Imperfect Progress is Superior to Standing Still
There are two adages I heard while studying creative writing that have stuck with me:
“Everyone has a book they want to write, but very few ever complete the work of writing it.”
“Many of the best works of art are ones that have been imagined, dreamed up, outlined, and maybe even started, but end up as nothing more than a concept loosely sketched and left unfinished.”
When teaching classes and mentoring writers or would-be-writers, I’ve often synthesized these two pieces of information in this way: “For all the books that are published in a given year, there are ten times as many books that go unwritten.”
These bits of wisdom apply to a broad range of our life’s goals, not just to writing a book, a poem, or a screenplay. This warning about failing to act is applicable not just to artistic and creative endeavors we conceptualize but fail to execute: We all have goals and projects we find ourselves drawn to, but then allow a whole list of excuses block our progress. I’m not good enough. I don’t know enough. Someone else could do this better. There are too many other things I have to focus on right now. I’ll do that, someday, but not today. Some of these excuses may be partially valid, but all of them lead us into a lethargic and stagnant state of mind.
Maybe that’s okay, sometimes. I would guess that most people have experienced the white-hot energy of tackling something new or grandiose only to have that motivation wane because the imagined project or goal just isn’t that important in the long run. Sometimes the one thing we were so excited about turns out to be a dud.
This roller coaster of excitement and abandonment can become a trap, though. It can lead to years—or decades—of unfulfilled dreams and unrealized potential. It’s not uncommon for someone to reach their 40s or 50s with a box full of things they were once excited about but never followed through with. It’s especially painful when it becomes clear that some of the discarded ideas weren’t duds, after all. Sometimes, we come to realize that some of the deferred goals stick around; there is a ghost-like presence in our life, no matter how we try to deny the thing. It’s almost as if something inside of us is saying, You know that thing you’ve always dreamed of? It’s more than just an idea. It’s something you were made to do.
Realizing this deeper calling to pursue something we’ve long denied is an inflection point. You can choose the soul-deadening path which ignores this deeper understanding. Or, you can commit to exploring the deeper repercussions of this seemingly-innate calling.
During the long months of navigating the response to the Covid epidemic, we all found our lives turned upside down. Old patterns and habits were impossible to keep. Our perspective was flipped. What was once the “everyday” was now a memory. What might have been a worthy goal was now an unlikely future, or maybe even impossible. (Imagine if your dream project, pre-pandemic response, had been to open a restaurant or finally be bold enough to sing your new song in front of a live audience?)
This major disruption to the “normal” of daily life gave many of us an unexpected bounty of time to do things that we’d often put off because we “couldn’t find the time.” Some people utilized that time to pursue their idling creative projects or learn a new skill they’ve always desired or “work ahead” in their entrepreneurial or creative lives to be ready when things returned to some semblance of normal. Others chose to retreat into a shadow world of avoidant media consumption and self-isolation. Still others tried to soldier on, finding themselves in a time loop similar to Bill Murray’s movie, Groundhog Day, but without the initiative to learn how to play piano, create ornate ice sculptures, or perfectly romance Andie MacDowell. Three classic survival responses: Fight, flee, or freeze.
I was in the “freeze” category for over a year. I felt like I was stuck in a holding pattern and I didn’t see a clear way out. I remained open to possibilities and I was fully aware of what was happening, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being stuck. My life went on, and I adapted—some areas of life even improved during those months—but my creative and business life stagnated. Many of the “next steps” I had planned were suddenly impractical, if not impossible.
The disease of stagnation began to spread and infect my enjoyment of life as a whole. I didn’t experience the deep depression and other psychological impairments that so many of our family, friends, and neighbors dealt with over the last several years. Mine was more like a low-grade fever and general lack of energy. Life was progressing for me—and in some instances, in very big ways—but most of my days were marred by this feeling of apathy and low energy. I could still experience joy and love and connection, but the overall quality of life was lacking a zest and zeal that I still longed for. I was surviving, but I was not thriving.
New Location, New Me!
This was all apparent to me about ten months ago. After the initial rush of having moved from Florida to Kentucky, I was ready to tackle the creative and business ideas that had gone untended for so long. New place, new me! Right?
No, of course not. The truth is, the geographical cure is almost never a long term solution. I’ve learned this many times over the years, in various circumstances. This time, I even told myself in advance, “This new opportunity is great, and it’s the right thing to do, but it is not sufficient.”
The problem with the geographical solution is very simple: Wherever you go, there you are. For most of us, what we perceive as a lack of resources in our locale is intimately tied to who we are as a person. Changing our place feels good. Every new place is full of new opportunity, uncharted waters, no links to bad past history, and a clean slate for what people know and don’t know about us. “My old experiences and reputation won’t follow me! I’ll be able to take on the world!”
Like most of the fallacies we fall for, the geographical cure is based in some truth. There are new opportunities and new paths to follow when we move to a new city. (Or a new job, or a new relationship, or a new faith community.) We’re like the kid whose mom gets transferred out of state and he decides at his new school he will be Maverick—the suave, cool dude—rather than Chad the awkward geek; when we move elsewhere, we can shed some of the baggage of our old home town and start anew.
The fallacy of the geographical solution almost always rears its ugly head after we start to figure out that Cleveland is more like Corpus Cristi than we’d hoped it would be. The real problem with the geographical solution is this: I am the one constant in the new equation of life, and I need to figure myself out in order to make the most of any solution or strategy for life. Sure, I can go to a new dry cleaner because the old one didn’t understand how I wanted my clothes handled, but if I keep dumping tomato sauce on my white dress shirt, my “new favorite cleaner” will soon just be “another business that can’t get it right.”
