Are you suffering the consequences of trying to get an “A+” in any – or every! – area of your life?
Here’s how to diagnose yourself:
Do you hold yourself to unattainable standards?
Do you berate yourself when you fall short?
Do you avoid taking risks because you’re afraid of making mistakes?
Listen up, because I used to be you.
This week, I realized I’ve released 100 episodes of my podcast UnF*ck Your Brain. The podcast now has 3 million downloads and is almost always in the top of the health chart on iTunes.
That sounds like an A+ accomplishment right?
The single reason I have been able to create this achievement is that I learned to embrace A- work.
I have become the champion of the A-. That’s right, I aim for that minus. If I’m agonizing over creating A+ work, I know I’m wasting time, money, and effort that could be better spent elsewhere.
“A-” work is work that isn’t perfect. Work that could be better. Maybe it’s not as organized as it could be, or it leaves something out. Maybe it would be better with another revision, or 10. It’s not a total mess, it’s not a disaster, but it doesn’t seem amazing.
That is A- work, and it will change your life.
Because if you have a brain like mine, you can’t rely on it to tell you when something is good. My brain never thinks anything I have done is good enough. So I just can’t put it in charge of determining when something is good enough to share with the world, or I’d still be working on my first blog post two years later.
Launching this podcast forced me to confront how much my fixation on A+ was holding me back. In letting go of that fixation, I’ve learned three lessons:
- A- work makes the world go round.
This wasn’t an easy lesson to learn. I started coaching after a decade spent in law school, clerking, litigating, and academia. Lawyers are trained to get everything exactly right, meticulously checking and double-checking every detail down to the placement of a comma.
And of course, I didn’t know how to create a podcast because I’d never done one before. In order to launch a podcast, I’d have to make mistakes and learn from them. I’d have to be ok with producing imperfect work.
So, I avoided launching the podcast for a year. I didn’t know exactly what to say and how to say it perfectly, so I didn’t say anything at all. I was waiting for my A+.
The key word here is “waiting.” Because I wasn’t getting anything done, and I wasn’t learning. All I was producing was avoidance, procrastination, and perfectionist paralysis.
But A- and out the door beats A+ work every single time.
A- work makes the world go round. If we all waited for an A+, nothing would ever get done.
Listen up doctors, architects, lawyers, accountants, and every other professional rolling your eyes at me and muttering that in your job, things truly DO have to be perfect.
No they don’t. They can’t be. They never are. And believing they need to be is holding you back more than you can imagine.
- Accept the gift of things that come easily to you, rather than using them as an excuse to exercise your perfectionism.
About 6 months into releasing the podcast, I was constantly thinking about how much better it would be if I just put a little more into it. I could plan more, I could get it done earlier, I could organize it better, I could re-record episodes. It was an endless list.
I remember saying to my teacher, “it’s like I can do an A- job in very little time, but I should take the time to do an A+ job.”
She said, “What if it was ok that this comes easily to you?”
This is a lesson that I have to keep learning over and over.
Let the things that come easily come easily.
There are countless things in life that will be difficult. There are so many places in life we have to be brave, try hard, fail spectacularly, fall down, get dirty, get up, and fall down again.
But some of us don’t think it’s ok for anything to come easily. If we can do an A- job relatively easily, we think we “should” do the A+ job.
But here’s the thing – this is all subjective. Whatever “grade” my brain has decided to assign something actually has nothing to do with the quality of work.
In clinging to that A+ ideal, I was assuming that if I revised my podcast notes 12 times before recording, and then recorded 14 different versions, the end product would be better.
But what if it was worse? What if my particular genius is that I can do a podcast from start to finish in 2 hours and it’s great the way it is?
What if messing with it would make it worse and worse? And what standards is my brain even using here? I truly can’t know.
Which is how I know the fixation on how I should be doing the podcast “better” isn’t really about the quality of the work. It’s about criticizing myself and assuming that if something comes easily, then it’s not worthwhile or good enough.
But there’s plenty to work on in life. It’s ok to let this be easy. We can celebrate and enjoy the things that come easily to us, instead of distrusting them.
- Small steps add up.
This may sound trite, but it’s important to internalize, because people suffering from perfectionist brain love to dream big and then…do nothing (or sit on the couch binging Netflix, or check Facebook for the gazillionth time, or down a glass or three of wine).
Perfectionist brain never wants to take a small step. It doesn’t want to go for a 20 minute walk. It wants to run a marathon or sit on the couch.
The way I changed my mental attitude about small incremental action was to start to compare it to compound interest, a concept from the financial world where it made total sense to me. When you invest an initial amount at a fixed interest rate, you will accumulate more and more as time goes on. That’s because you will be collecting interest not just on the initial investment, but also the money that you earned from the interest you collected since making the initial investment – that has now been added to the amount that you get interest on. This is how relatively small investments can grow into very large investments if they’re left alone for long enough – because the money doesn’t grow at a fixed rate; the earnings are compounded.
Consider this in your own life: every little action (or “investment”) you take on its own may not seem like much. But when compounded over time, your actions generate increasingly large returns.
Take this podcast. I’m on the eve of my two year anniversary of the UnF*ck Your Brain podcast, and I’ve only missed one week in that entire time. 99% of the time, I showed up and recorded a podcast episode every week – even when I was tired, even when I had other shit to do, even when I was my brain made up with a long list of things I should be doing to earn whatever elusive “A+ Life Merit Badge” it wanted me to pursue.
When I look at the statistics, this podcast has had 3 million downloads in 18 months. And what’s interesting is there aren’t one or two superstar “A+” episodes that created those figures. When you look at the iTunes top episode charts, I don’t have a single episode on there. But on the top podcast chart in my category, I’m usually in the top 35.
And I love that because it shows that it’s not about one big episode or one perfect teaching.
It’s the consistent accumulation of small efforts. One podcast a week. Some longer, some shorter. Some more mind-blowing, some mundane.
Compound interest. Compound action.
Perfectionist brain wants you to do one big perfect thing. But the way you grow and evolve and impact the world is to do many small imperfect things, and to keep doing them.
Look around you – the people who succeed are just the people who don’t stop. And that can be you, if you learn to embrace the power of the A- job.