A very wise woman told me “Perfectionism isn’t about pleasing yourself, it’s about pleasing others and protecting yourself from criticism.” She’s right, because I’ve been working on some variation of this post for two days, but more broadly, I’ve been working these ideas for the last several hundred days. And it doesn’t have to be perfect. Because I’m not perfect.
Let’s start at the top. Today, while also being Halloween and the last day of October, is my 1,000th day sober. No booze, no pills, no drugs. To be honest, I never thought I’d last this long, because while there have been some great moments of happiness and pleasure in these thousand days there’s also been a whole lot of really tough and intense things going on. It’s a balance, even though when you compare quantities, it seems like the scales are way tilted.
Do I need to back up? I feel like I need to back up. In early February 2014, my life was (in not very Fresh Prince style) turned upside down by the honest and necessary decision to stop trying to end my life either actively or passively by putting stuff in my body that was creating a buffer I felt was necessary between me and the outside world.
This decision didn’t have a lot to do with the fact that I made it in a hospital room, or that I argued with myself about it as I was getting driven from one place to another. It was about hitting what I describe as “the bottomest bottom.” I can describe it to you like this: Life is reduced down to just existing on such a primordial level that you start to question why you bother breathing. There aren’t colors in the world (think Wizard of Oz), and sounds don’t have fidelity. You’re experiencing someone else’s world while you’re underwater wearing an old-fashioned diving suit that’s been filled with flavorless gelatin. Disconnectedness, a loss of any sense that you matter, and a loss of all the feelings and ideals you believe to be primary (for me that’s creativity, humor, sensuality, and a sense that people can-slash-deserve to be their best). The feelings didn’t evaporate, they migrated to other people.
And it’s not like you’re angry that they’ve ditched you, you find new and exciting ways to agree with the exodus. Of course you don’t get to feel good things anymore, look at you, (INSERT NEGATIVE REASON DU JOUR HERE). Likewise it’s absolutely reasonable that everyone else should be happy and do better (than you) because they deserve it. You don’t, they do. That’s the gap under the self-esteem door under which slide all manner of broken coping mechanisms and bad decisions to float into your personal bubble.
It’s those bad decisions, made and reinforced over so many years that had to stop. I wasn’t happy, I was pseudo-happy. I was pretend-happy. I was happy for others when necessary, because that was the right thing to do, but I was as hollow as a chocolate holiday bunny. That had to stop.
So on February 4, 2014, I found myself sitting in a room, in one of a few uncomfortable chairs, telling a group of strangers how I was a mess, and how I messed up my life. There wasn’t an immediate sense of camaraderie, we weren’t all sharing stories of how we messed it all up so we could earn some kind of “woe is me” cred. I had to put all my guts and thoughts and fears and feelings out of my body in that room, and hope that someone could help me be better than how and what I was doing.
Dudes, ladies, brothers, sisters, that was HARD. It was Day 1. I wept giant tears and wiped a lot of snot off my face. I got hugs from strangers. I wiped my nose on a lady’s shoulder as I blubbered. Day 1. In the books. Come back for Day 2.
And I have consistently come back for the all the Days. Seldom is it easy, but I have the tools to stay on this path, and I know this path is a better one for me. It’s been a messy path. It’s been a lonely path. It’s been an awkward path. But it’s taught me so many things. Here’s a few of the big lessons.
1. Not only should you have dreams, you must be relentless in your pursuit of them, should you truly and honestly deem them important to you. We all have dreams, and while some are fantasy-in-waiting, not all of them are. You can’t term all your dreams to be so far out of touch that you won’t even bother taking the steps to reach them. I’ve met people who think that all life provides is a series of opportunities for disappointment and rejection, no matter the effort taken. That life is rigged against them and they’ll never meet the unknown criteria to “make it.” This, fine and good creatives, is applesauce.