Isn’t This Post About Progress?
You may be asking: What, pray tell, does this ‘geographical cure’ have to do with imperfect progress, which is, supposedly what this post is about?
Here I was, in a new location, new opportunities, new life in many ways, and still feeling a listless lack of energy that was soul-sucking. I had prepared myself for this to happen, because I have been well aware of the limits of the geographical cure for many years. What I hadn’t quite done was figure out the “why” behind my lethargy. All through last summer and fall, I journaled and pondered and made detailed plans for some of the ideas that were idling in my imagination. I talked it out and wondered aloud, “What is the answer to this lack of energy and stalled momentum?” There were ideas and dreams and goals that I wanted to pursue, but I just couldn’t find the motivation to work on them. Every week would come to a close and I’d look back and say, “I did the things I needed to do, and even a few things I wanted to do, but I didn’t make any progress in these areas that I proclaim are so important to me.”
It got bad enough that I started to question what was actually important. Do I really want to cultivate a creative life with my stories and novels? Do I really desire to have a business helping others realize their creative vision? Is it really part of my fundamental purpose to mentor others and help them tell the stories about their life, their experiences, their lessons learned?
Much like my knowledge of the limitations of the geographical cure, I actually had the knowledge of at least part of my problem already within me. It is the Artistic Law of Inertia, which is a reframing of Newton’s law of motion: A project at rest tends to stay at rest unless an external force is applied. A project in motion is easier to keep in motion, with less effort. (And the “bigger” the project is, related to your sense of meaning and destiny, the more force you need to get things started.)
The truth was, my creative and business efforts had lost all momentum, and I needed something to get the ball rolling again. As I talked through the issues with my best friend, Matt, I realized I hadn’t lost my desire for any of the big deal projects I’d been contemplating; they were just so big that I was having trouble getting things going.
That sense of scale was feeding into a long-held—and thankfully often overcome—bad habit of mine: Perfectionism. There is a kind of subtle perfectionism that seems really helpful—and, some of the skills and strategies that we learn from this bad habit actually are useful—but is in fact a major hinderance to living a more fulfilling life. That is a perfectionism disguised as being thorough, analytical, and well-prepared. Again, these three qualities are great, and they each have served me well. That’s the deceptive part. My perfectionism says to me, Just learn a little more, make a few more plans, outline these ideas, get all your ducks in a row, have all the answers before you get started, anticipate every possible pitfall and be ready to answer every objection!
As a life-long investigator type with a tendency to seek out and hoard all the knowledge I can, this subtle perfectionism easily takes over. And so, even though I started an earnest effort to reevaluate and ramp up my creative and business energy last fall, most of what I was doing was planning and dreaming and setting up the framework for this project or that initiative. Pages and pages of notes and ideas and “what if” scenarios. If I found just the right formula, off I’d go!
Honestly? I didn’t find the energy in all that planning. I still felt listless. In fact, the hill of ideas and projects was turning into a sheer-faced mountain that seemed even less manageable. All of my “behind the scenes” action wasn’t enough to push things forward.
Why? Because I was stalling, not planning.
The answer to that perfectionistic tendency to stall and put off getting started is the simplest lesson I share with writers and would be writers who feel like they don’t know where to begin: Do something. Anything. Something small. But write something down on paper (or your screen) that isn’t just planning. Not just outlining. One sentence. One paragraph. One page a day is a novel-worth of writing after one year. Don’t worry if it sucks. It probably will. But if you do it, that one paragraph will become two, then three, then four. Yes, you have physical limits to how much you can accomplish in one day, but most of us aren’t anywhere close to reaching those limits on a typical day. So do something. Anything.
Because imperfect progress is superior to standing still.
I hadn’t forgotten that advice, but I wasn’t following it well. I was doing some necessary, behind the scenes work on several projects, but when I stepped back to reevaluate things, it was clear that a lot of what I was actually doing was stalling and looking for the perfect plan to implement, even as I knew a perfect plan doesn’t exist.
Throughout this past January, February, and March I’ve found the creative energy that had been missing. I’ve been applying myself to several ongoing projects, some of which will be part of my public persona, some of which are deeper, for-me projects that are aimed at self-improvement and continued evolution of my physical, emotional, and spiritual self. The energy and motivation that had been lacking is back. There is still room for improvement, but when I look back at the journal entries from last fall compared to the last three months, the difference is night and day. I’m back to wishing there were more hours in the day because there’s another bit I would like to get done today, rather than wishing there were more hours in the day because I never quite got around to doing that thing I thought I wanted to do. Those two mindsets are dramatically different, and I’m thankful to find myself in the more satisfying of the two.
I started taking action. Small things. Little goals. But action, not planning. I still plan my day and my week. I still engage in longer-term (six month, one year, five years) goal setting and planning. Those things are great. But I don’t wait until I have a perfect plan to move forward.
The frustrating thing is, I already knew this. I’ve lived this cycle before. For some reason, I thought this post-Covid world was different—the “new normal” so many people talk about—but it’s really the same old, same old. What I needed wasn’t some radical new advice or strategy. What I needed was to take little steps forward, with the assurance that it is easier to correct course with a moving boat than it is to ever get to the other shore if you never put up the sails.