Aim for the stars, then whatever you achieve you can feel like a failure.
July 31, 2008 6:28 AM   Subscribe

What is 'good enough'? Reforming perfectionist wants to know.

I have recently started treatment (medication and therapy) for what my doctor/psych describe as 'major depression', present since I was around 10 (now early 20s). Both of them think that a contributing factor is the pressure I put on myself to do well, and say that I should 'relax' and 'accept that I'm doing the best I can'. I'm not really a perfectionist (as I've never really done anything perfectly anyway) but I can't really imagine what else people aim for. How do you know you're 'doing your best'? Can't you always try harder?

Complication: I am one of those ridiculously lucky people who seem to be able to do anything. Academics, sports, music - I can pick up any area and do better than average without trying. Perhaps related: I don't try. It's so much effort, and why bother turning up to class/training to get fitter/whatever when I'm already better than most people and I probably can't be as good as the best? On the other hand, how can I possibly be happy with second class honours when I only attended two classes for the semester and did the assignments the night before, and it's only second class, and I might never get a good job because I don't have either excellent marks or good work habits?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Both of them think that a contributing factor is the pressure I put on myself to do well, and say that I should 'relax' and 'accept that I'm doing the best I can'.

I don't try. It's so much effort, and why bother turning up to class/training to get fitter/whatever when I'm already better than most people and I probably can't be as good as the best?

These statements are really contradictory. You don't sound like a perfectionist at all, actually. If you were, you'd have better grades. Maybe you need a different therapist.
posted by amro at 6:34 AM on July 31, 2008

What is 'good enough'? Second class honours is good enough, if you only attended two classes for the semester and did the assignments the night before.

And even if you went to all the classes and did the assignments the night before, it's probably still good enough.

(I have an arts degree with first class honours and a law degree with second class honours. I'm doing my articled clerkship now, and spent the two previous years as a Supreme Court judge's associate. So... you'll still get good work with second class honours.)
posted by robcorr at 6:49 AM on July 31, 2008

Sounds to me like a classic case of smart kid syndrome. You don't realize it, but your inaction is primarily because you're paralyzed by the fear of failing at something, and thus not living up to your own self-image and the expectations of those around you. Don't feel bad! Look how many people favorited that post. I bet it will resonate with you.
posted by shadow vector at 6:49 AM on July 31, 2008

Rather than setting your standards too high it sounds like you are setting them too low. You sound like you are coasting on your innate talents without challenging yourself. Like many high achievers you likely have a fear of failure which prevents you from taking on greater challenges. Within your comfort zone you excel and don't really risk failure. Short term this is a cozy comfortable feeling. Long term you may very well find it unsatisfying. (Of course I could be totally wrong about you, my comments being based upon your two paragraph life summary.)
posted by caddis at 6:53 AM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hm. I'm not sure it's totally contradictory (the conclusion, that is). I think anonimous is trying to say he's a perfectionist, which stops him from actually doing things - I probably can't be as good as the best. He can't be best, so he won't try, because he "knows" he'll fail... at being the best, that is.

Anonymous, I think the key is realizing that just because people in general label something or someone as "the best", that doesn't mean it is the best for you (or the best in general, even, but there's no need to go into that argument at this point). Doing the best you can is the best, period. Or the best for you, on any given situation. Not going for it because you don't feel like working at it or because you're afraid you'll fail... that's lame, and beneath you. Have fun while you're at it, too - life's just too short.
posted by neblina_matinal at 6:55 AM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

You sound like you don't work on projects; you use projects as tools to work on yourself. Perfectionism is all about ego. In other words, you're writing a paper about Napoleon (or whatever) but you're not focusing on Napoleon; you're focusing on your grade, how much better your paper on Napoleon is than other people's, how little work you can get away with; etc. From your question, I don't know if you're a perfectionist or not. But it does seem like you're caught up in yourself.

Focus on the project. When you do that, it really doesn't matter whether you're writing the best paper on Napoleon or the worst. The important thing is, you're engaging with Napoleon. I've done this for years. It's not easy at first. But it can become a way of life after a while -- a way of focusing outward.

