You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 11)

Your mind will tell you that  your good work is not good enough. Do good work anyway. Avoid striving for perfection at all costs. Perfectionism is the idea that no standard other than flawlessness is acceptable. But it rarely stops there. Hidden within our demands for the perfect performance is the desire to be perfect ourselves. Indeed only such a perfect person could achieve the level of perfect performance that the perfectionist demands. You need not concern yourself with that. Perfection is an illusion.  It is like a light that seems to be atop the next hill—distant but attainable—but which is, in fact, a star rising in the evening, hopelessly out of reach. Excellence, by contrast, is in the here and now. It occurs within the moment of action. It emerges only from doing with intention.

Perfectionism is a trap. Once you allow your goal to be tainted with it, you will become paralyzed by the expectation that your work could—and should—be flawless. Perfectionism will force you to immediately confront the possibility that it might not be so (in fact it definitely won’t be so!). And if it isn’t? That would be horrible! You would be a failure! And you just can’t take that can you? The result? Doing nothing.

Well let’s climb out of that particular bog. Your goal is to do good work. This will take effort, but it need not be a herculean endeavor. Moderate effort sustained over time will lead to the completion of achievable goals.

Perfectionism will call for the rejection of the achievable goal. But large goals are only attained by the successive completion of small goals. Achievable goals—those that can be executed within minutes,  hours, or the working day—are the only goals that matter. It is in the completion of these stepping stone tasks that we fulfill our potential and flourish.

The Fine Print:

Achieving your potential doesn’t mean living up to some arbitrary standard imposed from without. No one—not even you can know  what your potential truly is in advance. Potential is revealed only in the doing. You don’t have to win that golden medal, sell the most widgets, or claim the corner office. You must set the goal for yourself and it must be measured against yourself. If life is a race, the other runners are irrelevant. Their speed  is an arbitrary measure based on an accidental sample. Fulfilling your potential may mean just running any part of the race at all or completing it with a faster time than your last effort—even if you come in dead last! Your excellence is not borne of besting others. It is not forged in the fires of competition. Competition may inspire you to push yourself, but it must never be a measuring rod of your worth.  Excellence is borne of your intention to do good work, and forged in the fires of your own effort.

In a Nutshell:

To strive for perfection is to be stagnant. Instead, seek to do good work by putting forth moderate effort over time to complete achievable tasks. Seek to fulfill your unique potential without resorting to comparison with others.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

Stagnation. Nothing will destroy your productivity and fulfillment faster than perfectionism. Perfectionism will turn your successes into perceived defeats and your ability to accomplish into seeming helplessness.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Mastery. Here mastery is a personal value—the preference to work to attain proficiency at a skill. Mastery follows from effort put forth over time. Your failures will not destroy your resolve (as they would if your goal was perfection) but rather you will learn from each one, honing your skill ever more. In time, you will be able to accomplish tasks of such difficulty that you would once have thought them impossible.

The Source of this Idea:

Many have sited the dangers of perfectionism. One thinker who articulated the problems that result from the “should’s” and “must’s” that compose perfectionism is Albert Ellis, whose views on the subject can be seen here.  His thoughts on perfectionism might provide a clue to how he was able to author or co-author over 75 books (no stagnation going on there!).

[Alright!  I am one idea away from completing my list!  This has been a very interesting project for me.  These ideas are usually pressed as negatives. Trying to phrase them as positive ideas has been a very useful exercise. Please let me know what you think! ]

 

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (so far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.

 

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Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease Is Not Required.

Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 10)

Everything worth doing is worth putting effort into. We know this. But despite this awareness, there is often a lingering childishness in us, demanding that our path should be easy, that we should not have to work hard, and that we should never be uncomfortable. But a life lived according to your values will never be completely comfortable. Learning to tolerate the discomfort of effort is an important part of achieving your goals and fulfilling your potential.

The good news is that the more you put effort into your goals, the easier putting in effort becomes. It’s as if when we use effort to do good work, we get a discount on any future effort we put forth. For example, if you imagine a day where you have been very lazy, haven’t gotten off the couch and haven’t done anything difficult at all, how hard would it then be to do a chore like cook a meal, wash some dishes or do a load of laundry? You certainly could do it, but it would be difficult. In comparison to your lazy day, it would seem to be a high-effort task. Now imagine a day where you have been very productive and have already done several difficult things. How much effort would it take to put on that same load of laundry? Hardly any at all. That is the nature of effort. The extent to which effort is unpleasant varies greatly. But one sure way to make effort much more unpleasant and “expensive” is to tell yourself that you can’t tolerate it, or worse, that you shouldn’t have to.

In a Nutshell:

Life will present us with no shortage of situations where we will be uncomfortable, particularly when we are working towards our goals—and especially when those goals involve not giving in to harmful urges. But being uncomfortable does not harm us. We can put in the effort. We can accomplish our goals and live according to our values despite discomfort.

How to Use This Idea:

Be on the lookout for thoughts that tell you that you shouldn’t be uncomfortable, that something is too hard (when you know it’s not), and that you can’t put in the effort to do something important. Whenever you find these thoughts, question them and push back against them. Say to yourself, “Ok. This will make me uncomfortable. This is difficult.” But then ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? What is my goal? How important is that goal to me?” Remind yourself that you can tolerate being uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is not going to harm you.

The Fine Print:

Please don’t take this as an instruction to work hard just for the sake of working hard. The point is to do what is important to you—to get something worthwhile out of your efforts. Don’t be cruel with yourself. Don’t expect yourself to put in Herculean efforts. If you can, routinely put in a modest amount of effort. Don’t feel like you need to always take the more difficult road just because it is difficult. Shortcuts are not always bad ideas if they really do bring you to the same place. Don’t treat being uncomfortable as a goal unto itself. When you tolerate discomfort you should know what purpose it serves.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

This idea will help you avoid stagnation—especially the stagnation that comes from not working on your goals. If you can only do what comes easily, you will rarely achieve anything. If you rule out any course of action that requires effort or discomfort you will probably rule out the best option you have. And if you give into every urge that surfaces (because resisting it is uncomfortable) your life will very quickly become a downward spiral of misery.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Discipline. Whether we are doing our job, eating right, exercising, acting morally, or accomplishing your goals, discipline will be required. We build discipline only by deciding to do difficult, uncomfortable things even though it would be easier (in the short term) not to do them. We need to remind ourselves that these acts will serve us well, in the long run, acknowledge the discomfort, and do them anyway.

The Source of this Idea:

This post is a synthesis of many ideas. The discussion of self-discipline is inspired by Stoic philosophy. Albert Ellis’s (REBT-related) concept of Frustration Intolerance has certainly contributed to my thinking. And the experimental psychology concept of Learned Industriousness, Associated with Robert Eisenberger (and which my dissertation dealt with) is relevant as well.

Next: You Can Do Good Work Or Seek Perfection. But You Can’t Do Both

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (So Far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.