How to Stop Undervaluing Your Successes (Part I)

lla-header Years ago I read The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way  (Lantern Books, 2006) by Hillary Rettig and really enjoyed it. On the book’s website, she says:

It is based on my many years’ experience as an activist and coach: work in which I learned which personal habits, thoughts and beliefs tend to help people succeed at ambitious goals, and which don’t. The Lifelong Activist encompasses all I have learned, and recasts it for use by progressive activists, organizers, educators and others. It will thus teach you how to:

• Manage Your Mission: so you can determine your authentic path and not act out of guilt, shame or obligation
• Manage Your Time: so you can create a schedule that allows you to live your mission, and to achieve the most within that mission
• Manage Your Fears: so you can follow the schedule without succumbing to procrastination, perfectionism or blocks
• Manage Your Relationship With Self: so you can be the strongest, most empowered, and most joyful person you can be. (And why that goal is fundamentally progressive.)
• Manage Your Relationship With Others: so you can leverage your energy, time, skills and other resources with those of others.

PrioritiesI subscribe to her occasional newsletter. The one I received today is particularly good. In this newsletter, How to Stop Undervaluing Your Successes (Part I), she writes:

As you evaluate your progress over the past year–or as your family attempts to evaluate it for you–one thing to keep in mind is that perfectionism often confuses success and failure. It typically recognizes just one kind of success, where you: (a) finish a monumental project, (b) do a spectacular job at it, and (c) win abundant praise and material rewards for it. Everything else is either (at best) not worth mentioning, or (at worst) a heinous failure.

However, there are many more types of success, including those where you:

• Start a new project
• Restart a lapsed project
• Make progress on a project

Most of our successes are, in fact, these kinds of “process successes.” They can seem small or even trivial compared with the monumental success we Ilya_Efimovich_Repin__1844_1930____Portrait_of_Leo_Tolstoy__1887_may be striving for: that’s okay, because when you look at your work through a process lens it becomes clear that there is really no such thing as a big success: only strings of tiny ones. Tolstoy didn’t write War and Peace: he wrote a whole bunch of sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters that added up to that book.

It’s also important that you recognize and celebrate “partial successes” where the work didn’t turn out as well as planned, or where it’s not received by others as well as you had hoped. Partial successes are the norm–and, by the way, a sign you’re setting laudably ambitious goals. And relying on outside validation and rewards is always dangerous, for these reasons:

• There’s a lot of randomness in how work is received. If your work isn’t fashionable, or doesn’t happen to get seen by the “right” people, it may never get the notice it deserves.
• If your work is at all edgy or controversial there will be a bias against it; and,
• There are so many perfectionist people and institutions out there that criticism often flows far more freely than praise. (This can be the case even with well-meaning people, like family members.)

Many of us hope for a big public success, and we can work toward that, but most of our validation needs to come from within, and perhaps from a small group of savvy supporters.

Avoiding Perfectionism’s “Chasm of Despair”

By recognizing and celebrating our process successes and partial successes we create an ongoing internal monologue that’s full of positiveness and encouragement. E.g.: “Great that I’m starting this again! OK, that was a strong sentence. Good word choice there—enough to get me going; I’ll fix it later. Good job!” Etc. That is the kind of internal monologue that yields enthusiasm and productivity.

Perfectionists, in contrast, have internal monologues that are profoundly negative and discouraging: “That sentence is horrible! That’s the wrong word—what’s wrong with you? This is taking too long—I’ll never get it done. And why did I ever choose this project anyway?” Etc. This monologue yields not productivity, but despair.

When I tell people to recognize and reward their process and partial successes, I typically hear two objections:

(1) “That sounds really self-indulgent. Why should I go easy on myself? If I do, I’ll never finish anything!” That’s the voice of perfectionism, and you should never give it credence, as it is not only cruel but misguided. For nearly everyone, compassionate objectivity is the only route to increased productivity.

(2) “Are you saying finishing isn’t important?” Absolutely not: it’s crucial and you should definitely acknowledge and celebrate your “finishes.” (And if they’re big, it’s okay to celebrate commensurately.) But don’t ignore or deprecate the other types of successes, which are equally crucial.

The ultimate success is a process success, by the way: getting to live your values and dreams moment by moment. I’ll discuss that in the next newsletter. Till then, below are some useful links, and for the full story on how to get more productive, read The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, now also available in Spanish and (abridged) Japanese.

How To Cope With Success-Related Losses
How To Avoid Burnout By Rewarding Yourself Frequently
Why, When Writing, Process Trumps Product
What to Do if You’re Stuck in the Middle of a Project