Sunday, July 1, 2012

Why 135% Never Feels Like Enough

Disclaimer: This entry is about the genesis of an idea and is very long. The idea is that effort leads to criticism, while slacking off is rewarded. I am not making excuses or laying blame. I am exploring my history. Comments on this post will be tightly screened. 

In my life I have very rarely put my whole self into a venture. The criticism "you just don't apply yourself" was leveled upon me at a very early age, and I learn from that point on that it really didn't matter how much effort I put into something because I would receive praise for the things where I would "skate by" and criticism for the things that I put the most effort into. My entire life this lesson has been reinforced by a culture which values mediocrity, and devalues effort. 

The things I put the most work into as a child were artistic things. I still remember my first day of first grade when the teacher gave us a coloring assignment, and I colored the entire page, I was rewarded for it with praise that first day. The next day I did the same, but did not receive the same praise, and so I stopped. I can remember thinking "she'll be impressed again!", but then when she wasn't I thought the 5-year-old equivalent of "well fuck it", and never put in the same level of effort again. I had never received much praise before that, and afterward, had to either do extraordinarily well, or just shrug off the whole thing and not care at all. 

As the years went by, I began to ignore my art because no one but me really cared. I started writing quite a lot; able to produce stories and papers like a cow does milk, and I never had to work that hard because I wasn't graded on how well I could do, but how well my peers did (that is, unless I "applied" myself). What was most degrading, no pun intended, was when I would try my hardest on a test or a paper and still be told it wasn't good enough; yet, when I didn't care or try at all, hey, I got an A. It always seemed like my efforts were disregarded when I was in school, or I would be humiliated in front of the entire class if  I misunderstood the effort expected of a project and put in a ton of effort creating an entire world for my assignment to exist within. 

I learned a disastrous lesson: just show up, and you'll make the grade, but if you put any effort in, we'll be sure to make you feel shitty about it somehow. I'll venture a guess that most of the adults who were around me during my childhood didn't know how to deal with me, and as I hit puberty and started getting all that teenage angst and coming into my personal power, it only got worse.

I used a lot of that power for my art, but the things I put the most effort and love and belief into only got "2nd prize" or participation ribbons. Meanwhile, my ability to retain information from listening to an opera based on the life of Ava Peron (Evita), was lauded by my history teacher as some kind of damn accomplishment. I don't know how I made it through high school with the grades I did, but I do know I put in the minimum effort and was graded according to what others could do, not what I was capable of. I was always graded on getting the right answer, not on how hard I tried to solve the problem and so I quit trying. This is a huge failing in our educational system because students are taught a single idea in a single manner, and then only graded according to how many answers they get right, not according to how hard they worked at getting the answer wrong.  

This series was political and funny, but
 ultimately about the 1st Amendment.
In college the works that I put the least effort and soul into were the ones that got the best grades. Like the paper for my Modern Art History class (a written, in-class final) where I claimed to be the reincarnation of Vincent van Gogh. Yes really. Yes, that got a A, and I don't know why. I know me, and I know my writing style, and it's very rambly. Meanwhile, the stuff that revealed my soul was "too didactic", or "seemed unfinished". I stopped getting stressed out about reviews because no one actually cared about my work but me, and the works I truly believed in were not acceptable. The night of the BFA someone walked into my space talking about all the art she had purchased that night, then looked me square in the face and said "I don't want him in my home," referring to the series of photos I had done exploring political dynamism via asking people to put on a GWB mask and write down what they would say if in his shoes. 

Until my mid-20s, all of my relationships worked this way too. The more effort I put into a friendship or dating-relationship, the harder I was burned. The more I tried to prove myself worthy of the love of various persons in authority over me, the more viciously I was rejected by them. I have only very few people in my life who have known me since I was still a kid, and most of them are family. (Many of them have worked extraordinarily hard to teach me that hard work just meant I was opening myself to more criticism. And two of them are dead.)

So, my whole life the lesson has been: effort = "you suck"; no effort = "ur awsum". Until Mary Kay. Until I ended up on an arena where my entire job was dependent on my own efforts, belief and prayer. I've been in this business for 5 years and I just realized that. I just realized that my entire life I've been sabotaging my own success by listening to the feedback of people who don't matter and by listening to that part of myself that says "hey, you know all those times when you put your whole soul into something and people used it to wipe their butts? You probably shouldn't get too invested in this new thing either." And the thing is, it's extremely difficult to rewrite 25 years of negative reinforcement (effort = "you suck") in 2 or 3 years, especially when you don't realize that initial programming has such a strong foothold in your brain.

But I've been watching myself over the last year. I've been looking for those areas where I self-sabotage, and I finally figured it out: when I start getting success from something, I hurry up and stop because I've been programmed to have all of my efforts backfire, all of the time, no matter what; additionally, I've been programmed that if I just coast on by, I'll get the recognition and results that I secretly crave. 

Actually, this guy may have been the reason I got into
Cornish, now that I think on it...
Eventually, it boils down to a fear of throwing my heart over the line. I became afraid to give the maximum effort, because what was it going to matter anyway? I was never in charge of my own rewards. I was never recognized or rewarded by how much work I put into drawing each and every scale on the dragon's head I was building in ceramics (and then building the body of said dragon when I realized a head wasn't enough). I began to expect, and eventually fear, the rejection that came at the end of completing something where I had put in effort. So, as an adult in a business that is completely dependent on my own personal effort, I stop at "good enough". Success feels like failure, especially when I put in 135% effort, which for some reason isn't good enough because I don't always hit my mark when I work that hard. 

It's not because I expect too much of myself, I know that. It's because I have been trained my entire life to, when I fall short of those expectation, (especially when they're so close I can taste them!), to relentlessly beat myself up. I expect to be loved less. I expect to be told that I am worth less. I expect to be viciously criticized for having the audacity to set a goal and fall short. And so, with that expectation hanging around in the back of my mind, I sabotage my goal. I don't use my resources in ways that will get me there. I don't believe in the outcome of my efforts until there is some evidence that it's possible - and I know that if you wait until you see results to believe in your efforts, you are boned. And I end up slipping back into my old habit of coasting to the finish line, and making some kind of grade simply by virtue of showing up.

No one can change this but me. I have some of the most amazing mentors and leaders in my life, but they can't change the way I think about success. Only I can do that. Identifying the problem was a good starting point. The next step is getting back to work, focusing on process, and making sure that I believe so hard in what I'm doing, that it doesn't matter what ends up happening. Because, if g-d is for me, who can be against me?

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