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To Start is Not Enough: When Failing to Finish Keeps you Stagnant

How embracing imperfection can help

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Angelo Belardi

Apr 02 2022

4 mins read

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The best way to fail is to never start.

The second best is to never finish.

Our search for perfection guides us to both. 

But perfection is an unattainable goal. We might know that and still easily fall for the idea and strive towards it.

Paradoxically, it's more challenging to seek ‘good enough’. 

One problem with ‘good enough’ is that we know we can achieve it. Depending on the bar we set for it, we can get it done today or in a week, but the end is in sight. But what happens then? What if we actually get to a finished version of whatever we’re doing? Then, we must leave our creation to others. We can't guard our feeble idea anymore. It can’t grow and improve anymore. It has to stand on its own feet. Run, little brainchild, run!

And so, too rarely do we seek 'good enough'.


Embracing imperfection

We know that without starting and sitting down to do the work, we won’t get anywhere. But getting started and putting in the time is sometimes not the problem. 

When you feel your progress at something has stagnated or you realize that you’ve already set up a habit to work at something continuously but still don’t make the progress you wish for, finishing might be your problem. In my writing, I realized that currently, my big issue is how to get something across the finish line. 

I might realize that what I’m working on is not yet ‘good enough’. It’s not yet time to be seen by others. It’s my own ideal of an undefined end product that keeps me busy without reaching anything.

In writing, you can enter an endless editing loop. You’re treading water. The figure of Joseph Grand in Albert Camus’s The Plague illustrates this perfectly: an aspiring novelist who rewrites the first sentence of his book thousands of times. 

At this stage, you might feel more comfortable than before starting. After all, you did pull yourself together and start that draft or project. 

However, perfection has never left the stage. While the perfection-meter doesn't guard the entrance anymore, it now blocks the exit and ensures that nothing beyond its standards leaves the production building. You stay stuck, caged in comfortable busyness.



Now, how to get out?

I don’t have a perfect solution. And If I wasn't so blatantly aware of the problem, since it’s the topic I am writing about, this draft would never leave the building.

What I can tell you what I stumbled across on this topic so far:


Realization

First, it helps to recognize the problem.

Know what you deal with. But also separate it from the problem of not getting started: Maybe you haven’t really honestly started or set up the habits that help you work towards your goal.


Defining an imperfect end product

You might already be able to accept sloppy first drafts. That’s a great way to get started and stay busy. 

But embracing and defining an imperfect end product, a 'good enough', is just as important. Greg McKeown writes in Effortless about the importance of defining what finished looks like.

The idea of a minimal viable product might help here. In writing, you might ask yourself: What needs to be in the piece to bring across the main idea and be helpful to the reader?


Training in mindful self-compassion.

I learned about this by someone else who struggled with their writing practice.

Accepting imperfection might have a lot to do with accepting yourself the way you are. Once we’re really comfortable with who we are with all our strengths and weaknesses, we might realize that whatever we create is just a reflection of this. Of course, it’s not perfect, because we aren’t. It can’t ever be. It doesn’t have to.

We can work at this by looking into mindful self-compassion. A great resource for this kind of mindfulness practice is available from one of the main researchers in the field, Kristin Neff. See: https://self-compassion.org/


While done might not always be better than perfect, finishing something good enough gives you an advantage in the long run, because it keeps you moving ahead instead of staying stagnant.


Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Jillian Anthony for helping me with an earlier draft via foster.co.


Questions? ✍️ Contact me by replying to this email, or reach out by ✉️ mail@habit.guide or Twitter: 🐦 @habitguide

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