Consistently good enough

I came across a nice articulation of the power of “consistently good enough” in a newsletter by Brad Stulberg, a coach.

“Anyone can burn bright for a few days, weeks, months, or maybe even a year. But burning bright over the long haul requires consistency. And trying to be great all the time usually leads to illness, injury, and burnout. It also creates a lot of tension and stress.

But if you can string together a whole lot of good enough, you generally wind up with something great.

I first heard about the idea of good enough from the mid-twentieth century psychologist DW Winnicot. Among other things, Winnicot was known for his concept of the “good enough parent.” The parent who tries to be perfect all of the time burns out (and sadly, they often harm their kids along the way). The parent who is neglectful or just wants to be average generally isn’t great either. But the parent who can be repeatedly good enough—their kids tend to be the most well-adjusted and their relationships the most enduring and best.

I was thrilled to see it validated by Stuart McMillan, arguably one of the best coaches alive across any discipline. He’s worked with over 35 Olympic medalists and countless world champions in sprint and power sports.

In a recent conversation (this is a must-listen podcast), Stu put it like this: human performance is super complex. Complex systems have all of these interacting parts. If you try to optimize them all, you end up with unintended consequences and a whole lot of stress. But if you can be a 7 or an 8 out of 10 across all of the parts, then the whole ends up being incredible.

It is an idea that resonates deeply. One of the bigger shifts in my thinking over the years was to change how I approached days in a work week. When I was starting out, I sought to make days great. And, every week, I’d get a day or two when I just felt extremely productive or “great” by my definition. But I’d have also have a couple of poor days.

In recent years, my focus has shifted away from “great” days. Instead, I just try to be consistent about making progress on my priorities. In other words, to be consistently good enough. And I find myself consistently more productive and happier with this change.

The impact of aiming for consistently good enough is as much about long term performance as it is about its impact on our psychology. By keeping things simple and keeping our expectations low, it helps us focus on what actually matters – doing the best we can given our constraints.

Drip by drip, the impact of that consistent effort adds up and compounds over time.

I’m blue to I’m good

For a time during my teenage years, “I’m Blue” was my go-to song. It perfectly captured my melancholic emotions of the moment. And it’s stayed on in my playlist since.

So I was amused to hear David Guetta and Bebe Rexha’s flipped version – “I’m Good.”

Same old tune with modified style, lyrics, and people. An immediate winner.

Sometimes, that’s all it takes to flip our moods as well – a different environment, different people, different words, and, most of all, a desire to change.

The voice of the gut

I shared a recent quote about the conscience that resonated – “The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle it; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it.”

The more I reflected on it in the days that went by, the more I realized that the quote works just as well if we substitute “conscience” with “gut.”

It is easy to drown our gut with data and thought. But it is also impossible to mistake it’s clarity – if we pay attention.

Bare necessities

I was listening to the “Bare Necessities” from “The Jungle Book recently. These lines made me pause and replay the song.

And don’t spend your time lookin’ around
For something you want that can’t be found
When you find out you can live without it
And go along not thinkin’ about it
I’ll tell you something true
The bare necessities of life will come to you

It resonated.

Grace periods

When we experience a significant change in our lives (new place, new job, new people), the existing systems in our life often break. A learning that has been immensely valuable in such periods is to use grace periods.

Instead of attempting to get all our systems in order as soon as possible, setting a simple grace period – e.g., 6 weeks – while we settle and figure things out tends to be more effective. The grace period does 3 things –

(1) It sets a clear boundary for us to take stock. For example, in some cases, we’ll realize that we’re settled by the time our grace period ends and ready to resume normal service. In other cases, we may have to extend it again by a few weeks. Regardless, setting a clear grace period ensures we’re paying careful attention to our systems as we navigate the change. They help us ensure we don’t run with broken systems for any longer than we have to.

(2) The presence of a clear boundary removes any mental pressure we’d normally put on ourselves.

(3) That absence of pressure frees up space for us to pay attention and observe. Sometimes, these kinds of changes give us the opportunity change things for the better by helping us find that our existing systems are inadequate.

What got us here won’t get us there.

Short term messy

An idea I’ve found myself referencing a lot of late as we navigate change is “short term messy, long term good.”

My belief is that we can all handle a bit of messy as long as our expectations are set right. And navigating that mess as a team – with emergent direction and eyes wide open – typically results in good outcomes in the long run.

It is always challenging navigating the messy part.

But, on the flip side, these experiences often tend to be learning-rich and transformational.

No pain, no gain.

Babysitter or parent

There’s a concept Nest’s founder Tony Faddell calls out in his book, “Build,” differentiating Babysitter CEOs and Parent CEOs.

Babysitter CEOs focus on keeping the status quo and changing little. Rocking the boat is not on their agenda and, while many drive incremental growth, many drive companies to the ground as well by not making the changes organizations need to survive.

Parent CEOs, on the other hand, are all about doing whatever it takes. That often comes with a recognition of the risk of sticking with the status quo and the associated (large) upside/downside. It also speaks to the toil these leaders go through – it isn’t easy being a parent.

I think the concept applies to all kinds of leadership. Sometimes, even as parents, it can be tempting to just play the role of babysitter – especially on a bad day if we just decide to turn on the TV and the kids run wild. It takes a lot of effort to be present, to push for the change we seek thoughtfully and tactfully, and to ensure we’re leading from places of wholeness vs. our wounds.

Leadership in every organization or team works like that too. We face babysitter vs. parent choices all the time –

  • Do we make the calls we’d make assuming we’d still be around for 5 years or are we going for the quick win?
  • Do we have the hard conversation or look to keep the peace?
  • Do we try to land that point and risk looking like a fool?
  • How much accountability do we take for what’s happening?

And so on.

Babysitter or parent is a lovely metaphor for the choice that we make. Renter or owner could be another.

Either way, it takes a combination of thoughtfulness, emotional labor, and guts to consistently make good long term choices.

And we are presented with the option not to every time we go to play. It’s just a question of what we habitually default to.

As someone shared in response to my note about standards the other day – First, we make our habits. Then our habits make us.

The sideways day

We recently experienced a day when little went our way. So many things went sideways – it went from “what is going on” to amusing very quickly.

The one nice thing that happened, though, was that none of us lost perspective. So we kept exploring options at every obstacle and attempted to make the most of the circumstances. The mood was upbeat throughout.

In the final analysis, it wasn’t the kind of day we’d call “great.” It couldn’t be. Far too many things had gone wrong.

But, despite the problems, we made something of it.

It reminded us that there are so many circumstances that are out of our control. It also reminded us that we can control our response to them. And that we can make that response constructive – if we choose to do so.

Maybe it was a great day after all.