The more I live, the more I’m persuaded that God is cool with our mistakes.
I had this truth reaffirmed yesterday when, for the fifth time in five years, I faced the extremely scary task of designing a book cover.
I’m not an artist – I’m a word nerd. My world is writing and editing.
I’ve often compared writing books to the experience of crawling fifty miles while licking the pavement all the way.
It’s a gauntlet, for sure. But book covers are something else entirely. How are you going to represent three hundred or six hundred pages of your life’s most precious lessons and experiences on a single, silly, graphics-heavy page?
My solution is to go right ahead and design the worst cover I can imagine.
In support of this approach, I can cite Swami Kriyananda’s constant admonition to us about creativity. It’s a simple formula: pray, create, check in with more prayers, and create some more.
Here’s my first, highly inappropriate, completely wrong, really crap book cover. Go ahead and laugh. I did.
Now then, there’s no way in whole wide world that I would ever let such a doggy bow-wow production out into the wild.
Well, huh! What now?
I’ve made a highly personal adjustment to Swami’s simple formula for producing creative work. “Pray. Then create something very ugly. Then get so utterly desperate that you’re able to pray sincerely, with gut-level fervor. Now create again.”
Here’s the book cover post desperate prayers. (The back cover text is a placeholder for-position-only. I had to put the photo of Swami in sombrero somewhere on the cover, because it’s the subject of a story in the book and printing book interiors with color photos is expensive.)
God is cool with our mistakes and weaknesses. As Swami Kriyananda never tired of reminding us, they are an absolutely essential step in our spiritual growth.
I had this reaffirmed continuously in my long, inglorious career as a distance runner.
If you suffer from painful perfectionism in your creative work, perhaps the following short article will help. I wrote it years ago for the Joyful Athlete website.
Stop beating yourself up for your “bad” runs.
“I’ve been running X years. I ought to run well every time out the door. It’s my fault when it doesn’t happen.”
If running teaches us anything, it’s that our training schedule will seldom match the somewhat more messy entries in our training diary.
In time, most runners learn that “perfect” is an unrealistic goal. It really is the enemy of the good. I remember a 50-mile race where the organizers failed to deliver our drop-bags to the aid stations. For a moment I was mighty pissed about not having my personal fuels. But then a happier thought entered my mind: “Adapt and survive!” I scarfed-up some nice goodies from the aid table and finished the race just fine.
In a November 1980 Psychology Today article, “The Perfectionist’s Script for Self-Defeat,” David D. Burns, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, described his well-researched finding that people who hold modest expectations of themselves are happier and more successful in their work and relationships than those who can never let themselves feel truly happy unless they’ve achieved their self-set standard of perfection.
The lesson? If you want to be a happy runner, stop chasing rainbows.
We all make mistakes in our training. When it happens, the most productive response is to see our mistakes as learning experiences.
Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, described the perils of perfectionism in a Boston Globe article, “The Bright Side of Wrong.”
We don’t get things wrong because we’re uninformed and lazy and stupid and evil. We get things wrong because we get things right. The more scientists understand about cognitive functioning, the more it becomes clear that our capacity to err is utterly inextricable from what makes the human brain so swift, adaptable, and intelligent….
If you are a native English speaker, you figured out within the first several years of your life that you should add the suffix -ed to form a past-tense verb. This was a brilliant guess. It’s largely correct, it taught you a huge number of words in one fell swoop, and it was a lot less painful than separately memorizing the past tense of every verb in the English language. But it also meant that, sooner or later, you said things like “drinked” and “thinked” and “runned.” You got a huge number of things right, at the price of getting a certain number of things wrong.
Progress comes fastest, not by getting it right every time but by playing the averages, and training in the right direction. If you’re running in the ballpark of good training most of the time, you should probably celebrate your successes. Given the vagaries of weather, injuries, illness, diet, sleep, previous training, etc, “approximately” is often plenty good.
Seymour Papert, an MIT professor who invented the Logo programming language for kids, believes that learning to program teaches children a priceless lesson that he calls “the debugging approach to life.”
Papert points out that even grown-up professional programmers routinely make 100 or more errors per 1000 lines of code they write. Mistakes are an accepted part of the process. Papert believes this is how we should view our real-life mistakes – as necessary steps in learning to succeed.
A study by sports psychologist Thomas Tutko in the early 1970s found that second-tier professional badminton players tended to beat themselves up for their mistakes. These were players who never quite managed to rise to the world-class rank. The top-tier players, on the other hand, noticed their mistakes dispassionately and corrected them, then moved on, wasting no energy on anger or regrets.
Perfect runs? Like butterflies, when we chase them they have a way of receding over the horizon. It’s generally more productive to honor the ordinary runs that take us partway there.