I always wanted to be a great man. I’m not, so far.
How we describe our goals makes all the difference, not only in how we feel about ourselves, but in how we behave. Most of us understand the folly of perfection, but it’s very common to hold up our lives to unattainable ideals.
- Write every day.
- Finally be organized.
- Finally be healed.
Wishes like these intrinsically set us up for failure. As ideals they are understandably desirable, and that last one is probably the most seductive, to finally be healed, but for different reasons I describe below they better serve us as starting points to be carefully contained, perhaps imprisoned, or even killed outright.
When it comes time to take action, crush the voice of perfection as if your life depends on it.
… because, in my opinion, it does.
To write (or practice anything) every day
The “every day” goal is dangerous. Take it from me, I’m near the end of a year of rigid rules, and I know first hand what it means to set every day goals. I’ve failed them all. I knew I would, but it’s part of my experiment to create a clear cut edge and live on it for a whole year.
(NOTE: This experiment has been quite exhilarating and perhaps unnecessarily painful. My willpower is fatigued. I’m going to stop in a couple months.)
What’s useful about the every day wish is the desire it locates. One student of mine wanted to paint every day even though she hadn’t painted in months. Her studio was all ready to go, but the every day goal made it easy to tell herself, I’ll start every day tomorrow.
We chucked the every day idea and reframed her first goal as a Painter: Put paint on canvas by 9am on Tuesday.
She did it. She did it Friday, too. That’s measurable progress.
Happiness is so vague and always transient. You never arrive at happiness. With millennia of works dedicated to how people might move toward happiness, it’s obvious as a species we are far from nailing that one.
In my opinion, happiness is overrated, especially for something that never sticks around.
Learning how to fully engage with any activity, reducing stressful behaviors, practicing responsiveness, gauging our emotional reactions, discovering our circadian rhythms, and connecting to supportive, loving colleagues and friends are all activities we can actually do.
Let’s smother the fuzzy pursuit of fuzzy happiness, make a clear choice about what we’ll try next, and take that next step.
I felt crappy all morning till about 1:00 this afternoon. I tried eating, dancing, standing on a bench and picking at my peach tree. Writing this article finally got me going after about an hour. My next step is to finish it before improv group tonight.
What’s your next step?
To finally be organized
Sure it feels very good to bring order to chaos. That’s the danger. I love tidying my home, filing papers away, even sorting nails and screws. You can spend your whole life organizing— as though being organized is a righteous end to itself.
Stomp down perfection before this happens to you!
Feeling organized is probably the most common thing people say they want from working with me. It’s so funny because I usually just ask, “Once you’re organized, what will you do?” Then we “organize” their lives around those goals.
Organizing serves a purpose. Staying focused on something specific, being able to retrieve really important information or stuff, those are the reasons you might want to organize a few things. Organize only what’s most important to you. For everything else, don’t waste your attention.
To finally be healed
In his interview with Terry Gross, David Sheff recounts his son Nic’s heart-wrenching struggle with drug addiction. David sees his role as a Myth Buster when it comes to helping people overcome damaging behavior, and perfection is one of them. Perfection would have labeled Nic’s last trip back to rehab as failure.
David sees it very differently.
“He had learned … this behavioral cognitive thing where you can interrupt either the craving that would lead to a relapse or you could stop a relapse early. And if you can, you’ve made so much progress.
“To me, it’s possible to look back on [his relapse] and say all the treatments before that were a failure: Here he was sober for such a long time, and he relapsed again. But for me, it’s the opposite: It shows that the treatments had helped him so much that he was able to recognize that he was in a free fall.”
Progress, not perfection.
We all bare wounds and some of us deep illness. To finally be healed is a dream. To make progress is within our grasp, and really, all we can strive for.
At 40 I knew I’d never fully heal from my emotional and physical traumas. To realize I’ll never be a smooth, tight 17 year old again lets me quit trying to be one.
The pain does move from this place to that. I call that progress. Last week I killed on the tennis court. That’s real progress. Still, I’ll always have my parent’s nasty divorce. I’ll always have my appendix scar and all the heartbreaks over the years. I remember when I chipped a tooth on a salad fork. My dentist took out a grinder and smoothed the sharp edge so it wouldn’t cut my tongue. He said, “We can try to patch it if you want, but I like it.”
I kept it chipped. That’s how you know it’s me.
My own greatness
At 40 I also realized I wasn’t a great man. What followed was an existential crisis that lasted a couple years. I wouldn’t call it perfection I was seeking, but it wasn’t attainable by any measurement.
I still want to be a great man, but that’s not what I think about any more. I want to build things. I want to have impact. I want to travel to China with my daughter and my dad this summer. I can measure those things. I’m already making progress.
And today, right now, I’m off to play with my new improv group and guessing it’ll be fun. I’m definitely going to find out.