Why follow-through is overrated

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.”

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

13 thoughts on “Why follow-through is overrated

  1. “By this, I mean the abil­ity to see alter­na­tives and pos­si­bil­ity where we might eas­ily see failure.”

    A little something I came across to add on to your point here: The creation of the wine style known as white zinfandel arose from a mistake, I recently learned. The vintner was fermenting some juice drawn off his regular zinfandel, and the fermentation went all wrong. Rather than throwing it out, he bottled it and sold it, and it was a hit. Go figure. Is the ability to recognize the opportunity something that can be cultivated?

    • Great example! Thanks for sending it my way. And I love your question–exactly the sort of issue that I’m interested in exploring. This quality is SO important in Plan B Nation (or really life in general but especially in times when things aren’t going the way we may tend think they “should.”)

  2. Oh bravo! An experiment just gives you more data, no matter what the results. In fact “failed experiment” is really an oxymoron, isn’t it? Just data you didn’t have before. Not good. Not bad. Just marvelously present information. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Thank you, Tammy! Yes, that’s exactly right–and I continue to learn. For example: that having this message reflected back at me in a positive way (as you just did) both further reenforces it while also expanding my sense of connection to others (you!)–which is why I am embarked on this whole blogging thing in the first place. Much appreciated. :-)

  3. Following up on Matthew’s comment, the same could be said about the dating process. As I am dating several people at once, with the goal of planting seeds that may blossom, at times the process can feel so arduous. I even had one guy who was writing me on OkCupid say, “Should we keep writing or should we meet and get it over with?” I didn’t choose to meet him.

    Life should be fun. Many people think that jobs can’t be fun (and the job search even less). But dating, of all things, should be enjoyable (although for many less extroverted than me, it is not). Yet, let’s not make it another to do list.

    However, maybe life (love, job searches, writing, etc) should have a sense of organic flow that doesn’t feel like a chore. When we find that flow and ride it, we’re in our sweet spot.

    Did I digress?

    • Thanks, Molly! And you didn’t digress at all–that’s exactly the issue I’m talking about: How do we move forward with our goal-related to-do lists (or whatever you want to call them) while also maintaining a feeling of fun/flow/playfulness/lightness/ease (or whatever you want to call that)?

  4. Thanks so much for another thought-provoking comment. And yes, I can totally see your point. Based on what I’ve seen, the one thing that can really make a difference is having some personal connection–something I was reminded of once again this week when a friend generously put me in touch with a key person on a freelance project. I can’t imagine things having moved forward in the way they have absent this added assist. Good luck! Keep us posted!

  5. Oh Amy! I love this post! Once again, you’ve written eloquently about an epiphany that ultimately can lead one in a different, unexpected direction. What a valuable lesson to share with your readers.

    I was wondering the other day how your photo experiment was going and had on my ‘to-do’ list to email you about it. That’s right: I put things that are suppose to be “fun” on my to-do list. I need to change vocabulary too!

    You may recall that I decided to play along — or rather, give myself marching orders — with a monthly experiment. February was a dreadful burden. I was following Good’s “Good Citizen” challenge. But, long before the end of that short month, I dreaded opening up the daily email to see what I was suppose to do. It was only when I realized that if the point was to have fun and to expand my horizons, it was OK to say an emphatic “NO” if there was something suggested that just wasn’t right for me to do. Good.com’s March challenge is “Art Every Day”. But, unlike Feb., they posted all of the tasks upfront. I decided that I would do those that felt good to me and those that I had time for. Also, I’ve forced myself to find ways to enjoy/ponder/experiment with art that aren’t on their list. It’s a lot more fun.

    Good luck with that camera — when you decide that you want to pick it up & learn how to use it. It doesn’t have to be a daily action. Maybe it will change the way you look at some things. Maybe it will just be fun. In the meantime, please keep looking at the world with your own inquisitive perspective and continue to share it with us here!

    • What a lovely comment, Anne–I feel like I just opened a present. :-) Also, interesting to hear that you’ve been dealing with pretty much exactly the same issue.

      As for the photography, one thing I didn’t say in the post–I should have–is that if anything, I’m more taken with the idea of photography than I was before. Despite not really doing it, the desire has stayed with me. So that’s another thing I learned: That when I have the time, I really want to do this!

  6. Whether you intended it or not, this post could apply to the job hunt (more language here that could use some tweaking). Conventional advice is that you always follow through on job applications, that somehow by doing so, you are demonstrating hustle, desire, or ambition. What I have found is that it a) keeping track of jobs applied for and b) the constant follow through on all of them as the number grows (40 some-odd and counting) is time-consuming, exhausting, and no fun.

    I decided about a month ago to stop the follow up. Besides, most companies ask you not to write or call anyway. They don’t even give you a person’s name **to** write or call. I decided that if they want me, they want me, and if they don’t, they don’t. No amount of follow through is going to change that.

    Again, another terrific post.

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