Dear Kindred Spirit,
I call you this because I know you. I know the thoughts that run through your head, because they are mine. And I have been buried lately. I have learned a few lessons, and I thought today would be a good time to share them.
First, you should know that I have only given myself 25 minutes to write this. The technique comes from something called the Pomodoro Method, a way of pushing yourself to move quickly through a task. I would link you to it, but I need to keep writing. Normally when I write a piece, it takes me hours. That’s actually a crock; it takes me days and days. I’m never finished; it’s never good enough. My body aches from sitting in this chair and the clutter in my house piles up around me and my grey roots grow more obvious and my kids call for my attention but the work. THE WORK. It needs my attention even more.
I have set for myself an unwritten rule that I will always, always have fresh content on my site every week. Once a week, never farther apart than that. But if you look at the date of this post, then at the one that came before it, you’ll see that eleven days have gone by since my most recent post. These eleven days have been a kind of torture to me as I watched my self-imposed standard come and go with nothing. I’m in the middle of a project that I know is going to be great…no, I just think it’s going to be great…anyway, it’s taking way more time than I thought it would. So many moving parts that I want to get just right, and I can’t let it go. I can’t call it good enough and move on. But my deadline. I am now my own boss and I am imposing my own deadlines and still I work and think about work all the time.
And I have seen you do the same thing. I have heard your stories about staying up until 2, then getting up again at 4 to continue, and still feeling unsatisfied, like you’re just barely clearing adequate. I have told you to go for mediocre on some things. You have to. You have to make the decision that it can’t all be A plus work.
But even as I say this, I know the truth. I know that in my own mind, I’m thinking, That’s fine for other people, but not for me. Yes, I have had to settle for mediocre when it comes to the domestic arts—my cooking, cleaning, and home décor are not much to write home about. There’s plenty of dog poop in the yard that needs picking up. I need new clothes. Did I mention the grey roots? Lots of stuff needs work. But the work itself? The stuff I’m trying to put out into the world with my name on it? No. That can’t be just good enough. It’s fine for everyone else to be a B-plus student. I’ll encourage that all day, sounding like I really have a balanced perspective on things.
But it’s a lie. So I know. I get it.
But here’s what happened over the last few days: I dropped the ball. My one-week deadline came and went, and as I watched it slip away, seven days turning into eight, then nine and ten, a sense of peace washed over me. Nothing bad happened. My inbox didn’t fill up with questions of “Where’s the new blog post?” or “What happened to you?” or “I’m never reading your stuff again! What a letdown!” Nope. Nothing. The world kept moving, because everyone else is busy too.
I get that some deadlines are firm and some slip-ups have major consequences, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about saying yes to things I could say no to, then insisting I do them all to a certain standard, then kicking myself anyway because ultimately, I still find flaws in the work.
Just last week, my daughter was having trouble with a question on her math homework. She was supposed to come up with a word problem that used concepts she wasn’t too familiar with. She wanted me to help her, but I couldn’t figure it out either. I don’t ever want to help my kids with their homework so much that I’m actually doing it for them, so if a few small nudges don’t get them over the hump, I will typically advise them to leave it and tell their teacher they didn’t understand how to do it. My daughter reacted to this with horror.
NO! she said. I’ll get a bad grade!
So what, I told her. Who cares if you lose a few points?
I knew what she was thinking: I have the highest grade in the class. I get straight A’s. I can’t leave it blank. What would everyone think?
And this is what I told her: If the smartest kid in the class gets an answer wrong or can’t do a problem, you know what that is? It’s a gift to everyone else, honey. You’re letting everyone else know that yes, the problem was indeed way too hard, even for you. You are showing them you’re human. You’re showing them they’re not crazy or stupid. It was a hard problem, too hard maybe. People who create assignments make mistakes, too. But the only way they know it is if most people have trouble with it. If you and I worked on this problem for another 40 minutes and I helped you figure out a way to answer it correctly, then you waltzed into class tomorrow with the only correctly answered problem in the class, that tells the teacher that this problem wasn’t impossible after all. You did it, so why couldn’t everyone else? But if you couldn’t? If even you had trouble with it? That’s a sign that maybe the expectations weren’t realistic. Maybe your teacher would have taken another look at that problem and realized it needed revision.
It took only moments for me to hear myself talking and realize it was a message I needed to hear.
Despite that recognition, it still took another week for me to listen. As I watched my own deadline come and go, I heard myself saying to my daughter, Your failure is a gift to everyone else. But my own ego persisted: Good enough for everyone else, but not me.
And then finally it clicked. As the fear of a missed deadline became a reality, I began to welcome it. What if I posted nothing this week? What if it was three or four days late, or if I skipped an entire week? It might be something I look back on later and think, yep, that was a rough week. That was the week I was working on that Google Drive course and everything else fell apart. The week I realized I had to say No more often, take on less, slow my pace. It all turned out okay.
I only have a minute left, so I’ll close with this: Please drop the ball on something. Just do it. You’ll realize that the world won’t end. Everyone else will make slight adjustments in their expectations of you, and those expectations will be more realistic, and they’ll see that you are human, too, and everything will get better. The sucky thing about being the best at something is that you have to keep being the best or you lose.
It’s keeping the balls in the air that’s the hard part. Dropping them can be strangely incredible.
My time’s up. Love you.
p.s. After my 25 minutes , I went back and edited and added stuff. Clearly, the move away from perfectionism will be slow and gradual. I just thought you should know that.