I'm doing it now with a production of "Cymbeline" I'm directing. Since I direct Shakespeare plays, there's no chance I'll ever work on anything original. There have been thousands of productions of the play before mine and they'll be thousands of productions after mine. (My company performs on a bare stage without costumes or sets, so there's no way I can impose some sort of "cool" directorial concept). Will my production be the best "Cymbeline" ever? Who cares? That's not even on my radar. I'm just engaging with this fascinating story.
posted by grumblebee at 6:56 AM on July 31, 2008 [27 favorites]

To answer your original questions, "good enough" is a result you're happy with. It sounds like you're OK with your input, but your results fall short. You're going to have to work with a therapist who can help you look past short-term pain in order to achieve satisfactory long-term results.

My understanding of perfectionism, informed by my having a daughter who fits the profile, is that objectively excellent results are never enough, and your abillity to meet your own unrealistically high standards becomes a source of frustration and worse.

I think if you're getting second class honours your unhappiness with that is reasonable, not unrealistic, and it's your level of effort that should be your focus. Do you get some kind of subconscious thrill from putting in minimal effort and getting OK results? Some underachievers define success not by results but by how little effort they can put in and still "get by." Explore with your therapist how you feel about work and effort.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:58 AM on July 31, 2008

why bother ... when ... I probably can't be as good as the best?

If I was your therapist, I would spend a long time working with you on that statement. You say it as if it's a syllogism. You do realize that "why bother?" doesn't logically follow from "I can't be as good as the best," don't you?

Why is it important to you to be as good as the best? (Saying "because I'm a perfectionist" is not an answer, it's a label.)

Is it that you want a feeling of accomplishment? If that's it, why can't you feel that feeling by working really hard and finishing something -- whether it's the best or not? Have you ever tried that? Have you ever trained to run a marathon? There's no way you'll be the best marathon runner in the world, but I guarantee you'll feel accomplishment when you cross the finish line. I'm not even sure you'd feel more accomplishment if you WERE the best marathon runner in the world. Haven't you ever won a game of poker, chess, tetris or whatever and felt good? Were you the best player ever? If you felt good, it wasn't because you were the best, it was because you worked really hard and achieved something. (It's because -- as I said in my last post -- you focused on the project, not "being the best.")

Is it that you want people to think well of you? You want them to be impressed? If so, what's that all about? When my wife tells me she's proud of me, I know she's not the Nobel committee, but it still makes me feel great. Do you have someone in your life who is proud of you? Are you lonely?
posted by grumblebee at 7:09 AM on July 31, 2008 [4 favorites]

This is definitely me. You will definitely regret not trying. I've missed out on a ton of opportunities because I thought I was already good at something. I am good at a lot of things, but if other people don't know it because I'm not trying, I won't be thought of when there's a new job or new opportunity. Get out there, try your best, give yourself permission to fail. Everyone fails - the ranks of famous and successful people are filled with those who failed and then tried again. See my previous AskMe for examples.
posted by desjardins at 7:34 AM on July 31, 2008

Also, people at the top of their game aren't always happy. Look at the dramatic downfall of Britney Spears, who at one time had everything she could have possibly wanted. I doubt you aspire to be her, but a lot of famous people have intense psychological problems, often created by their success and the pressure they put on themselves (or others put on them). I find that "mediocre" people tend to be happier because they work with what they've got and are satisfied with that.
posted by desjardins at 7:37 AM on July 31, 2008

Do things for their own value, or for the enjoyment you get in doing them.

Originally posted by Devils Advocate:

The greatest accomplishments seem imperfect,
yet their usefulness is not diminished.

posted by salvia at 8:06 AM on July 31, 2008

You do try, it just seems to you, like you don't because it's natural to you to put 100% in to achieve a result. Why you are motivated to do that isn't something I know, but something you should find out.

Also many people who are great, are great because they care passionately about what they do and do not take shortcuts to achieve a temporary state of mind and rather enjoy the process. I suspect you are different in that you look for the result first and skip the hours of hard work required.

