What we can learn from a creative project that took 71 years to complete
Think of a thing that you want to happen. Something that you wish for. What if 22 years separated you from getting that thing you want? How willing would you be to wait?
You might say that you would wait if it was worth it, but how do we know in the beginning if it is worth it. In the beginning, we have an idea or a dream and simply set out to do it without any guarantee of the results. We can imagine and hope that the results will be worth the wait, but there are no guarantees and as life often turns out there are sacrifices along the way that have to be made that may make us rethink our quest. What if the thing you want never happened in your lifetime? What if its completion took 71 years? What then?
Why this journey matters
We set out with a new idea in hand. We get what we need to get it started, maybe develop a website, purchase some supplies, and make a plan for how the work will get done. Our excitement fuels our project and gives us the impetus to move forward. Others want to know what we are up to so we share our idea and enter into the first trial — acceptance or rejection. If others reject our idea we may stop our work altogether. If they make a comment we may begin to doubt and that doubt is sure to spark procrastination which a guise for quitting.
In our instant fast paced world, we wait for nothing. I can have food delivered to my home within minutes and packages arrive at my door within a day. We can communicate instantaneously, bank online conveniently, and manage pretty much everything from our phone whenever we feel like it. We have to wait for few things in life. The value of development has been replaced by the thrill of going viral. We don’t need to pay our dues or learn from our journey. We just need enough hash tags and the right SEO guy. The thought of something taking a couple years seems unbearable. We want it now.
Yet the Internet of Things can’t prevent us from having to go on a journey and from the process of project development. Even those who supposedly have overnight success really don’t. They have been working and planning for years in the background. By the time their big idea comes along they are ready and prepared. They spent years growing and developing their skills and talent, trying things and failing, and starting over again. They paid their dues and now reap the benefits.
We need something outside of ourselves to help us see what is possible. Something that will help us get through the first weeks, months, and maybe even years of our idea development and implementation. On one of my used book store adventures I came across a book titled The Meaning of Everything and felt that audacious of a title might be worth the read and I was not disappointed. What I came across was a delightful story of how one man’s idea became the idea of many and took 71 years to come to fruition. A perfect story to help us see the value of our journey towards success and to understand the obstacles that all face when trying to achieve goals.
The Meaning of Everything
In June 1857 Herbert Colerdige, Frederick Furnivall, and Richard Chenevix Trench sat down to discuss their concerns with the English language. These men were concerned that current dictionaries weren’t good enough and that words had been left out. They decided to establish a committee that would address these concerns. Committee members would pour through literature, newspapers, journals, song scores, and conversation to capture English words. This idea sparked a scholarly paper and that paper proposed that an enormous book be developed with the totality of the language included in it. An effort would need to be made to capture every single word, every sense of that word, and every meaning of that word and put in the book for users to look up. This dictionary would in essence have the meaning of everything. A tall order indeed.
It would be 22 years before this desire was fulfilled. Though scholars agreed that the endeavor needed to happen they didn’t agree who should do it, how it should get funded, and how the effort should be organized. For two decades the wish to have this dictionary was marked by hesitation, uncertainty, outbursts of anger, threats of abandonment, frustration, arguing, disorganization, little progress or real achievement. It would be 71 years altogether before this book would be published and when it was it was known as the Oxford English Dictionary. Something we take for granted today.
The audaciousness of the goal can’t be over stated. To gather all words is a formidable task when you consider there was no way to get the idea out on social media, allow for committee members to collaborate via email, or set up a Skype call with people around the world to note progress. To gather all words, one must conduct a microscopically close reading of all literature. In total six million quotations were used for the dictionary gathered on slips of paper and stored in pigeon holes in a custom-made cabinet.
The project was expected to take ten years to complete, but in all took 71 years. The endeavor would be much more difficult than anyone could imagine. One of the keys to its success was execution. Many years were wasted because there was no solid structure for who would manage it and how they would get paid. The enormity of the project often sparked procrastination as editors sought to gather more tools to perform the work, but in the end consistent execution of the work led to success.
The projects longest editor, James Murray, noted that he could not chase the sun, or perfection, if the work was to be completed. One inquiry always leads to another. Reading one book always leads to another. Searching for all the answers results in not finding all those answers. Finding does not always lead to understanding, but execution without all those things does lead to results.
The path to creating an inclusive dictionary was fraught with in fighting, scandal, and disappointment. They struggled to obtain funds and lost support more than they secured it. Members died and new ones were reborn. Scandals came that threatened to halt all progress and there were connections made with investors that secured the projects future. At no time did success look certain. The book details the comings and goings of key players, the dedication of volunteers who scoured literature for words, and the all the times the entire project almost failed. The dictionary’s main editor, James Murray, did not live to see the book published which leaves a sour taste in the mouth of dreamers.
Two weeks ago, I had my own epiphany. The idea I have been waiting for finally appeared after three long years. I set out to order supplies, start building my website, and preparing to offer my new service. Just a few weeks into this endeavor and I already have doubts. Comments have already been made in support and against my idea. In order to keep this thing alive, I need an example of something much bigger than me. Something like a 71-year project. A project that was completed because no one completely gave up on its benefit and kept doing. Execution and faithfulness to the original concern united all those who worked on the dictionary. A concern for ensuring that people had access to the meaning of everything. That foundation was needed to ensure the idea survived.
In 1857 those three men had no idea that 48 years later the Queen of England would provide her endorsement of the dictionary sealing the fate of the project’s completion. They had no idea that it would take that long before Oxford completely embraced the book as their own. Understanding that it was going to be a hit. They couldn’t have imagined that it would be another 23 years after that before it was actually finished. I doubt they would have cared as long as they knew we have access to the meaning of everything and that their passion for the English language was finally satisfied and continues today. Your idea is no less significant and your project will be fraught with no less obstacles. Stay faithful to your original concerns and execute.
“For reasons unknown, so many gave their time for so little apparent reward. Hundreds upon hundreds of people, for motives known and unknown, for reasons stated and left unsaid, helped to chronicle the immense complexities of the language that was their own, and dedicated years upon years of labour to a project of which they all, buoyed by some, set of unfathomable and optimistic notions, insisted on becoming a part” S. Winchester
Originally published at aprolificanthology.com on January 4, 2019.