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This year, I participated in the international NaNoWriMo phenomenon and spent the month of November writing 50,180 words for the first draft of a novel.
Now I must decide whether and when to finish the remaining 30,000 words needed for that first draft, as a precursor to the long, arduous, and possibly costly process of revision and editing. (I want to do it, and I also want to do other things with my time and money. Right now it’s a conundrum.)
But this piece isn’t about writing. Instead, the emphasis here is on what I learned from giving my all to a project for which I feel only marginally qualified.
I jumped into my first novel knowing enough about structure and technique to realize ahead of time that I was facing a chasm between my willingness to try and my ability to deliver.
That’s a gap many of us experience throughout our work lives.
As a recovering perfectionist, then, I offer what I’ve discovered while thrashing in murky waters between the shores of desire (good!) and reality (flawed!).
Find a Strong Reason to Start
When we want to do something well but don’t yet have the experience for immediate success, total avoidance is a common default. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, we learn by doing and develop most skills from a launch point of ineptitude.
Those of us who prefer a sense of competence tend to steer clear of anything that makes us feel incapable. To willingly take on the discomfort of awkwardness, we need persuasive motivation.
What would prompt you to dive into an activity that is out of your existing expertise?
Perhaps you have a significant goal (such as earning a degree, income, or recognition) that you can only achieve by mastering the unknown. Maybe you long to feel part of a group or movement focused on a shared experience. You might want to test yourself, to see if you can accomplish a difficult task.
Regardless of the why, your purpose must be meaningful to you. Without some sort of internal drive, no amount of external push will be enough to silence the “I don’t know how” voice whispering in your ear.
And if a sense of “should” or social pressure (which is not the same as belonging) is your main reason for jumping into the unfamiliar, then most likely the whisper will turn into a shout that has you quickly leaping back out.
Once you know the specifics of your reason for opening the floodgates of self-doubt, it’s time to enlist help in staying the course. Tell others—family, friends, colleagues—that you’re intentionally setting up yourself for the clumsiness of beginner’s mind.
Make a clear public statement of discomfort, intention, and goal.
Drop the persona of perfection.
Ask for only one thing: encouragement for persistence in a messy process.
Then commit to making regular reports on your continued participation in the muck. You’ll be amazed at how hard it is for your inner critic to prevail when others expect to hear you’re doing what you said you would: trudging along faithfully, no matter how badly.
Focus on Few Eyes
At this point, the only eyes that need to see your imperfect work are those actively engaged in your improvement. Don’t worry about sharing the product—or even details of your shaky process—with anyone other than a teacher, a supervisor, a trainer, a mentor, or a work partner. And even then reveal only what you must. Keep as much as possible to yourself.
You already know you’re trying to get better, so practice in private when you can. And don’t feed your inner critic by seeking external approval before you’re ready to earn it.
More, if you’re in a learning situation that requires not-ready-for-prime-time performances to an audience such as customers or readers, accept that your best may not yet be good enough. No matter. Keep going and ignore all critics, inner and outer, until you’ve put in the time and effort to improve.
Like you, I’ve read endless arguments for why it’s illogical to compare ourselves to others. We all have different backgrounds, experience levels, perspectives, standards, opportunities, motivations, goals, demands, and realities.
No matter how similar others might seem, they aren’t. Pure and simple.
Yeah, right. We know it, and still we can’t stop ourselves from comparing. We do it without thinking. We do it in our sleep. We do it constantly, from birth till death.
Comparisonitis is a primal disease built into our DNA, and it’s deadly. Marketers depend on it. For many years, we’ve been encouraged to emulate neighbors and sports figures and royalty and Hollywood stars. And many of us try. Or feel inadequate and incomplete—either because we don’t try or because we try and fail.
Someday I’m going to research a ten-step program for comparison addiction. We know it’s as bad for us as secondhand smoke, but it fuels our lives regardless. Meanwhile, I suggest outwitting the urge with trickery.
First, seize the original definition of unique as meaning one of a kind (which is way beyond its current usage of merely “different”). Make it your mantra. Every time you hear the inner critic say, “Look at that! There’s proof you don’t know what you’re doing and probably never will,” respond, “I’m unique. Comparison impossible.”
Second, take yourself out of the line of fire. Nearly two weeks after November 30, I finally finished reading a book in my novel genre that I was well into when NaNoWriMo started on November 1.
It took me that long because I had to set aside the comparable work for an entire month. I simply couldn’t read the polished words of an acclaimed author in my genre without feeling an urge to give up my own writing attempts as hopeless. So instead, I temporarily gave up reading an excellent book.
Who or what can you dodge while you’re slogging through a growth process? Like removing chocolate from the house when trying to learn new eating habits, eschew brilliance that tempts you into the defeatism of butterfly-to-caterpillar comparison.
In other words, during this tender time, look away from all that you aren’t, and embrace what you are: a learner. And when you are ready to look at what isn’t you, choose your view carefully. Don’t believe the persona. Or marketing. You may not want to imitate someone else quite as much as the fantasy tells you to.
Forget False Distinctions
Several days ago, a member of one of my online writing groups noted that at some point we all need to stop learning and start doing. I replied that I couldn’t agree more. What I didn’t say, though, is that sometimes it’s difficult to draw a hard line between learning and doing. Ideally, when we learn we do—and when we do, we choose the option of learning and growth.
Life and work are iterative.
Maybe understanding that at a deep level is the key to muting the nasty internal voice that bids us run from uncomfortable challenges. We start; we try; we understand we need to do better; we continue the toil, and we develop; one day we’re no longer so awkward, and we try something else we don’t know how to do.
And so it goes: always traveling, never arriving, and not expecting anything more of ourselves than persistent effort. When we close the gap between desire (continuous improvement) and reality (continuous improvement), then what is left for the inner critic to say?
Do you have an inner critic who stops you in your tracks? In the Comments section below, please share your plan to outwit that unpleasant presence!