Why follow-through is overrated

trying to look perfect

This month’s Life Exper­i­ment has been a total bust. Except that it’s also been a total suc­cess. Let me explain.

As some read­ers will recall, I began this month with the idea that I would take at least one pho­to­graph each day. I was inter­ested in how this would shift the way I moved through the world and also viewed it as an oppor­tu­nity to learn to use a recently acquired but lan­guish­ing dig­i­tal camera.

All of this made sense in the­ory. In prac­tice? Not so much. Here’s how it played out.

At the end of a har­ried Day 1, I snapped a hasty photo with my iPhone. (Bet­ter than noth­ing, I told myself.)

Day 2, same thing.

By Day 3 or 4, I’d for­got­ten about it. Ditto the days that fol­lowed. Until at some point over the next week I real­ized that this wasn’t happening.

My first reac­tion was to get stressed out over my follow-through fail­ure. What was I going to write this month? What would I say to you readers?

But the more I thought about it, the more I saw another pos­si­bil­ity.  After all, this was billed as an exper­i­ment. No, it hadn’t gone off as planned, but that was entirely dif­fer­ent from say­ing that it had been a total loss. I decided—as an experiment—to adopt a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, to detach the expe­ri­ence from the goal and ask what it had to teach me.

Here’s what I found:

1. I need to recon­nect with my core purpose.

When I embarked on monthly Life Exper­i­ments at the start of 2012, my goal wasn’t to cre­ate yet another to-do list. Rather it was to explore how chang­ing one thing in my life might lead to other unex­pected shifts. Over time, I’ve started to lose track of this, and my “exper­i­ments” have come to feel more and more like 30-day Chal­lenges. Be more pro­duc­tive! Just do it!  That wasn’t what I’d been aim­ing for, but it’s where I ended up. Time for some reflec­tion and retuning.

2. I need to do less, not more.

The rea­son I wasn’t tak­ing pho­tos was very sim­ple. I’m really really busy!  Over the past six months, I’ve gone from strug­gling to fill my days with mean­ing­ful activ­i­ties to a jam-packed sched­ule, with free­lance dead­lines, work­shop facil­i­tat­ing, friends, exer­cise, and life main­te­nance all vying for time. This is in many ways a good thing, but it also has its own chal­lenges, which I need to find ways to address. (Also: I need to take time to appre­ci­ate how far I’ve come!)

3.  I need to do more to infuse my life with playfulness.

I recently wrote about an ah hah recog­ni­tion that I need more play­ful­ness in my life. Dur­ing my time in Plan B Nation, I’ve taken a lot of pride in my abil­ity to sim­ply carry on, to put one foot in front of the other dur­ing hard and uncer­tain times. There have been days—and not a few—when sim­ply get­ting out of bed felt like a real accom­plish­ment. It seemed like enough that I could say, in the words of 12-step pro­grams every­where, that I’d man­aged to “take the next right action.”

But I’ve come to see that, while this approach can be help­ful in times of cri­sis, it’s not (for me) the best approach to life over the long haul. Over the long haul, I want to be happy, not sim­ply to endure. Get­ting things done is cer­tainly part of a happy life, but it’s far from sufficient.

Lan­guage plays a big role here: The more I think about this issue, the more aware I am of how the words I use shape the qual­ity of my daily expe­ri­ence. Tool kit. Task List. March­ing orders. This is the lan­guage of com­mand and con­trol. This is the lan­guage that, all too often, I use when I talk to myself (when issu­ing march­ing orders).

It doesn’t have to be this way.

For exam­ple, instead of “next right action” how about “bread­crumbs”? Think fairy tales, think Hansel and Gre­tel and the trail they left to find their way back home. (Okay, so in the story birds eat the bread, but I still like the metaphor.)

Over the past few years, I’ve thought a lot about what qual­i­ties help us thrive while trav­el­ing Plan B Nation (and other psy­cho­log­i­cally harsh ter­rains), and it seems to me that one of the most impor­tant is the qual­ity of open­ness. By this, I mean the abil­ity to see alter­na­tives and pos­si­bil­ity where we might eas­ily see failure.

In a fea­ture story about famous acci­den­tal dis­cov­er­ies, the Daily Beast recounts how the dis­cov­ery of peni­cillin came about after Scot­tish bac­te­ri­ol­o­gist Andrew Flem­ing noticed that mold had started to grow on some cul­tures he’d left exposed. Years later, he toured a state-of-the-art med­ical lab, far cleaner than the one where his sci­en­tific break­through occurred.

If you had worked here, think of what you could have invented,” his guide remarked.

Fleming’s cool response: “Not penicillin.”