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2 important lessons I’ve (re)learned this week

I don’t know about you, but the most important things I learn in life need constant reinforcement. This week’s been a great opportunity to relearn two key lessons that seem universal enough to warrant sharing with you.

1. The people you perceive as successful often perceive themselves quite differently. (Ergo: Don’t envy their “success.” Or, as my friend Kristin says, “Don’t spend anyone else’s money,” which means, simply, don’t make assumptions about others. Live your own life.)

Case in point: Earlier this week, I was assigned a newsy profile piece about a New York City chef who, in my perception (and in the perception of many other people) is quite successful. She has the kind of set-up and support that many chefs (including my husband) would love to have, and despite a recent setback because of Hurricane Sandy, she is poised to make an incredible comeback because she has received the rallying support of some of the most “important” names in her corner of the food world. She’s also received a good bit of media coverage. She’s published books with reputable presses and, from the outside at least, appears to be in a good place.

I was completely floored, then, when she told me, in response to my interview questions, that she feels incredibly lonely.

This was such an important reminder to me: the people we perceive as “successful,” or who have the kind of access and support we’d love to have, often perceive themselves in a very different way. She’s certainly not the only example of people I’ve perceived as “having it all” who have confided that they actually feel stressed/lonely/sad/like something’s missing. I’ve met many people, from “top” travel bloggers to celebrities, who outwardly project success and inwardly feel small and short of the mark. It’s not really important whether their self-perceptions are congruent with reality. Instead, I think, it speaks volumes about the definitions and dynamics of “success,” and serves as a reminder of just how important it is to focus on our own paths rather than the apparent success of someone else.

2. The fear of mediocrity holds Type-A perfectionists back.

Case in point: I went to an event this week where a documentary was screened. The subject was interesting, but creatively and technically, I thought the film was mediocre. “I could have done that,” I thought to myself, much like casual viewers of contemporary art say, “Well, I could have painted that.

Yes, I could have, and yes, you could have.

But we didn’t.

I realized that so often I don’t pursue a project because I know I can’t do it perfectly, either because I lack the skills or the resources, or both. And because I don’t want to produce mediocre work, I just leave the idea in that phase: the idea. In a way, this is ok; I don’t lack ideas and projects in active development. But in another way, I realized, I don’t need to leave some of those interesting ideas languishing in one of my notebooks just because I think I can’t execute it perfectly. Many people are producing work that’s less impressive than what I’m capable of (or what you’re capable of). And they’re using that mediocre work to carry them to the next step on their path.

To be clear: this isn’t a decision on my part to embrace mediocrity. Instead, it’s a decision to be more open to working on projects that I might not knock out of the park on the first try, and to say, instead, that I’ll just do the best I can, with the resources, skills, and passion I have.

How about you? What lessons do you learn over and over again, and how have they been reinforced for you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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9 responses »

  1. Are you a mind-reader? “I realized that so often I don’t pursue a project because I know I can’t do it perfectly… And because I don’t want to produce mediocre work, I just leave the idea in that phase: the idea.” This is a lesson I’m still learning, and not very well. You have articulated it beautifully here, though, and I will take a page from your book and keep pushing through, even if I know that what I write isn’t my best.

    Your first lesson is also one that I am continually learning. I recently read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, while in a really low point in my writing self-esteem, and I was so relieved to read that other writers, successful or not, also struggle with doubt, and insecurity, and thinking their work is crap. What we see from the outside, through their accomplishments, is not what they are feeling as a natural state. It’s sad, but also comforting, and allowed me to sit back down with the blank page. We all have our struggles.

    I needed to read this today. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      You’re so welcome! If you’re on Facebook and you haven’t “liked” Anne Lamott’s page (https://www.facebook.com/AnneLamott?fref=ts), you should. I don’t often issue “shoulds,” but no, really, you should. She is as neurotic and honest there as she is in her books and every time I read her updates, I’m nodding and laughing. Like this:

      “Am working slowly, badly, triumphantly, on a new piece. Yesterday I wrote for 90 whole minutes, which might not seem a lot to Joyce Carol Oates, but was to me. I kept my butt on the chair, and sighed a lot, and felt victimized, etc, but stuck with it–by the end, I had four sentences I loved, embedded in 3 pages of overwritten details. But a) the excess passages are place-holders for material that needs to be included, that I can edit down now and improve, and b) there doesn’t seem to be a shortcut to the rich stuff that I was after all along, without the elbow grease and detours.

      Sort of like in real life.”

      Reply
  2. That second point strikes hard. Trying to learn new things (in my case, videography) is full of projects along the way that I know will make me wince and laugh when I look back on them in a year or more’s time. But they are milestones that cannot really be avoided if I am ever going to learn to do better. It’s kind of like learning to write words or draw pictures as a child – those years of writing in horrible scrawl were necessary to practice what would become unrecognisably better later.

    Reply
    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Rich-

      The video, especially, is something I’ve avoided, too. And like you, when I look back on the tentative first steps, I’m embarrassed- God, did anyone SEE that? I hope not! But you put it really well- we’ve got to start trying in order to get better. And that’s what I’m really advocating for here.

      Which reminds me… you asked where you could see my video work, and I think I forgot to respond. I kind of didn’t want to respond– ;)– but here’s the link:

      http://www.youtube.com/collazoprojects

      Reply
  3. I tend to not start something unless I know I will see it through to the end. Sometimes though especially in writing, there is no end. It’s a lifetime process. I have had to re-learn this over and over again as I get discouraged or let a project sit unattended for years.

    Reply
  4. Wow, this was spot-on. Thanks for sharing. I’ve been guilty of looking at successful people and not really digging behind the scenes to learn their fears and insecurities. It’s too easy to assume that they “have it all” while we continue to struggle. One of my bad habits is planning too much. I think about a project, research it, and I sometimes become so bogged in the details that I can’t pull the trigger. When I go into comparison mode, it then seems like the successful people around me are sailing along while I wonder why I’m not getting there. Like my husband says, sometimes you just have to “do it” to make it happen. Lately, I’ve begun just pulling the trigger on a few projects, and the results are rewarding and immediate. Thanks for taking a good look at the bad habits that hold us back!

    Reply
  5. Thank you for this post. I finally started blogging a few months ago and each post has been a harrowing experience in the “I could do this better” realm.

    One of the lessons I keep re-learning is that fear doesn’t mean I am on the wrong path. I used to falsely identify fear as a clue that something was wrong, when really I was making a choice based (usually to not do something) on the fact that I was afraid. I missed a lot of great opportunities this way, like Bread Loaf’s English/Writing grad program which I backed out of a week before because I was scared.

    I have vowed to no longer live life from fear, and it is good to be reminded that things are not always as they seem and you have to wade through some crap to get to the good parts.

    Reply

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