make or break | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Dropping The “Make Or Break” Mentality

Here’s something that doesn’t make much logical sense.

I imagine that, at some point in your life, you worked on a task that felt really “make or break” to you.  Maybe it was a project for an important client at work, or perhaps you were a student and preparing to take a test worth a big share of your grade.  Whatever it was, your whole career seemed to depend on your success at it, and “failure was not an option.”

When Starting Is Not An Option

Have you ever noticed that these “make or break” projects are actually the ones you have the most trouble starting?  That, the more that seems to be “riding” on the outcome, the harder it is to make progress?

From a rational perspective, this is hard to understand.  You’d think we’d dive headfirst into a task we see as “mission critical.”  Isn’t that what all the motivational bestsellers tell us — that we need to “chase success as if our lives depend on it”?

But when we look at this issue from an emotional perspective, it starts to make sense.  After all, if I really believe that making a mistake in my project could “break” me or my career, that probably means I’m basing my sense of self-worth on how well I perform.

If my self-worth depends on how my work is received, of course I’m not going to start my project.  This is because, if I finish my task and present it to the world, I’ll run the risk that people will see what I’ve done as inadequate, and then I’ll have to feel inadequate.

I think this is one reason so many people seem to have a book they’ve been “meaning” to write, or a business they’ve been “planning” to start, for the last ten years.  They’re worried that, if they come out with a final product and others don’t appreciate it, they’ll stop appreciating themselves.

Being Okay With Our Non-Okayness

Now, it would be easy for me to say that “the solution is to be okay with yourself no matter what.”  But as I think you know, that’s not so easy in practice.  Building up our basic sense of “okayness,” in my experience, takes work, and there’s no “30-day miracle cure.”

One practice I’ve found simple and effective, though, is to watch carefully for moments when you’re basing your sense of self-worth on the results you get in your work.  When you notice yourself thinking this way, just acknowledge what’s going on, without trying to change it.  Simply admit to yourself:  “I’m worrying that, if people don’t approve of my work, I won’t approve of myself.”

When I do this, I often feel the sense of heaviness in my body dropping away, and find myself chuckling out loud.  When I look directly at the painful story I’m telling myself, rather than trying to push it aside or pretend it isn’t there, the light of my awareness tends to burn it away, like the sun burning off the clouds.

On a practical level, when I let go of the sense that a project can “make or break me,” and see it more as a chance to play and experiment, I find concentrating and finishing my work so much easier.