And lastly with the settling for second best thing (other than suggesting you look into why you care about second best), that's part of getting old to some degree, isn't it? I remember someone saying "Getting old is watching your dreams die". At the end of the day, if you do come 2nd best, you have to have control over how you feel about being second best, cause it's already freakin happened and you can't change it :P.
posted by Submiqent at 8:15 AM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think this is one reason some people end up studying various philosophies. Might as well give Buddhism a try and see if it works out.

My only attempt at re-framing is this: notice when you're having fun. Start with that, even if it's stupid stuff like "eating french fries", and soon you may notice other fun, and other types of fun.

"Fun" may seem pointless, but really, it's all we've got. And it's one place to begin.
posted by amtho at 8:24 AM on July 31, 2008

Nobody can tell you what's good enough. Good enough is an alien concept to you and you will have to learn it on your own. Imagine going to a distant planet and having to learn their bizarre new cultural concepts by trial, error, observation, imitation, adjustment, and repetition, with understanding only developing after a long time. This is what it will be like for you. The only way you can get exposure to the concept is to deliberately shoot for average on a regular basis (secret: what you see as average will look better than average to most because your perspective is skewed). Then you can observe the effect that these average performances have on your life, the way people treat you, the way things change for you if they change at all. You will be worried that people will think and say "wow, he's really slipping" which will cause a red alert in your head, but you'll be puzzled when this doesn't happen, and that you carry on just fine if anyone does say anything. Doing this enough allows you to relax a metaphorical muscle that has been clenched your whole life, which you didn't know you could unclench, and which is OK and even healthy to unclench. You'll be able to start getting a sense of "good enough" and "very good" and you'll have more time and energy for living. I'm working on this now myself so I'm not just talking out of my ass here. You will be able to relax your identity as the guy who does everything better than just about everyone else and discover other parts of yourself to cultivate and build upon.

Part of the problem is that your identity is built almost entirely on your giftedness. You talk about being better at most things that most people without even trying, and that it's always been this way. The "without even trying" part means "this is who I am naturally". Who I am. Your identity. It's not just your way of doing things. And now you're being told that your identity is a problem. But your identity is literally your reality and wtf are you supposed to be if not who you've always been? What else is there? It's a very difficult issue. People will cling to an identity with a fierceness unparalleled because without it we are adrift in existence. But unlike most people you're going to have to release some of yours because it is crippling your life. It will feel like shameful failure, but that will lessen over time as you gain perspective. It's a necessary sacrifice if you want to improve your life. It's going to require humility, and that you don't try to defend yourself against criticism of the things you do or make. Let yourself be average for a while. Think of it like spending a year in a Buddhist monastery as the humble initiate. People do things in an average way all the time (hence the definition of average) and still do fine in their lives. People screw up all the time and still do fine in their lives. They don't get rejected, scorned, or devalued for life. They recover and carry on, having learned something. If they fail a class, lose a job, whatever, it's not the end. And usually it's not even that severe.

And that's another thing, as others have mentioned - it sounds like you won't attempt bigger things because you fear that you might fail, which would challenge or erode your idealized identity, causing you to "have to accept" that you're less than you are in your own perception of your identity. Somebody once said, "The idealized self is a false self. The true self is the tested self." It's what you are when you let go of the illusions you paint up and project to make yourself feel safe. A tested self can't emerge unless you have tried big things and failed at some of them. It's what shapes you from the perfectly square block of stone that you think you're supposed to be into the unique piece of carved art that you really are, with sweeping curves, texture, and ground--down corners. "In the destructive element immerse." That's another one. It sounds like Yoda but it's Joseph Conrad from Lord Jim. Jump into life and let it shape you with its chisels and various grades of sandpaper. It can be abrasive and painful but is the way to the real you.

