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.
I have a friend who is coming to the end of her graduate education. Finally, six-odd years after she started her program, she’s about to give the last presentation on her dissertation and walk out a newly-minted Ph.D. However, she’s having a problem—she can’t seem to make progress on the presentation. She keeps rejecting every idea she has as stupid, clichéd or otherwise inadequate. Thus, all she’s got at the moment is a piece of paper with a bunch of crossed-out words on it.
When she told me about her frustration, I asked her how she was feeling while she was trying to write. “This feels really serious and important,” she replied. “This is going to be the moment of truth, when I really show my professors what I’ve got. I can’t afford to mess up.”
Many of us can probably identify with my friend’s experience. Because she sees her project as so significant and the consequences of “messing up” as so severe, she feels that her ideas and language need to be perfect. As a human being, and therefore imperfect, she can’t come up with perfect ideas and turns of phrase, and thus she feels she has nothing worthwhile to put on paper. I’ve certainly had experiences like this—one test I took in high school, where I didn’t finish an essay because I couldn’t come up with perfect concluding language, comes to mind.
We use many different phrases to describe this type of concern, such as “perfectionism,” “making the best the enemy of the good,” and “paralysis by analysis.” However, I don’t think these phrases fully capture the essence of the problem. The issue isn’t just that my friend is consumed with the need to do a flawless job. The reason she’s so obsessed with creating an impeccable presentation is the importance she places on the project. The way she sees it, it’s almost as if she’ll cease to exist, or no one will love or respect her again, if she doesn’t achieve perfection.
It goes against conventional wisdom to suggest that taking our activities seriously can be a problem. In our society, we’re generally taught that people who take their work the most seriously are the happiest and most successful. This teaching begins almost immediately after we’re born. “You’ve got to take your housework seriously,” our parents told us. “You have to give everything you’ve got to your schoolwork,” our teachers said. These adults meant well—they were trying to make sure we didn’t shirk our obligations and limit our options in life. They assumed we’d figure out on our own how to give ourselves a break occasionally.
Unfortunately, however, some of us didn’t figure that out. Instead, our young minds interpreted this guidance very literally, and we began taking our work so seriously that our existence seemed to hang in the balance with every task we did. Ironically, placing this much significance on our work actually harms our productivity and our ability to enjoy what we do. Because everything seems to be “riding” on every project we get involved in, we’re so afraid of failure that we have trouble taking action.
Cautiousness, or fear of risk-taking, can . . . impede learning. Students who fear failure may avoid beneficial learning experiences. . . . Such students maintain extremely high standards, most often with impossible goals, and ultimately measure their self-worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment. . . . They can actually paralyze themselves, avoiding new experiences for fear of failure.
Perceiving every project we do as earth-shatteringly important, as Jonassen and Grabowski recognize, tends to paralyze instead of mobilize us.
How do we overcome this tendency to place too much significance on our tasks? One way to do this that I’ve benefited from, and recommended in the past, involves observing how little impact your actions have on the world around you. After you’ve completed an important task—whether or not you think you’ve done a good enough job—take a walk outside and notice your surroundings.
You’ll observe that, whether you succeeded or failed, the sky is still above you, the trees and buildings are still standing, and most people are going about their lives in exactly the same ways they did before. Your individual wins and losses, in most cases, have little or no effect on the world, although you may have been behaving like your failures could annihilate it. The world will remain an extraordinary and beautiful place no matter what happens for you at school or work.
You can also turn your attention inward and notice that, whatever you did or failed to do, it had no impact on who you are at the deepest level. One way to do this is to hold the memory of the task you just performed in your awareness—perhaps, for instance, you just gave a presentation or ran in a race. Now that you’re doing this, notice that, if the memory is in your awareness, you cannot be the memory. You would not be able to perceive, or think about, the memory if you and it were the same thing.
Now, observe that this is not only true of the memory of your most recent success or failure. It is true of all of your memories. You are something that remembers and is aware of your memories, not the memories themselves. Nor are you what you’ve accomplished in the world, the mistakes you’ve made, the clothes you’ve worn, or any other thing you’ve done, said or thought—you are the consciousness that has been aware of all of those things. As spiritual teacher and neurologist D.V. Pasupuleti puts it in Change Your Mind, “[y]ou are limitless: you are awareness, and you are being . . . . your memories, your knowledge and your incognizance all are objects of your awareness,” and not part of what you are.
Finally, recognize that what you are at the most basic level—consciousness or awareness—has never changed and can never change, regardless of what happens out in the world. No matter how you perform on any test, how high in the ranks you rise at your job, and what you do or say, nothing can ever destroy or take away from your true nature. Realizing this helps you get through your tasks, no matter how important they may seem, with peace and focus.
(This article appeared in the Personal Power Carnival, located at http://pinkblocks.com/?p=81.)