Lessons I'm (Still) Learning

Thumbnail sketch for Whale Watching (The 31 in 31 Collection)


Do you find yourself repeatedly re-learning lessons you thought you already had nailed? Congrats if you're past that. Me? Well, I guess I'm still having to re-learn a few things about myself.


This journey I've been on has brought up a lot of things I thought I had resolved or conquered. I'm sharing this particular lesson with you in the hope that you'll find it useful and be kinder to yourself (and others).


Pursuit of Excellence — Myth or Jail Sentence?


Patience has never ever been my strong suit. At least I don't think it has. I have little patience with myself. I am constantly in a hurry to do something better, to learn something faster, to master what I want to with more grace and ease. And sometimes my impatience can get passed along to others through my frustration (although I try not to do that). Worse — I can second-guess myself. I may even waste time redoing things to get them "perfect" when the only person who will notice any "imperfections" is me.


"Perfect is the enemy of good"— said Voltaire and to some degree he was right. But "good enough" has never been acceptable when it comes to my own performance — artistic or otherwise. The pursuit of excellence in all that I do has, indeed, wreaked havoc on my life from time to time, even contributing to my burning out and landing me in the hospital. When I was managing people at Apple, in my own marketing agency or anywhere else for that matter — I would drive my folks crazy with this pursuit of excellence (just ask them).


As I got older and more experienced, I realized that this standard was a personal passion for me, and not something that the average manager, employee, customer, client, or consumer, would notice or care about. They would see my 100% as their 2,000% and neither expect, want, nor necessarily appreciate, what that was. For most others, were I to achieve only 80% of my standard, they might see that as their 150% and been wowed.


Take for example, the painting challenge I wrote about last week to create a painting a day for 31 days. That is a daunting task for artists who, by our very nature, tend to be perfectionists. This year I decided I wasn't going to carefully select scenes, or worry about making each painting perfect enough to sell. It's been a humbling lesson and I've learned a lot. I haven't allowed myself to erase mistakes, or throw what I've started out only to start over. I also set a time limit of painting for 31 minutes, but no more than 60. Once the timer goes off, it's done. Isn't that pressure? Well, yes, I suppose you could look at it that way.


For me, the experience is energizing because it's forcing me to not think, just be, just do. It's also made me commit to painting every. single. day. And while I do sketch every day even if I don't paint, something magical happens when I'm standing at my easel. My whole brain shifts to a different reality.


What can I create in that short period of time? Can I ignore my "mistakes" and keep going? Will I get frustrated? I made an even bolder promise to myself which was to video me as I paint each one (I loathe being on camera), publicly share them on social media, AND make the paintings available for sale on my website.* So good, bad, or indifferent — you see me and the paintings all raw, untouched, unrefined — mistakes and all. You'll either love them or you won't. The surprise? The biggest lesson? I'm having a blast! I'm in a state of joy and whatever I create will be what will be.


Striking that balance — between "productivity" and "delight" — is something that every creator – whether artist, musician, entrepreneur, CEO, manager or front line workers — faces on a daily basis. It's a lifelong struggle for many.


I only know that I am happiest when I am learning something new (which means failing and making mistakes a lot) and then eventually mastering it (whatever "it" is). Seeking perfection or excellence can bring me joy — it usually means I am in a good space even if you hear me grumble or see me pull my hair. I get positive energy from that experience, rather than feeling drained or exhausted. The key is that as long as my heart is full and my soul is at peace — I can say to hell with anyone who says pursuing excellence is a jail sentence. For me — it's pure freedom.


I believe that "perfection" or "excellence" means different things to each of us. I also firmly believe that seeking perfection does NOT mean YOU are not perfect. You are NOT the pursuit. As a matter of fact, I believe we are already perfect — just as we are right now. We are who and where we are meant to be in this moment. If we want to choose something different, we can do it. But ONLY if doing so brings us joy. I have found that joy is the innoculation against pain and suffering. Pursuing excellence can be a joyous, exhilarating experience. Or it can pulverize us. It's our choice.


What do you think? How do you view the pursuit of excellence? What does that mean for you? How do you cope with it? Have you got beyond this? Please share your thoughts with me. I'm really interested to know what's going on in your head and heart.


*If you don't subscribe to my newsletter, you're missing out. Like getting early access to new works before the general public. Subscribe here so you don't miss out on future opportunities.