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Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Well

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Hmmm, is that always true?


November 27, 2022

Out of everything we hold dear, time may be our most precious thing.

Do you want to waste even a little of it on doing everything perfectly at the expense of getting better and better at what matters to you?

Practicing psychologist and writer Daniel Gottlieb, in Learning from the Heart: Lessons in Living, Loving, and Learning, tells the story of his seventh grade teacher. Every day she rearranged the class in the order of how they performed the previous day. When he looked back on that year, he remembered he was never near the front seat first row, nor was he ever near the last seat, last row. He always ended up somewhere in the middle.

That’s when he realized that in most areas of his life he was pretty average. At first that felt bad, until he saw that in a few areas, he had invested tremendous effort and ended up getting very, very good at a few things.

In spite of an accident that left him quadriplegic in his twenties, he has spent his entire adult life honing skills in communicating, parenting, and understanding others.

Be mindful and be smart.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m Buddhist. I’m big on being present in whatever I’m doing.

However, I am suggesting that being present and killing myself to do everything perfectly may be two different things.

When I do the dishes, I am very present. Sometimes I use it as a mindfulness practice. At the same time, a perfectionist friend of mine takes twice as long. (No wonder so many people leave their dishes in the sink for days!)

I haven’t always had this outlook.

I got all A’s in my undergrad and master’s programs until the last semester of my master’s program when I realized nobody cared about all my A’s except me.

So I did an experiment. I didn’t turn in a paper on purpose, and ended up with a B. Nobody cared, and shocker, I didn’t care either!.

For years I’d been killing myself for some unnamed audience that wasn’t interested!

I believe in hard work, and perseverance, and commitment, and I bet you do too.

At the same time, let’s take a page out of the research done on multi-tasking. The outcome is that multi-tasking results in someone doing a mediocre job on lots of things.

If we want to get good at something, it takes focused effort.

As a therapist, I devour anything I can get my hands on to be better at what I do. But I don’t spend much time or energy writing perfect progress notes. I invest way more energy in listening and paying laser attention to what my client is sharing. The progress notes serve their purpose, but they’re not the main attraction.

The hard truth is that anything you want to get good at will take more time, energy, and hard work than you planned. So doesn’t it make sense to spend most of them on what matters to you?

Pick two or three things at which you want to excel.

My theory is that you can create an incredibly satisfying life by picking two or three things to get really good at, work your butt off on them, and then do the rest of the stuff you need to do with whatever energy you have left.

Three things that excite me and make me want to get up every day are:

  1. Parenting.
  2. Creating deeply satisfying relationships.
  3. Building a career that has nourished me and provided financial security.

Accept the things at which you’re average.

The list of things that I’m not good at, or at best, average, is probably endless, but here are a few examples:

  1. Writing progress notes.
  2. Remembering details about things that don’t fall into the three categories I mentioned previously.
  3. Complicated math.
  4. Spatial relationships.
  5. Map reading.

Would my life be any more rewarding if I could compose outstanding progress notes, rock calculus equations, or read a map without confusing myself? Resounding ‘Nope!’

Give it a try.

Consider Identifying two or three things you’d like to get really good at. And then spend the rest of your life doing just that.

Sure, do all the other stuff too. But don’t kill yourself to do everything perfectly. Spend most of your time, energy, and passionate attention on the things that matter to you.

I’d love to hear about the things you’re really good at, and the things that you do just fine, but without expending tons of energy on them because they’re not the things that matter to you the most.

Much love,