Note that there is a difference between shooting for big and challenging things and being perfect. Perfectionism is a way of doing things at any level of endeavor. Shooting for big things would be trying to be as fit as you think you can't be, or seeing what you can achieve when you attend every class and immerse yourself in the work, or trying for the jobs you think you can't get, or any other manner of laying yourself out on the line, where there is a chance you really might fail, and then going for it. You do your best at lots of different things, learn from the failures and misfires, and let that experience guide you towards your true path. It can sound contradictory to say "Shoot for average" and "try big things" but these are kind of two different things you need to work on. The former is counterintuitive and isn't something most people should do, but most people don't have your problem and don't require that sacrifice to gain perspective. If you're writing a paper, write a decent paper. Set yourself some time limits, some length limits, and turn in a paper that feels like it's lacking. You'll probably get an average or decent grade, which is fine. Do the same if it's a project at work. Observe the effects and note that they don't define you or send your life into the toilet. You will survive, and after a while, when you have a more balanced view of various levels of input, output, and effect, you can ease into aiming for "very good" and maybe even "excellent". But you don't ever have to hit perfect.

One last thing which is a whole 'nother post, which maybe you want to at least bring up in therapy, is self esteem. This may or may not be the case for you, but it is very easy, especially for perfectionists, to derive their self worth almost wholly externally. You must be perfect at everything so that people will like, accept, and value you, and reinforce and confirm your idealized identity for you. The locus of your worth needs to be internal. Once it is, you don't have to be outwardly perfect because you don't need that supply of affirmation. I'll admit that I don't know how to do this yet and kind of come up blank when I try to figure out how to derive it internally myself. But that's apparently a project for a future run at therapy. And I think that relaxing to average is helping pave the way for that.
posted by kookoobirdz at 8:33 AM on July 31, 2008 [13 favorites]

Read Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child. And read Pia Mellody's Facing Codependence (don't turn your nose up at its lowbrow presentation and style, just trust me on this and force your way through it, because you need it). And then read Chekhov's Ivanov.

Been there, done that, have spent many years and thousands of dollars in therapy working on it. Getting older helps. Once you're officially too old to be a wunderkind, it takes a lot of the pressure off.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:48 AM on July 31, 2008 [3 favorites]

Complication: I am one of those ridiculously lucky people who seem to be able to do anything. Academics, sports, music -I can pick up any area and do better than average without trying.

But have you won a Grammy? Won a Super Bowl? Won a Pulitzer Prize? Nobody can do everything. If your goal is always to do better than others, you will always fail- there is always someone better. At the same time, you'll always succeed, too- there's always someone out there worse than you. So what does it matter to compare yourself to other people? Start setting your goals not in relation to others but in relation to yourself, and you'll always have something to strive for.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:11 AM on July 31, 2008 [4 favorites]

I find limiting myself is a usefull way to do some things. For example when trying a new sport I limit myself to x hours of it a week and try my hardest in those x hours. I don't have the time to be the absolute best but I can be the most improved person ever on just x hours.
posted by captaincrouton at 10:12 AM on July 31, 2008

I'm not really a perfectionist (as I've never really done anything perfectly anyway)

I don't think a perfectionist is one who does things perfectly. I think it's one who believes there's always a perfect way or ways to do things and will strive to do them, even if s/he may not necessarily succeed.

Granted, I'm not an expert. But, since I was raised in a judgemental family, I developed this competitive streak: "The design isn't good enough", "Everyone else's projects is better than mine; mine's not good enough", etc. In this case, you're comparing yourself to others. You're seeing your life as a competition with other people in your life. Even friends can become competitors in your mind, though you can still hang out with them, socialize, and be buddies.

