Reading Time: 6 minutes
The Inner Critic Ruled
I’m going to admit it right out of the gate: I’m a fearful perfectionist.
By some combo of genetics and life experiences, I came to 2020 with this accidental organizing principle. It has guided me through my days, the worst kind of perfectionism. I want what I create to be perfect. Without that perfection, I’m afraid the audience will tell me that what I put out there is faulty or foolish. I’m afraid the audience will tell me there is no need for what I have to say. I’m afraid the audience will cancel me, so I cancel myself first.
It’s common and natural, the Inner Critic. And it’s a vicious cycle of an organizing principle that has often kept me from creating, from putting myself out there.
2020 has been a huge personal, professional, and global transition. I’ve been in deep inquiry about what’s next for me in my creative and professional pursuits. How might I be of service in creating a more beautiful world in my own small way? This fearful perfectionism has been the glaring roadblock. It got me thinking about organizing principles in general and how they define our lives.
In this unprecedented pandemic time, it feels meaningful to examine our default ways of being.
Maybe this year I could get out of my own way.
Maybe doing so would help others do the same.
Maybe we can make something new and beautiful out of the ashes of this tumultuous year.
We Are All In Slipstreams
I think of organizing principles as the slipstream phenomenon. You’re bike racing. You get right behind someone. You are now in a reduced air pressure pocket. The lowered drag helps pull you along. There’s an assistive force that eases your way behind the person before you. The slipstream is any such assistive force drawing something along behind.
The same applies to organizing principles, these beliefs and mindsets. They are like the biker before us, pulling us along. They create a slipstream within which we live out our lives.
Here’s the kicker: once you get into the slipstream, you have to want to get out of it, to get out of it. If you want to change course, it takes will and inner propulsion, because life is easier in the slipstream. It ends up making our choices for us. As such, it simplifies our lives. And we coast along within it.
I call the practice of understanding and changing the organizing principles we coast behind, slipstream attuning. It’s about gaining sovereignty over the forces that draft the course of our days. Our lives take shape, whether we know it or not, by our orientation to them.
Step one is to accept this fact: we are all in slipstreams.
Every day, we commit to the default settings that align us with a force we don’t always mean to choose.
Two Roads Diverged. I Chose the Default.
This fearful perfectionism has shaped me in subtle ways. At times, it has propelled me towards jobs and projects that are tangential to what I truly want to pursue, and safer.
I think back to the first year of my career: 2001. I was back in my hometown of New York City after college, looking for a job. The 9/11 tragedy and its indelible aftermath became the focus for months. It was such a gut punch.
My childhood and college experience had painted a map of the world. I guess it was a bubble. 9/11 burned that map and left me with deep questions. Why had it happened? What could we do? And most importantly, as a nation, as citizens, how had we been complicit in creating the conditions for that horror? What awful system created that consequence?
Needless to say, it was a fraught context for finding a job to start a career.
I was an English major. I loved poetry, philosophy, and writing. I wanted to look for answers to those deep questions about the human condition. Even amidst the tragedy, I wanted to be a champion for the cause of finding or making a better system. But who was I? What did I know? What value could I add? And I needed a job. There was no job description that matched all of that.
In the job hunt I looked for writing-adjacent positions. I thought that it would approximate my purpose. I accepted the first job I was offered. It was in data collection at Zagat Survey (before Google acquired it). I moved quickly from there to the editorial department.
Working there was great. It was a paid job for one. There were kind, witty, and remarkable humans working there. One became my mentor, though he’d air-slap me if he heard me call him that. And it was fun, educational, and super indulgent to suss out the zeitgeist of New York City at that time in my life. To get back to living in a bit of a bubble.
But my enthusiasm for writing restaurant and bar reviews soon waned. This is not to say that a job must be aligned with passion. This is not to say that I should have waited for a more perfect position somewhere else. This is not to say I regret accepting that job.
But now with 2020 hindsight I look back at my decision-making process. The key moment is salient now: I made the choice to look for jobs adjacent to what really lit me up. More importantly, I chose from the narrow selection curated by my own fearful perfectionism. That organizing principle limited my own options. Yes, the culture, the system, the standard guidance of “get a real job” helped me limit those options too. But it was my choice, my process.
Is it the “wrong” choice to take a job that pays well and offers a good learning experience? No, this is not a black-and-white situation. The danger is that we lose sight of how to make sense of our choices. We want agency. We want to feel sovereign. So what did I do? On day one of my job there I started rewriting my calling to fit the job. I started feeling at home on the job. I started telling myself that it was my place, that it lit me up, that it was a real fit. I wanted that fit.
Our daily choices, big and small, become habits. Over a short time, these habits become our behaviors. Our behaviors cement our beliefs. Soon, they are the organizing principles of our days.
These organizing principles can be macro or micro. We make choices thinking we are choosing. The slipstream shrinks our options. We hitch our wagons, often without intending, to an organizing principle that ought not be our guide. We might seek autonomy but find we’ve signed it away without knowing. The best of intentions leads us astray.
We choose daily, or the default chooses us.
If it chooses us, we’re not agents, we’re subjects.
It’s a story old as time.
Where we accept responsibility for their position, we are sovereign. Over time I have come to know my habit of fearful perfectionism. I’ve seen its impact on my joy and presence. I have felt it as if from a distance. And like a seedling sprouting in the soil, I have grown just a touch more assertive over its sway, day by day.
And writing this, shipping out this post, is a step in that growth. It’s the fruit of that growth.
The Calling Is Loud
Many of us have North Stars that guide us through our days. Some are explicit principles to which we attune consciously. They could be spiritual guideposts: a commandment from a book, a spiritual precept from a guru, or an innate tendency toward kindness learned from parents and peers. They could be other meaning-making beacons like dedication to a leadership mantra, a market solution, a compelling brand, or a climate mission.
But many times the organizing principles are hand-me downs from hard knocks and from a system that limits our potential.
These are complex times. The pace of change is frenzied. The systemic threats are looming. The information flows are overwhelming. And many of us have opportunities like never before to be agents of change in our own lives and for the betterment of humanity.
In this day and age, more than ever before in the history of mankind, we need deep thinking, discernment, and reflection just to have a modicum of sovereignty.
The calling is loud: anyone with a hunger to make a difference now is needed. And the tools are at our disposal. We must attune in the slipstream and seek awareness where we can. The quality of our lives and livelihoods depends upon it.
Thanks for reading. If it moves you, thanks in advance for responding, sharing, liking.
Best to you all,