Make Peace with Imperfection

I was given a book called “The Practicing Mind” by Thomas Sterner many years back. I hadn’t read it but it popped into my head the other day. I decided to pull it from the shelf, dust it off, and crack it open. The main theme of the book is this idea that getting better at anything, whether it be brushing your teeth or learning to the play the piano, takes concentrated practice. And you need to stay present in the moment of your practice, with your mind unaware of anything else you need to do in the future.

The chapter I read today got me thinking about my running career. I was an accomplished high school middle and long distance runner. My talent allowed me to run track and field and cross country for the University of Illinois from 2006-2010. My goal was to run under four minutes in the mile. I came very close, running four minutes and eight seconds while at Illinois.

I have always felt some level of regret for not accomplishing my goal. At the time there were only roughly 250 Americans who had accomplished the effort and it was a threshold that would make me a lot more competitive in the Big Ten and in the country. I felt that one mile was the perfect distance for my talent and work ethic. And my coach agreed, running me in the event at my freshman Big Ten indoor track and field meet when clearly it looked like I’d be more competitive running the 800 meter dash at the time. After a promising start to my college running career I succumbed to some injuries that effectively ended my competitive running career, including a surgery to repair a ligament in my ankle.

But as I think about it now, I would have had regrets no matter what I had accomplished. If I would have run under four minutes, I would have just readjusted my goal to three minutes fifty five seconds. If I would have won the Big Ten mile, I would have readjusted my goal to winning the regional championship and then the national championship. If I would have run in the Olympic trials, I would have readjusted my goal to run in the Olympics. Thomas Sterner illustrates this in the book with his musical career:

“As I started packing up my music, a crumpled slip of paper fell out of one of my music books. It was a five-year music plan I had made when I was nineteen years old. I was twenty-two now, and I had completely forgotten about it. I sat down and began reading the list to myself. What I read took me by surprise and made a lasting impression. I had accomplished everything on the list in fewer than three years, not five. In fact, I had done things musically I couldn’t even imagine doing when I was nineteen, and yet I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t feel any happier with my music or any better as a musician. My horizon was moving away from me.”

And…

“I became aware that there was no point of musical excellence out there that would free me from the feeling that I needed to get better.”

My goal was to break the mile record in eighth grade. I eventually broke the record by 17 seconds. My goal as a freshman in high school was to run at the state meet in the 800 meter dash. I accomplished that goal. My goals in cross country as a sophomore in high school were to win the conference title and run at the state meet. I won the conference meet, regional meet, sectional meet, and ran at the state meet. That same year my goal in track and field was to run in the final heat of the state meet for the 800 meter dash. Incredibly I finished 5th in the final heat. My goal my freshman year of college was to make the final heat of the indoor Big Ten meet one mile run. I reached the final heat and scored for our team, finishing 8th place.

What I realize now is that I felt exactly the same accomplishing each one of these goals. There was no actual summit that I would have reached with my talent. A feeling of regret would have existed no matter what because of the way that I had previously felt about my running. But through the process of thinking about this over the years, and the process of reading wonderful content like what Mr. Sterner has provided me, I’m starting to change my mind about how I feel about it.

The picture above is of our 2008 Illinois cross country team. In this picture are the best friends that I’ve made in my life. Because we went through the process of running together, eating together, going out together, living together. We were able to truly know each other and care for each other. I’ve had access to job opportunities because of these guys. I’ve mourned losses with these guys and they’ve mourned losses with me.

I also learned a lot of discipline from my time spent in the sport. I was able to graduate from a great school because of the sport. And some of my most enjoyable days were spent running with a specific group of guys in my favorite forest preserve. I’m more grateful for it all now that I understand that it wasn’t possible for me to have perfection with the sport. It was false every time I said to myself “Things will be perfect once I accomplished this particular goal.” I’m at peace with it all. And I’m starting to pick the sport up again, which always for unlimited possibilities as long as I focus on the journey and understand there is no destination.

This mindset should help to drive anything we do. It’s not possible to reach the summit of being “world’s greatest dad.” You’ll never say “once I receive this particular promotion I will be happy.” There won’t be a time where any amount of money will be enough to make you feel secure. The only way to true perfection is to engage with and enjoy the process. Be present with all that you do. There is no summit. The horizon always moves away. I believe we can find true peace if we start to work this way.

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