Much of my work as an executive coach and with my MBA students at Stanford involves helping people grapple with the belief that their life should be different in some way because it fails to conform to a set of expectations--their own or those of other people--or that they should (or shouldn't) pursue a particular course of action because it's demanded (or forbidden) by some preconceived narrative that they're supposed to follow.
These mental models are hard to overcome even when they're outdated and counterproductive, as I'm all too aware from my doing battle with my own. For example, when I stepped into my first leadership role after business school I still thought leaders succeeded by having the best ideas and seeing them prevail, which led me into a series of unhelpful conflicts with my board of directors. (I became much more effective after Vince Stehle, a member of my board, encouraged me to invest in myself and begin working with an executive coach--some great advice that had far-reaching implications.)
Our mental models aren't restricted to our professional lives, of course--I have a set of tenacious ones associated with Christmas. I don't have a overly fraught relationship with the holiday--I'm not religious, but I appreciate the seasonal encouragement to be more charitable and open-hearted, and I'm not particularly materialistic, but I like to give Amy some nice jewelry and get a few bottles of good liquor. I have plenty of nice Christmas memories from childhood, and I enjoy the handful of traditions that have survived into my adulthood--putting up a tree, baking kugel (yes, I know it's Jewish--it's a long story.)
But at the same time Christmas can stir up a number of unhappy feelings in me, typically related to a desire for things to be "perfect" in some way and the disappointment when they inevitably fall short. Most of the year I find my actual life very fulfilling--but at Christmas I can find myself ruminating over alternative versions in which I have closer relationships with my family, or a richer social network, or...something. I've spent plenty of time working on letting go of my perfectionism, and while there's room for improvement, most of the year I feel good about the progress I've made--but at Christmas I can get easily frustrated when something doesn't live up to my expectations or go according to plan.
That started to happen to me this past weekend. I had procrastinated and was unable to get a gift to my family back East in time for the holiday. I fell into a funk and spent Saturday afternoon feeling pissed off and sorry for myself. Then Amy said something that stuck with me: "What are you always saying to people? Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, right?"
I realized that I was letting my mental models about Christmas and perfection bite me in the ass, and it was time to bite back. As I wrote last summer...
Perfection is worse than boring; it's stagnation. Perfection rarely motivates, and it often demotivates. It keeps us from accepting "good enough" and making it better. Coaching is about rejecting ideal visions of the perfect--the perfect day, the perfect job, the perfect life, the perfect self--and seeing "the perfect" for what it really is: the enemy of the good.
So what did it mean to bite back? I thought about what I'd do on an ordinary Sunday at any other time of year. I went to the gym and had a great workout. I came home and cooked Catalan stew with picada (although I use pork shoulder instead of short ribs). I put on Sean Hayes, Alabama Shakes and Elmore James. I tried a new cocktail, the Triborough, from Jim Meehan and Chris Gall's extraordinary book. And I had an amazing dinner with Amy. In short, I enjoyed all the gifts that surround me every day of the year--at least right now: great health, great music, great food and drink, a great partner to share it all with.
I'll wake up tomorrow and will be glad it's Christmas--the seasonal spirit, the gifts, the traditions all have value and meaning to me. But I'm not worrying about whether this particular holiday turns out to be some idealized form of "CHRISTMAS!!!", and I'm newly attuned to how that unreal vision influences my perspective on life in general. Our mental models have teeth, but I'm biting back.
Photo by Andres Rodriguez. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.