Why We Quit

Welcome to A New Sunday.  We know your time is valuable, and appreciate your spending some of it with us.  Let's talk today about achievement, and the work required to develop excellence.

Close your eyes and imagine someone you admire.  A favorite author or musician, an athlete or an activist.  What all of these inspiring individuals have in common is a certain set of exceptional skills or abilities.  Perhaps their words move you, or they transform a canvas in a way that touches your soul.  Maybe, they perform astounding feats of grace and skill, that leave you transfixed, marveling in awe.

Why do we find the exceptional so inspiring?  What is it about great achievement that captures our attention?  At some level, we are built to notice patterns and the differences in patterns, so outliers naturally garner our focus.  But there is more at work here.  I think at some level, our attraction to excellence comes from our respect for the sacrifices required to achieve that level of skill and mastery.

In the words of American Revolutionary War activist Thomas Paine,

"What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods"

Greatness -- large and small -- is an act of creation, and too often we only see the fruits, not the labor.  We see the harvest, not the planting and tending.

If you spend any time with high achievers, what you’ll discover is that they traveled a long road of incompetence before they achieved proficiency.  The opportunity for greatness that we each have within us, is predicated on the inevitability of a certain period of inadequacy.   In other words, failure is a mandatory waypoint on the road to excellence.

This is comforting to consider. Failure is just a natural part of the process.  

Ira Glass, host of Chicago Public Media’s This American Life, speaks of this eloquently:  

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.”

It is easy to get discouraged when your initial efforts don’t measure up to your expectations. It’s natural to question your potential and even talk yourself into quitting.

Steven Pressfield wrote a wonderful book called the War of Art in which he gives this questioning voice a name: he calls it the resistance.

The resistance wants to veil you in obscurity and keep your gifts from the world. The resistance will tell you that you don't have any talent.  It will point out how crazy and irresponsible your dreams are.  When that fails, it will inform you, quite logically, that other people are better suited for the work you have chosen.   

I mention the resistance so you will be ready when it shows up.  Now, when it arrives, you can say, "Aha! I see you!  I won't be distracted from my task! I may not be very good right now, but I know this is just a point in time -- a waypoint on the journey.  Tomorrow, I will be better."

Don't expect to be great initially.  You won't be.  Your ego can handle it.  The path of your life isn't a paved road.  You must pave it yourself. That is the joy, that is the process, and that is okay.

We all need to cultivate the ability to sit in our own disappointment, but at the same time, rally the will to continue.  Moments of facing our inadequacy are a part of life -- we are not alone in this feeling.  It is the starting point, but with right effort it will not be the final destination.  This thought was best summed up by American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said:

"Every artist was first an amateur."

This week, you may find yourself falling short at work, or at home, or in your studies.  When you get frustrated or feel like you’re stuck or failing, when you start questioning your path, take a deep breath.  Pause.  Don't recoil at your shortcomings; take comfort in them, and in the fact that this same path of doubt and fear of failure has been tread by those you admire most.

Forgive yourself for not being great.  Laugh at the insanity of expecting great results without  great effort -- and get back to work!  The world needs your gifts.