I admit: I’m not good at it. When I finish a piece of writing, or any task that requires dedication, concentration, improvisation or decisive action, I rarely get an endorphin rush, a contented feeling of completion or–best of all–that thoroughly irrational notion that my effort, no matter how small, has improved the world.
I almost immediately begin thinking of ways I could have done it better, or differently, or–if things don’t meet the expectations of the person I did it for–if I should have not even tried.
Some people don’t have this problem. They ascribe to goal-oriented behavior. They set a goal, achieve it, or not, feel good if they do, good if they don’t, and move on to the next goal.
My constant second-guessing, or overthinking, used to annoy my son. We’d be in the car, driving to a restaurant I suggested. On the way, I’d come up with three to five other restaurants. Minutes later, he’d demand that I pick one, and stick with it.
As a child, teenager and young adult, I would behave this way when taking standardized tests. I’d stare at the answers until more than one could be correct. I learned later that test-makers craft their torturous inquisitions with assumption that those who know the right answer will select it rapidly, without doubt and thus have more than enough time to conclude the test and go back to mull over answers of which they may not be sure. So much of Western culture skews toward quick and effortless certainty, or its blithe appearance, that we associate this with self-confidence and authority. Those who hesitate, or see more than one possibility, are dismissed as insecure, timid or socially inferior.
And yet, too much hesitation is just as fatal. Some battles are won by commanders who can quickly identify advantageous situations and exploit them.
Some, but not all.
I once had a fellow educator tell me “fake it ’til you make it,” as if this were the path to success. He thought I should tell the nervous students in my public speaking class to pretend they were confident, so that they would have a better chance of becoming the kind of performer they aspired to be.
This may make you a better actor, but I’d rather not have the person who fixes my car, designs the bridge I drive over, or diagnoses my illness and tells me how to return to health, be anything less than honest about what he knows that works, and what doesn’t.
Though I was rarely nervous as speaker (performing for me was a way of transcending social anxiety) I understood why many people are. So, before anyone said a word, I taught the entire class the virtue of compassion, of helping each other by empathizing, actively listening and offering non-judgemental suggestions that might help every speaker improve. Once students could trust that they were accepted by the group, that they could feel reasonably safe even if they made mistakes, forgot their speeches or delivered a less than stellar performance, they could loosen up and accept whatever happened to them when performing as an activity from which they could learn.
We all know that one of the keys to being satisfied with what you do is to give yourself permission to make mistakes and, if possible, learn from them. And yet, as Lady MacBeth says after she and her overly ambitious husband murder the king of Scotland, “what is done cannot be undone.” Some mistakes you wish you never made.
I know therapists, and spiritual people, who advise that, while it is true that you can’t go back in time and undo your errors, there are no unforgivable mistakes, and that forgiving others helps you forgive, and ultimately accept yourself as someone more than a person who succeeds or fails.
I get into moods in which this understanding of myself becomes possible. Don’t regret the roads not taken, the targets missed, the appointments I failed to keep, the toilet I couldn’t fix, the love, honesty and generosity I could have given to so many people but, somehow, did not. Forgive yourself, accept yourself and be more like the person you’d rather be.
But I still come up with different restaurants to visit. I’ll print out what I’ve written and see a dozen things I should have changed before the page emerges from the printer. I’ll fret over different ways, possibly better ways to say what should be said.
Another strategy for coping with this comes via Robert Fripp, who has often repeated in his on-line diary “Honor necessity. Honor sufficiency.” I interpret that as understanding what you must do, or must have to survive, and then understand when you have enough, or have done enough.
I’ve employed this when I was writing newspaper articles on deadline. You have only so much time to gather the information and put the information in a form that is congruent with the newspaper’s style, values and point of view. How your work is to be used can determine how it is constructed: articles in the Style section must be written differently than those in Metro or on the op-ed page. When the deadline arrives, you must surrender whatever you have, in whatever condition it is in, and consult with the editors so it arrives where it is intended to be.
Seeing my work in print has always been a dubious pleasure. I see ways I could have done it differently. I see mistakes I didn’t make, such as entire paragraphs deleted to make room for a last-minute advertisement, but, because my by-line is up there, will be blamed on me. I cringe at the headline. I wish a better photograph or illustration may have been selected.
Then, a few weeks, a few months, sometimes a year later, if the publication hasn’t gone out of business, or been sold to a buyer who decides not to honor obligations incurred by the previous owner, I’m paid.
The money never compensates the work. But I honor necessity, deposit the check and pay the bills.
A third strategy comes from sacred, wisdom literature. As God makes the universe in Genesis, He appears to stand aside from his creation and judge that it is good. Though we like to think of the Deity as omniscient, omnipotent and the closest thing to perfection we can imagine, we cannot help but notice that creation, as it seems to us, isn’t as flawless as it could be. But, when a storm isn’t flooding your town, when your loved one isn’t suffering cancer, when you find that parking space, you bite into a sugary donut, stand on a mountain peak and admire the view, it can be good.
Like the crucified faithful at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, you, too, can sing cheerfully “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
And, as God commands, after you’ve ticked off the tasks on the list, you can devote a day, or some period of time, to rest. That means, NOT doing whatever it was you did before. That means, giving yourself the time to find a way back to who you were before you did all that stuff, and who you will be when there’s no stuff left to do.
I did yoga for ten years. For a while I could put touch my forehead to my knee, twist here and there and scratch parts of my back that I never could reach. Every so often in a posture I’d get strange, unexpected thoughts and memories. Sometimes my entire being would go spronggggg and, with a grateful sigh, I’d let go.
But the best of all was the relaxation at the end. Some instructors put on tranquil “New Age” music. Others gently asked that I relax my toes, then move to my foot, the arch of my foot, the top of my foot, my ankle, and, eventually to my over-thinking brain.
And then, the stretching I couldn’t do in that yoga session, the stretching that OTHER person did (there’s always a show-off who can twist himself into a pretzel and make it look so easy), the strange memories, the little bit of dust on the floor at the edge of the mat that I wanted to brush away but couldn’t because my hand was way over on the other side of the mat–
I let all of that go.
And I notice that I no longer have to wonder why I don’t find satisfaction in what I’ve done.
Whatever I’ve done is…done.
And that’s good enough