The Day After Perfect
"Well begun is half done" is one of my favorite false motivational statements. The other is "Sometimes you have to jump off the cliff and grow your wings on the way down." I saw that one on a photo of a wolf, which was puzzling because in my limited understanding of the animal kingdom, no wolf has ever grown wings. Thank goodness they haven't. If wolves ever figure out the mechanics of flight, it's game over.
We tend to put too much emphasis on beginnings. In doing so, we miss the single day that wrecks more goals than any other. For the first forty-one years of my life I didn't even hear anyone mention this day. I was as clueless as the fictitious people who still live at the beach where Jaws was filmed. There shouldn't have been a Jaws 2. That movie should have just been called A Bunch of Seaside Residents Move to Ohio, Where There Are No Sharks. That's probably not going to fit on a marquee, but at least they would have avoided another shark-related disaster.
Despite all the work we put into planning our goals, despite the new sneakers and diets and business plans, we miss the day that matters most, the day that is why I'm not allowed to buy black beans at Costco anymore.
The store will let me, it's not a management decision, although I do abuse those free samples. One day they were giving out Oreos, for the seven Americans who have never experienced that cookie. The conversation with the employee handing them out was awkward because I felt like I had to pretend I'd never heard of them. "What do you call this? A chocolate cookie sandwich? No? The name is 'Oreo'? Am I saying that correctly? How whimsical!"
The reason I can't buy black beans is that they only sell them in pallet quantity. You can't just buy one, you have to buy a thousand cans.
That's a lot of beans, but at least once a year I believe I need this amount.
While exercising, I decide to "get serious." I remember that in Timothy Ferriss's book The 4-Hour Body, he recommends a simple breakfast of eggs, black beans, spinach, cumin, and salsa. When my family sees me rooting around the cupboard for black beans, they all groan. "Oh no, here we go again."
They know that for the next twelve days in a row I am going to eat black beans.
Why only twelve? Because on Day 13 I'm going to get too busy, have a meeting, or be on a business trip without my traveling beans. Upon missing one day, I will quit the whole endeavor.
Once the streak is broken, I can't pick it back up. My record is no longer perfect so I quit altogether. This is a surprisingly common reaction to mistakes.
If you interview people about why they quit their goals, they all use similar language.
"I fell behind and couldn't get back on track."
"Life got in the way and my plans got derailed."
"The project jumped the tracks and got too messy to fix."
The words might be different, but they're all saying the redundant same thing: "When it stopped being perfect, I stopped, too."
You missed one day of your diet and then decided the whole thing was dumb.
You were too busy to write one morning and so you put your unfinished book back on the shelf.
You lost one receipt and then gave up on your entire budget for the month.
I'm not picking on you for giving in to perfectionism. I've fallen to it many times as well. One February, I ran seventy-five miles. Then I ran seventy-one in March and seventy-three in April. Know how much I ran in May? Eight miles. Can you guess June's total? Three.
Why? Because when my perfect exercise streak hit a roadblock I stopped.
This is the first lie that perfectionism tells you about goals: Quit if it isn't perfect.
The genius in this first lie is subtle. It's not "when" it isn't perfect, because that hints at the reality that it won't be. No, perfectionism tells you "if" it isn't perfect, as if you have the chance to run the whole rack and go to the grave with a 100 percent on your tombstone.
This is troubling to us, because we don't want B's and C's when we've got a goal. We want straight A's, especially if it's a goal we've thought about for any amount of time. We will gladly give up the whole thing when we discover some error or imperfection in our performance. More than that, we will even prequit, before we've even begun.
That's why a lot of people won't start a new goal. They'd rather get a zero than a fifty. They believe perfect is the only standard, and if they can't hit it they won't even take the first step. A dreary sense of "What's the use?" settles about them like a thick fog. I can't fail if I don't try.
While researching this book, I asked a thousand people in an online poll if they had ever refused to even write down an idea because they judged it as not good enough. I thought maybe I was the only one who had a perfectionism filter that sorted ideas before they were allowed to hit a piece of paper. More than 97 percent of the participants said they had done that.
I don't know how to tell you this, but your goal will not be perfect. It crushes me to break this to you, but you will fail. Maybe a lot. Maybe right out of the gate. You might even trip over the starting line.
Why? Why would I encourage you to embrace imperfection? Well, for one thing, doing something imperfectly won't kill you. We think it will, which is why we compare our lack of progress to a train crash. "I couldn't get back on track, my plans got derailed." A train derailment is a significant, serious accident. In many cases, people die, hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage occurs, and fixing it takes days if not weeks.
Do you know what doesn't happen when you miss a day of your goal? Any of those things.
No one dies. It doesn't require $400,000 to get back on track. Righting things doesn't take four weeks.
Second, developing tolerance for imperfection is the key factor in turning chronic starters into consistent finishers. Chronic starters quit the day after perfect. What's the use? The streak is over. Better to wallow in the mistake. I ate a crazy dinner last night, might as well eat a crazy breakfast, lunch, and dinner today, too.
"Might as well" is one of the most dangerous phrases in the English language. Or Polish, since for some reason my books tend to get translated into that language before Spanish. I am killing it in Krakow.
"Might as well" is never applied to good things. It's never, "Might as well help all these orphans," or "Might as well plant something healthy in this community garden." It's usually the white flag of surrender. "I've had a single French fry, might as well eat a thousand."
These are the kinds of things we say on the day after perfect, and that day is sticky.
Do you know the biggest day for people to drop out of the 30 Days of Hustle goal-setting course? Most people guess Day 23 or Day 15, but that's not even close.