Realize that life isn't entirely a competition. Sure, there's races and contests, but think of them as challenges to yourself, ignoring the other contestants. Really put effort in. At the end of the day, say to yourself, "Whew, I gave it my all, now let's take a break." So maybe you came in second. So? It's better than third or fourth. You've gotten that far on the ladder, so give yourself a pat on the back. (Also, there's that little "First the worst, second the best, third the nerd" thing. Think like that: it's just a fun game overall)

By the way, I too am one of those people who pick things up easily within a couple of tries, but tend to think "Okay, I get it, the rest is easy, I'll take a nap". Thus, I never learned good study habits. When you find yourself in that situation, reach out beyond what's taught in class or training. Dig around in what you already learned and ask yourself, "Is there more to this? What if..." Get curious, be curious. Ask theoretical questions, no matter how absurd they are, and look for answers to them, then keep making up new questions. Challenge yourself, but don't think of others. Think for yourself. YOU want to know, YOU are curious, YOU will look for answers not for anyone but yourself, as ThePinkSuperhero said.

I hope this helps.
posted by curagea at 10:44 AM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

But have you won a Grammy? Won a Super Bowl? Won a Pulitzer Prize? Nobody can do everything.

Yes, and I'd add that though while you're in school, school seems like the entire world, but t's not. It is a highly artificial, highly ritualized game. There can be good things about it, but it's not normal life.

So you can ace tests without studying hard? Sorry to sound harsh but so what? That's not so special. It's not all that hard to learn the tricks of academic life and coast. That's what I did, too. Other people looked upon school as a learning experience and so they weren't trying to figure out shortcuts. Or they looked at it as please-authority-figure time, so they followed rules (e.g. studied hard) in order to get strokes. Like you, I realized that you don't have to play by the rules or study hard to get As. So I did the minimum and felt like I was getting away with something. So what? I didn't make me special. It didn't make me bad. It didn't make me good.

Real -- post school life -- isn't about that. There are no tests for you to ace. There are no professors for you to please. No one cares if you can answer 100 true/false questions without studying. No one cares if you can bullshit your way through an essay question.

In real life, you can apply yourself to stuff -- you can really work hard and achieve something (whether it's "the best" or not). You'll definitely feel a sense of accomplishment, because you'll have to work so hard to complete your task.

Or you can coast. There are plenty of post-school people who coast. They find a relatively easy job that involves doing the same thing every day. After work, they go home, watch TV and go to bed.

The difference between school and real life is that in real life it's harder to kid yourself. If you coast, you know you're coasting (you don't get good grades, making it look like you're achieving something). If you put in the effort, you know you're putting in the effort. You know because you feel the sweat (literal or figurative) running down your back.

People who are depressed have a hard time making the effort. That sounds like your real problem and you need to face that and get help with it. The fact that you're getting good grades via coasting isn't here or there. You're coasting because you don't want to make the effort to work harder. Whether that's due to laziness or depression (or a mixture), I have no idea. Figure it out, figure out the sort of person you want to be, and then be that person.

And there are only two worthwhile reasons to engage in any activity:

1. because you want to.
2. because you have to.

"To be the best" isn't on that list.
posted by grumblebee at 10:48 AM on July 31, 2008 [5 favorites]

Whatever I do, no matter how good, could always be better. As a perfectionist, knowing ahead of time that I'm going to feel this way is enough to keep me from starting a task or project. It's not really, "I probably can't be as good as the best." It's more, "I won't be as good I ought to be." That way, I always lose -- guaranteed.

I deal with this in two ways. The first is kind of strange, but it works for me. I tell myself, "Whatever I do is going to be wrong or lacking. So I might as just pick one way to be wrong and just do it. Or I can choose to do nothing." This helps in making a decision when all the choices are imperfect in seemingly important ways. It's also useful for prety small tasks I've been putting off, like writing a thank-you note. "My note is going to be lame and will sound stilted -- that's just how it is. So I will now just compose a necessarily lame note and send it, because not sending one will be worse."

For just getting myself to do projects: Instead of getting started and then criticizing and questioning myself all along the way, I first make up a "job description" that sets standards that I can accept. I have to do this ahead of time. or it doesn't work. Whether it's a dinner party, buying a gift, designing a bookcase, or working out at the gym -- setting a specific standard beforehand gives me a realistic point to work towards. It's attainable, and because I named it before I started, I can remind myself later that it's against the rules to revise it just so I can be wrong or not good enough.

