“Who hurt you?” “My own expectations.”
Visiting the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City was one of the highlights of my trip to Italy. On a blisteringly hot day in July, with the streets bustling with tourists, it was a welcome refuge.
Upon entering the Chapel, I was transported to another dimension. The high vibrational energy was palpable in the sacred space. The breathtaking works of art magnified it, but I was most taken by the frescoes on the vaulted ceiling depicting nine Biblical scenes created by Michelangelo, one of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance.
I later found out that Michelangelo had single-handedly painted the ceiling himself. He had assistants to help him, but he fired them because of their ineptitude. For days on end, he had to lie on his back on scaffolding 65 feet in the air and could never fully recover from the physical labor of the project.
Michelangelo’s dedication to his art is inspirational. High standards drove him, having once said that the greatest danger is not that our aim is too high and we miss, but that it’s too low and we reach our targets. But his success came with a heavy price. His drive for perfection and his inability to compromise made him a perpetually unhappy man, and it left him with few friends. His difficult nature was forgiven by the people he worked with because they loved his art.
Michelangelo’s life story is a textbook example of the “tortured artist.” He, and along with a host of other creative geniuses, have normalized the notion that pain and perfection are essential ingredients of art. It has romanticized the inevitable labor that comes with creative expression.
As a creative, I see this perspective as dangerous because it perpetuates mental health problems in not only artists but anyone who is results-driven, and motivated to work to a high level. There’s a big difference between being inspired to be our best selves, and being driven by a need to win at all costs. The latter is toxic and destructive.
The difference between the two comes down to our thinking. For perfectionists, “good enough” is the enemy of excellence. This all-or-nothing thinking traps them in a state of dissatisfaction. Instead of living in a state of acceptance, they’re constantly chasing a moving target. At its root, it’s about fear—fear of failure, fear of making mistakes, and fear of disappointing others.
Reckless ideals for perfection originate from childhood. We may have developed a self-limiting belief that we need to prove ourselves to be accepted. Kids who grew up with parents who always pushed them and showed conditional love based on their performance, often grow up to be adults who aren’t satisfied with “good enough” because they fear that they won’t be loved.
If this is the case for you, know that you no longer need to buy into that false notion. Every time you hear a critical voice in your head that says you should be doing more, keep the following in mind:
- You don’t have to be the best at everything; you have to be good at what matters.
- You can be good enough without sacrificing quality.
- You can be good enough without settling and compromising.
Avoid getting dragged into the socially prescribed drive for perfection, where your self-worth and value depend on your achievements. Stay focused on your goals and go at a pace that feels right for you. As long as you’re reasonably consistent with your goals, it’s okay to fall back occasionally and check-in with yourself to see if you need to re-evaluate your efforts.
If you’re a high achiever who wants to be the best at everything, learning to recognize these five occasions when knowing that good is good enough is essential to your success:
1. You feel tired and deprived: Physical symptoms like anxiety, stress, and exhaustion are telltale signs that you have crossed the line of healthy striving. If you’re sleeping late, drinking fifteen cups of coffee, and eating junk food on-the-go, the cost of your ambitions is too high and could potentially lead to serious health problems. While achieving goals does take some sacrifice, it won’t ever leave you feeling deprived of the basic needs you require to lead a balanced life. We all have needs that go beyond the financial. These needs can include a morning walk, reading a few pages of a book, or writing a journal to feel nourished from within.
2. It’s not a priority in your life: At any given time, we’re handling multiple tasks and projects. However, not all of them are of equal importance. We can increase our efficiency by focusing on our priorities. Perfectionists want to be the best at everything. While this may lead to great achievement, it can also lead to misery. It’s impossible to be the best at everything because we have limited time, energy, and resources. It’s okay to be good enough at tasks that matter less so that you can work on the things that do.
3. A need for validation drives you: When chasing a goal, it’s essential to pinpoint what’s driving you. Are you being internally motivated and measuring your performance with your own yardstick? Or are you being motivated by the approval of others and outperforming those you perceive as your rivals? The latter comes from a place of ego that desperately needs validation from others to feel worthy. If you experience the tension from being ego-driven, check-in, and re-evaluate your standards and the bar you’ve set for yourself.
4. You’ve done everything you can to influence the situation: Sometimes, “good enough” means that we have reached a point where nothing more can be done. After that point, we must let nature take its course. It’s easier to know we’ve reached that point in some cases, like after you deliver a pitch or publish a book. In others less so, like expressing affection to someone you’re hoping to start a relationship with. When it’s less clear, you’ll have to rely on your intuition. You’ll feel a sense of trust and confidence that you have given it all you’ve got and that it’s time for you to release control of the situation.
5. Your efforts are no longer paying off: In economics, there’s a principle called the Law of Diminishing Return. It means that after an optimal level of capacity is reached, expending additional efforts will actually result in smaller increases in output. This applies to peak performance as well. While it’s important to study for a test or practice for a sports game, there’s a limit to how much energy and time you can invest and still continue to see improvement. Going past that limit will diminish your efficiency and results.
The only thing that can sustain our drive to realize our dreams is a fundamental belief that no matter what the outcomes of our efforts are, we are good enough. From this foundation of unquestioned worthiness, we celebrate small wins and appreciate our progress, but we’re also satisfied wherever we are on our path, enjoying every single moment along the way.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: What does “good enough” look like in your life? How does the idea of being “good enough” make you feel?
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