Day 2 is when I see the largest drop-off. That's right, the biggest day for the most people to stop opening the e-mails that constitute the exercises is Day 2. Why that day? Because imperfection doesn't take long to show up. You've sat at your desk on a Monday morning before and thought, "It's nine a.m. How am I already this far behind? How is this entire week already ruined?"
Imperfection is fast, and when it arrives we usually quit.
That's why the day after perfect is so important.
This is the make-or-break day for every goal. This is the day after you skipped the jog. This is the day after you failed to get up early. This is the day after you decided the serving size for a whole box of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts is one.
The day after perfect is what separates finishers from starters.
Accomplishing a goal is a lot less like taking a train across country and a lot more like driving a bumper car. Some days, you will circle the track without a single impediment. Nothing will stand in your way, and for a few brief moments that bumper car will actually feel fast. On other days, some completely unforeseen, impossible-to-account-for situation is going to slam into your side. Or you'll get locked into a really annoying cluster of other cars and feel like you've taken five steps back.
This is going to happen.
You will not be perfect, but do you know what's even more important than perfection? Do you know what will serve you far longer than perfectionism ever could?
Moving forward imperfectly.
Reject the idea that the day after perfect means you've failed.
That's just not true.
You get to try again.
Today, tomorrow, next week.
Unfortunately, perfectionism dies slowly. It's persistent and particularly dangerous because it masquerades as excellence. Some readers have already felt uncomfortable with this chapter because they think the opposite of perfectionism is failure. It's not. The opposite is finished.
Those are the doors we stand before in this book and in our lives. One is marked finished and leads to untold adventures, opportunities, and stories. One is marked perfectionism and leads to a solid brick wall of frustration, shame, and incomplete hopes.
The worst part of this whole situation is that starting goals and never completing them feels terrible.
When you make a goal, you make a promise to yourself. You're going to lose a few pounds. You're going to declutter a closet. You're going to start a blog. You're going to call an old friend. The moment you create that goal, you've made a silent promise. When you don't finish it, you've broken that promise. You've lied to the person you spend the most time with. You.
If you break enough promises, you start to doubt yourself. This is not surprising. If someone told you a dozen different times that they'd meet you for coffee and they didn't show every time, you wouldn't trust them. If a parent promised to pick you up after soccer practice and then didn't, you'd lose faith in him. If a boss promised you a promotion and then didn't deliver month after month, you'd quit believing her.
Why do so many people quit their New Year's resolutions? Because they quit last year and the year before that and the year before that. If you quit enough times, quitting is no longer just a possibility when you start a new goal, it's your identity, and that feels terrible.
People remember uncompleted goals better than completed ones. Your inability to let something go, that feeling that something unfinished is gnawing at you, isn't just a feeling. It's a scratch in the record, a pothole in the road, a never forgotten reminder of a loop you did not close. That's what happens to all of us when we make goals and then have them interrupted by life.
Conversely, finishing something you care about is the best feeling in the world. Starting definitely delivers a momentary burst of euphoria, but it's nothing in comparison to the real finish. You'll keep the medal you received when you finished your first 5K. You don't even care about how long the race took. You did it. You crossed that finish line and every day of training was worth it. Your diploma, the first dollar earned at a business you founded, the business card that says "partner"-small or big, the size of the finish doesn't matter. You finished and that's an amazing feeling.
The problem is that perfectionism magnifies your mistakes and minimizes your progress. It does not believe in incremental success. Perfectionism portrays your goal as a house of cards. If one thing doesn't go perfectly, the whole thing falls apart. The smallest misstep means the entire goal is ruined.
Perfectionism also messes us up by making us aim too high. There are perhaps a thousand reasons 92 percent of resolutions fail, but one of the greatest is also one of the most deceptive.
When we create a goal, we aim for something better. We want to look better. We want to feel better. We want to be better. But then better turns into best. We don't want small growth. We want massive, overnight success.
Who wants to run a 5K when you can run a marathon? Who wants to write the outline for a book when you can write a three-part trilogy with space werewolf zombies who are in love? (Title: Full Moon, Full Heart.) Who wants to make $10,000 when you can make $100,000?
While searching for real examples, from real people, I asked friends on Facebook about perfectionism. One person described it this way: "I start with the belief that I could do something. Then I get all excited and start dreaming. At first I feel confident and like I know what I am doing. Then my dreams get big. Then I want perfection. Then all of a sudden I feel inadequate to do the job because I don't know how to do it at that level. Then the dreams die and the goal is forgotten. The best part is most of the time all that I mentioned above is mental. I never actually started anything."
If you're not naturally tempted to think this way, most of our "chase your dreams, accomplish your goals" literature will push you in this direction.
A fellow motivational author encourages readers to visualize "a movie of you doing perfectly whatever it is that you want to do better." There's that word "perfectly." You're supposed to watch an imaginary movie of yourself doing something perfectly over and over again. At one point, you even crawl inside the movie to really get the sense of perfection. After watching your movie, you're instructed to shrink the image "down to the size of a cracker."
The first time I read that bit of instruction, that I was supposed to turn my goal into a fictional perfect cracker, I started laughing out loud at my desk. I had a sense of where this instruction was going and I was not to be disappointed.
"Then, bring this miniature screen up to your mouth, chew it up and swallow it."
If you ever wonder why you have a hard time with motivational advice, please refer to the dream cracker you were supposed to eat as a way to accomplish your goal.
Copyright © 2017 by Jon Acuff. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.