I think the way to let yourself be "good enough" is not to wait till you've finished and then convince yourself that the work is adequate, or even to do that periodically as you proceed. Instead, set the criteria, and then begin. Keep reminding yourself about the job description. Let your reasonable self dictate what "good enough" is. Your crazy self won't like it, but the job will get done.
posted by wryly at 10:53 AM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

This thread made me realize something that I've never thought about before. I'm not a perfectionist, but I also don't settle for "good enough." I can't answer your question about what's good enough, because I have no idea. I don't strive for perfection, but I also don't say, "Well, that's good enough. I guess I'll stop now."

Again, I think this is because I'm dealing with real-life metrics and not school ones. In school, as you've discovered, there IS a good enough. There's good enough to get strokes from the teacher. And, unfortunately, with most teachers, that takes way less effort than it should.

I guess there are analogs in post-school life. You can do "good enough" to get a stroke from your boss, etc. I think I mostly avoid that sort of scenario by doing independent work on projects that have embedded harsh metrics.

For instance, I work as a programmer. My programs either work or they don't. I have to put in so much effort to make them work, I can't help but feel a sense of achievement when they do. If they only sort-of work, no one is going to say "A for effort!"

And I'm certainly not the best programmer in the world. I guess I'd like to be, but I don't generally have enough time to worry about that, because I'm too busy programming. I have problems to solve with real-world consequences if I don't solve them.
posted by grumblebee at 11:03 AM on July 31, 2008

How do you know you're 'doing your best'?

If you can learn to relax and accept yourself the way your therapist is recommending, I think you'll also find that you're more inclined to trust your instincts when it comes to questions like this.

To put it another way, don't worry about that part right now, it'll take care of itself.
posted by tomcooke at 12:51 PM on July 31, 2008

This post perfectly describes me 5 years ago.

A couple of things. There is no such thing as "perfect" or "best" in most areas, and these happen to be the fields that I find deepest and most enjoyable. There is no best artist, soccer player, or mathematician in the world, even when there's a "winner." You must already know that the kid with the highest marks in class isn't necessarily (probably isn't, actually) the smartest. You could quantifiably be the best WOW player in the world (that's really all I can think of as a possible quantifiable superlative - video games), but who cares? Not the girls.

A big part of being great at something is deciding for yourself what the best way to do it is. If you paint, you probably don't paint like Mary Cassatt. Pele was great because he did things in ways no one ever thought of. My point is that being the "best" is completely meaningless, but being "great" for someone like you is not, and you can be great at any number of things, even if they're really meaningless. I can solve most any sudoku, but I don't spend time on it regularly, and I don't expect anything from it.

On the other hand, you CAN get the highest marks in a class, or write the best essay (or whatever) ever in a class if you prefer.

On the OTHER hand, who cares if you don't turn out to be a great baker (or whatever you might not have tried)? It's often fulfilling and impressive enough that you can bake a cake, run 10 miles, finish the Saturday crossword, frame a window, and win at darts.

So just stop worrying about it and put your exceptionally functional brain and body to use.
posted by cmoj at 1:13 PM on July 31, 2008

You have a lot invested in never trying.

"Above average" is something that you can't control, and you fear it being taken from you to the point where you cripple yourself.

You have your self-worth tied into an image of yourself as someone who is talented, but lazy.

Stop investing in that image, or you will continue to be talented and lazy.

The people who are the best at what they do are, almost invariably, the people who work the hardest.

You need to stop being afraid that you're not talented, and recognize that any talent you may have is secondary to your willingness to work.

You are afraid to hit the limits of your talent, but there is no such limit when it comes to work--except, of course, time.

Even if you accept this is true, you will still feel anxiety.

Realize that it is useless, and work towards something anyway.

Additionally, take a long hard look at your goals and assure they are indeed your goals, and that you really want to achieve them.

Perhaps you think that an "Above average" person should have certain goals, but you have no real desire for them?
posted by sondrialiac at 2:45 PM on July 31, 2008

Yeah. I hear you.

Don't think about how well you're doing a thing. Think about why you're doing it, and who for.

