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.”

© 2012, 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.”)
      amy gut­man recently posted…Another rea­son regrets are dumbMy Profile

  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. :-)
      amy gut­man recently posted…Dazed & Con­fused in Plan B NationMy Profile

  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?
    Molly@Postcards from a Peace­ful Divorce recently posted…Mak­ing ProgressMy Profile

    • 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)?
      amy gut­man recently posted…Dazed & Con­fused in Plan B NationMy Profile

  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!
    amy gut­man recently posted…Dazed & Con­fused in Plan B NationMy Profile

  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!
    Anne Camille recently posted…It’s about time?My Profile

    • 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!
      amy gut­man recently posted…Why follow-through is overratedMy Profile

  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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv badge