Hi! Katja here, your resident workaholic and accomplishment junkie extraordinaire.
I’ve been struggling with a very hard lesson lately—at least, a very hard lesson for me. That lesson? Learning to do less. I’m trying to learn to embrace white space. To triage my obligations. To live in the moment. To practice moderation. To say “fuck it” to my to do list.
But did I mention that this is hard?
If I vow not to plan anything myself, my friends and partners and community do instead. I find myself obligated to events and commitments months out that I just can’t miss, to the point where my weekends are booked well into the next season. And if I take a more active role in defending my time, I keep finding opportunities that I can’t say no to—new projects, new relationships with extraordinary people. Any space I clear is difficult to justify leaving empty when there are so many things I have and want to do.
So a lot of times I end up feeling like I’d be okay if I could just get more done. Do more. Accomplish more. Experience more.
Maybe some day I’ll be comfortable with less. Heck, maybe that’ll even be someday soon—I would love to write and share that lesson. This, however, is not that post.
This, instead, is for my fellow perfectionists and workaholics who haven’t quite kicked the habit yet. And it’s for me when I forget that maybe I shouldn’t have piled that latest thing on my plate, or when I feel obligated to do moremoremore. I have learned one big secret to accomplishment. It is a silver bullet: it works, eventually, no matter what. And it, like the above answers, is quite simple:
I fall on my face. A lot. And sometimes my ass.
If you’ve read anything remotely in the self-help genre, I bet you’ve heard about needing to embrace failure. Failure isn’t the only way to learn. It’s not even the quickest. But it is definitely the most thorough.
And it’s dependable. Given enough time and effort, I can fail at something in enough of a variety of ways that I can learn to accomplish anything.
So now that’s my first question whenever I contemplate doing something new, or trying something more. I don’t daydream about how amazing it will be when I succeed perfectly…okay, I’m lying. I still do that. But I don’t just do that. I also imagine failing, again and again. I ask myself: am I willing to risk breaking my heart and being miserable and looking like a fool? Because that might be what it costs.
I’ve got a favorite line from a poem that I quote to myself often. I even inscribe it in every journal I write in:
I figure if I’m willing to fall down a lot doing something, it just might be worth doing in the first place.
Honestly, more often than not, I’m not willing to fall down a lot for something. And that’s okay. I can fail enough to learn how to do anything. But as the saying goes, “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” I’ve only got time for so many failures, and I’ve only got skin for so much road rash.
So what’s the takeaway? If I want to accomplish more, I need to fail more. But I also need to choose things that I care about enough to fail at a lot. Which, I might add, sounds suspiciously close to “do less.”
But that can’t be right! This is supposed to be a post about accomplishing more, not doing less. So, if failing more is the key to learning, then I just need to figure out how to do that faster, right? After all, that’s just learning how to “fail better.”
Well, it turns out I’ve got a silver bullet for that too, but first we need to talk a little bit about failure—and about failing at failing.
Most of that self-help stuff you’ll read is about overcoming a fear of failure—as if telling you to do so will somehow magically fix the problem. Failure is scary. No, failure is terrifying. It’s easy to flippantly say that I’m willing to eat asphalt frequently. But when I’m actually looking at the ground and contemplating how much it’s going to hurt, it’s a lot harder.
I’m kind of a chicken when it comes to discomfort.
If you looked at all the time I spent learning a skill—whether that’s modeling, music, writing, polyamorous relationships, or anything else—you would see that the vast amount of my time isn’t put into making things or learning something new. I spend most of it on building up the nerve to fall down again. I stare and stare at the drop before me, and try not to remember how much it stung the last time.
But how the heck do you get better at that? I’ve tried avoiding the pain in the first place. All that leads to is a fear of ever making a mistake and an obsessive desire to control everything around me. It leads me to not share my art. It leads me to rarely allow myself to be vulnerable in relationships. I stop taking risks. The more I build up walls to try and protect myself, the more I end up blocking out possible positives. I just wall myself in with all the resentment and fear and general sucking.
I’ve tried getting tougher. It works about as well as avoidance. The thicker my skin, the less I feel. So yeah, the failure stings less. But the joy of learning is deadened too.
But I did learn one way to fail more, which means learning more and therefore accomplishing more. It’s not higher endurance—it’s faster recovery. Bouncing back and trying again.
Breakups? Inevitable. Shitty art? Pretty much required. Falling on my face? Absolutely painful—and absolutely necessary. But if I can stand back up, and be vulnerable enough to risk falling back down again, I can do anything.
Again, easier said than done. I can only do it so many times before I start flinching, or dawdling, or putting up defenses. Then I have to take a break to recharge, to recover.
And you know how I recover, right?
I embrace white space. I say “fuck it” to my to do list. I read a book or sit on the beach or hang out with friends. I do less. Because I know that if I can let myself recharge, I’ll stay open to the process. And if I do that, I’ll get up the nerve to fail again (and again and again). I’ll accomplish more with what I gain from it.
So yes, you can learn a lot through failure. But you also have to give yourself room to fail too, so that you will be willing to stand up and risk failure the next time.
Will I actually listen to my own advice on this as an accomplishment junkie? Maybe; like I said, it’s a hard lesson for me. But if I don’t, at least at this point I’m pretty good at falling on my face and getting back up to try again.