If you're doing it for yourself, "good enough" is when you're satisfied with it. If you're doing it for someone else, "good enough" is when they're satisfied with it. That's it. (Most tasks are a combination of the two, of course, but one is almost always going to strongly outweigh the other.)

Also: when you're finding yourself to be effortlessly above average, then you're comparing yourself to too small a group of people. And when you're finding yourself overwhelmed by the impossible task of being "the best," you're comparing yourself to too large a group (The world) or to some nonexistent ideal.

"Most people" are irrelevant. (If you can find your ass with both hands you're above average. Congratulations.) "The best" is also irrelevant. As you've discovered, you're probably not it. What you haven't discovered is that that doesn't matter to anyone. There's no scoreboard with rankings for who wins at life -- and even if there were, there wouldn't just be one score. All there is is carving out a niche you're satisfied with. The only prize is your own happiness.

Put the extremes out of your mind; they don't matter. Find your niche.

Take your class marks for example. Of course it's unsatisfying to get decent marks for no effort, because that's only comparing you against the handful of random students who happen to be in your class. Big deal. Why are you in class? To compete with them? Of course not. What you do care about is that you need good enough marks (and good enough skills and good enough work habits) to get a good enough job. And you have to go through the same exercise when deciding what constitutes a "good enough" job.
posted by ook at 3:32 PM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't know if anyone will notice this in Recent Activity, but I posted this question - as my profile says, I finally decided the second account for personal questions was worth doing.

I particularly wanted to respond to ThePinkSuperhero's point:
"But have you won a Grammy? Won a Super Bowl? Won a Pulitzer Prize? Nobody can do everything. If your goal is always to do better than others, you will always fail- there is always someone better. At the same time, you'll always succeed, too- there's always someone out there worse than you. So what does it matter to compare yourself to other people? Start setting your goals not in relation to others but in relation to yourself, and you'll always have something to strive for."

That's my point. I haven't won a Grammy, so what does it matter that I can sing and compose? (I can't, actually, but the point stands). That whole 'setting your goals in relation to yourself' is EXACTLY what I'm trying to figure out. How do I do that?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:20 AM on August 26, 2008

Hello, recent activity.

You do that by singing or composing well enough that you feel satisfaction or a sense of accomplishment. By writing or recording something that you want to listen to. Or by putting enough effort and building enough skill at it that you enjoy the process, never mind the results.

Forget about other people. They don't matter in this equation. Forget about the big global scoreboard you're imagining yourself ranked on. It doesn't exist. (Really think grammy-award music is objectively better than all other music?)

(A sidebar: I think one of the reasons "hobbies" exist is that they're areas in which people feel no pressure to compete, so they can just enjoy what they're doing for its own sake. Nobody needs to try to build the Best Model Train In The World, they can just build a cool model train because they like trains. I think it'd be great if more people could apply this attitude to more areas of life than their hobbies; there'd be a lot more good stuff in the world.)

If all else fails -- I'm a little reluctant to suggest this, because it's a little crass, and it's not a great longterm solution, but to be honest it's what fueled me for a lot more years than I should probably admit: instead of trying to impress the world, try to impress a girl. (Or whichever gender you'd prefer to impress.) Not a specific, particular girl, that would be creepy -- just some ideal image of your perfect girl or boy. To carry on with the music example, your goal wouldn't be to sing well enough to win a grammy. What would you do with a grammy, anyway? Your goal would be to sing well enough that if you were to bust out in song at a party full of the sort of people you want to be spending time with, they'd be more like "who's that cool guy singing? Did he write that song? Wow, that's cool, I gotta find out more about this guy" than like "What's that weird noise?"

I suppose this is what historically is called the "muse". Sounds less crass than "make good stuff to pick up chicks." Find your muse. Yeah, awesome. Like I said, it's not an ideal solution; you still end up basing your self-worth on other people, and it'll run out of steam eventually. But at least it's on one idealized person rather than on the whole goddamn world.
posted by ook at 9:20 AM on August 26, 2008

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