals for giving the right response was addictive, when really I was forgetting that continually saying "I don't know" has diminishing returns pretty much after the first time you use it.

And I know that now, but I like giving up. I like giving up a lot, but I also hate giving up if I can prevent it.

How do you know when you are done?

The lowest I have been was the time I spent was playing the game Super Meat Boy which is an intentionally difficult platforming game. In the game there are secret levels that are homages to other games, and the one I was playing was the homage to I Wanna Be The Guy, an even harder platformer that is noted for its difficult.

I spent fourteen hours attempting to beat the I Wanna Be The Guy levels in Super Meat Boy. I started at 8pm and played non-stop until 10am at which point I had to go to work. There are only three levels in the section and by 4am I had made it to the final level. By the time I gave up I could not see straight, my vision was extremely blurry and I had not left my chair for the duration. I was about ten minutes away from being one of those kids in China who die playing World of Warcraft.

The problem was that I refused to give up and told myself that I would not get up until I beat the levels. In the end I gave up due to physical exhaustion and the acceptance that I was never going to beat those fucking levels (which everyone on the internet otherwise says are super easy) because I am just a shitty video game player. I am still upset with myself over this, years later.

How do you know when you are done?

I am still trying to figure out when giving up is the right choice. Every situation is different of course, but how much failure is acceptable or when is it a sign of the inevitable? I can only think my life would be easier if I could tell. I wonder if I should instead give up trying to figure out when to give up, would that be a more productive use of my thoughts?

How do you know when you are done?