Even if the criteria is at times unknown, we do not exist simply to live out a series of fretful failures. Skip for a minute any sense of faith or spirituality and look at the math of it – eventually we have to succeed somewhere. Which is why it’s so important to continue trying. Because that success could be up ahead. And if that’s important to you, if you have a goal and want to have it happen, then go towards it with all the effort and experience possible.
2. There’s zero shame in making a plan, adapting an existing plan, or following a plan to get you to your goal(s). I used to be plan-averse, because I thought that only if I were spontaneous would people want to be near me. That was a complete disaster because in the absence of structure, I become a hedonistic vacuum cleaner sucking up whatever experience is within ten feet. So I swung the pendulum the other way, and became inflexible. The plans I made were everything, and while it took longer to get things done, because I was thinking about all the permutations and outcomes so I could tailor a plan to reduce (or eliminate, I thought) failure.
Rigidity in this way does not make the goal easier. The goal isn’t rigid, it’s your view of possessing it that’s unyielding. Don’t confuse rigid with concrete when you’re talking about goals. A concrete goal is defined and has boundaries – you want Book X published, you want to sell 20 widgets – but a rigid goal is over-defined – you want Book X published by Company Q with an advance of Amount G.
Adaptation will keep you from seeing a success (getting published) as a not-good-enough-thing (published but not by Company Q). So many people partner rigidity with legitimacy – that things have to go in a certain way else the things aren’t good or right. There are loads of ways things could go that will net you your desired end result that don’t look anything like the one specific way you had in mind. I thought the best solution for resolving addiction was not being alive. I was pretty firm on that plan, until this other chance presented itself, and I’m glad I was able to ditch the rigidity.
- Take failure as a moment of instruction or reflection, not as some sign that you’re supposed to give up. You’re in charge of quitting. It’s up to you and nobody else if you walk away from your dreams or goals. So when you fail, and you will fail, and you will even feel like some of the successes are failures because you’re just “not there yet” (wherever “there” is). The problems you encounter, those setbacks large and small, it’s only failure when you don’t try again. Keep going, and it’s a setback. Stop, and it’s a failure.
Invest time every day in doing what you love, even if you have no idea how to make that switch flip from “I just love doing this” to “I make money doing this.” Whatever the “this” is, it’s never an instantaneous consistent success. It takes time to produce the “this”, it takes more time to get it out to the hands of people who want to trade money for a “this” of their very own. So since it takes time, make time and use your time to be productive.
“Productive” doesn’t mean be perfect, it means make progress. Remember this is firmly in marathon territory. I invest in myself everyday by working on sober living. I invest in my creativity every day by building a business and a legacy I’m proud of. Get in the habit of listing and doing the activities you invest in, and keep an eye to the goal of why you’re doing it – what’s the end result? How is what you’re doing getting you there?
- Rewards and milestones aren’t evidence of anything other than your progress. Along this marathon journey of creativity, you must remember that the course is not going to be, nor should it be, run all in one day. There’s a whole lot of distance between where you are and where you’re going, and it’s important you be able to look back and see how far you’ve come instead of always looking forward and feeling like you’re coming up short. Little rewards help you. They perk you up. For me, those rewards are snacks or an extra long nap or taking an hour to read a book I like. The reward for doing X doesn’t have to be X in order to help keep you motivated about X. In fact, I’ll argue that getting space between you and X from time to time will help you when you need to make headway on X.
You’re more than your projects, or your lack of progress, or your inflexible deadlines that of course you missed because anyone would miss them. You are not your perfectionism. You are not your dreams that forever exist in drafts and outlines. You are not your incomplete work.
Though you may yet be a work in progress, you are so much more than you may ever realize or appreciate. That’s my greatest takeaway from these 1,000 days. I am committed to delivering the best help I can to those who need it, and I am committed to being the best me I can be, scars on arms and all. I don’t need to be perfect to be me.
I’ll be at Metatopia the rest of the week. As you can tell, I’m in the process of getting this new blog into shape. Your continued patience is appreciated while I work out the kinks.
We’ll talk soon. Happy writing.