Posts Tagged ‘competence’

He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.

When I was little, and had only learned a bit of English, I wrote a story. In English. I don’t remember what it was about,but I remember writing a sentence “She cried and cried until she had cried anaff enuf e n o u g h.” I tried and tried my best, and eventually had to go and ask my sister how the word was spelled. I found the story a few years ago, and as I read it, I could still remember the frustration I felt trying to get it right.

Coincidentally, it wasn’t the last time I had problems with enough.

Last Christmas, we got a total of eight chocolate boxes as presents. I love chocolate. In early January, I also became intimately reacquainted with the “eurgh” feeling you get after eating a bit too much chocolate a bit too fast. Somewhere in between removing the plastic wrap and not wanting to see another piece of chocolate that week was, again, the “enough chocolate” zone.

Every year, I promise myself I won’t drown myself in duties and activities. Every November and every April I notice I’ve wound myself too tight and bitten off more than I can comfortably chew. Somewhere in between I’ve passed the “enough duties” zone.

This spring, I’ve been doing my teacher training, and as a part of that I’ve had to teach sample lessons. The procedure is that first the trainee and the instructor go through the general topics and contents of the entire stretch of sample lessons. Then the trainee writes a lesson plan proposal, and the instructor gives comments. Based on those comments, the trainee revises the lesson plan and submits it to the instructor before the actual lesson.

Since a trainee only teaches between three to five lessons per group, and a maximum of two groups at a time, there’s theoretically plenty of time to write and revise the plans. If, however, the trainee has little or no experience in teaching that specific topic (which is often the case), writing one plan can take two hours, especially when you need to explicate your goals, timing, and different stages of instruction for each activity.

There is a point where little else can be done to improve the plan. That is the “good enough” stage. Knowing when to stop planning and move on is, I think, at the heart of becoming a teacher who won’t burn herself out three years into the profession.

The difficulty with good enough

For me, the only areas of life where I can honestly trust my judgment of “good enough” are those where I’m honestly pretty skilled. I can evaluate whether a situation requires my all-out effort – if I take an example from my singing context, this would be a situation where we’re recording the vocals for an album.

If it doesn’t require my one hundred per cent commitment and effort – like singing with a friend at a karaoke bar or at a relaxed band practice – I can go with “good enough” and focus more on the social situation or just having fun with the song.

If it was this simple with every area of my life, I would never have problems with “enough”. However, if I’m still learning something, like teaching grammar or organising a theater-in-education workshop, I don’t have the good-enough-meter calibrated properly. I need to put extra effort into consciously evaluating whether or not my actions meet the basic quality criteria.

In the learning stage, the best performance I can possibly muster might reach the general “good enough” standard – if I get lucky. However, the perfectionist in me doesn’t understand I’m in the learning stage, and only sees the shortcomings compared to the perfect standard. Even though I’m way beyond my personal “good enough” stage (and past the point where I could possibly improve it on my own), the little perfectionist urges me to work more, because we’re not quite there yet.

When this happens with about seven different activities – a few different school and work projects, social life, student organization duties, et cetera – it’s no wonder I’m pushed way past my enough zone into the zone of coping and survival. No more energy to spend on having fun or getting creative.

In terms of flow, this is the situation you get when the challenge of the situation exceeds your skills. Instead of a flow experience, you encounter anxiety and stress.

“I’m still learning”

It’s super difficult to admit to yourself that you’re incomplete. It’s even more difficult to admit it to others. Still, it’s the only way (that I know of) to avoid the perfectionist’s trap of being pushed off your enough zone in every single area of your life.

I’ve tried to remind myself of it by repeating “I’m still learning” to myself in stressful, way-past-enough-zone situations, and somehow it seems to help. It gets my focus off the fact that I’m not perfect, and onto the fact that I can calibrate my own “good enough” to my skill level. If I’m doing the best I can with the resources I’ve got, then it’s good enough – be it a lesson plan, a translation, a theater workshop, or something else.

And the fact that I’m still learning doesn’t mean my “good enough” won’t be someone else’s “fabulous”. That is the ultimate goal, isn’t it? To have such a high performance standard in your field of expertise that your “good enough” will knock the socks off everyone? Even when you’re ridiculously skilled, there’s still room for learning.

Enough for now. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, and if any thoughts came up, I’d love it if you shared them in the comments. Until next time – keep catching your own insightings!



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“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
Winston Churchill

I have one or two acquaintances who are self-proclaimed pessimists. As in, whenever they encounter a new situation, they promptly declare that it’ll never work because of this, that and the other reason. And whenever someone challenges their negative attitude, they proudly state that they, as pessimists, will never be disappointed.

As an optimist, it’s really hard for me to relate to this attitude. Which is exactly why I feel I need to try.

In addition to pessimists, I’ve noticed a lot of people have a weird group identity pride about perfectionism.

“How come you haven’t returned your essay yet?”
“Well, as a perfectionist I can’t turn in something that’s not ready yet.”

I’m a kind of recovering perfectionist – I do notice perfectionistic features in my behavior, but I try not to label myself as a perfectionist, at least in public. I’m also recovering in the sense that I no longer feel I have to do everything in one go and deliver an impeccable result.

The Safety of the Label

“Pessimist” behavior and “perfectionist” behavior don’t often resemble each other on the surface.l It occurred to me a few days ago, though, that in some way, perfectionism and pessimism stem from the same source. They’re both about “why bother, if it won’t work out exactly like I want it to”. In other words, a fear of less-than-perfect.

If you’re a perfectionist, you can never really feel satisfied with the results of your actions. Nothing we do in this physical universe will ever achieve perfection. Deep down, most perfectionists know this. Or they think that even if perfection is possible, their own skills will never be enough to achieve it.

For me, the logical train of thought was
1. Perfection is the only thing worth achieving.
2. I will never achieve perfection, no matter how hard I try.
3. Why should I try at all?
End result: the things I was most perfectionistic about were the exact things I’d never get around to.

For a pessimist, the thought process is maybe slightly different. I’d imagine something like
1. New possibility. Hmmm.
2. There are at least seventeen things that can go wrong about this project because I’m not good at/experienced in X, Y, Z.
3. Why bother doing it at all, if it’s going to go wrong anyway?
End result: the things you might learn most from are the ones you’ll reject first.

The best part of such a label – pessimist, perfectionist – is that it gives you (me) a ready-made pattern to deflect scary challenges with. It keeps you (me) in the safe realm of no disappointments. It also keeps you from achieving anything of any value, though. And that might lead to a bigger disappointment in, say, ten years’ time.

Scratching the Label

I’m not saying everyone should jump at every chance to experience failure and disappointment. What I’m saying is that identifying as a perfectionist or a pessimist may affect your behavior so that you can’t move forward. If this is the case, it might be a good idea to try and scratch off that label a bit.

A lot of what I’ve done (and am still doing) to recover from my perfectionism comes from Havi and FlyLady. I’ll try to give you a few ideas here, but I’m definitely not saying I came up with all this. I don’t know if these things work for pessimism, too, but I’m guessing they might – if you actually do them. 🙂

1. The label is not you.

The first thing I’ve learned about teaching and leading a group is that when you give  feedback, you should always criticize the behavior, not the person.

Telling someone they are stupid, lazy or impossible doesn’t really encourage them to change. That’s who they are in your eyes, apparently, and no amount of work will alter the situation.

If you tell them they are behaving in a way that is unacceptable or less than desirable, you’re giving them a chance to change their behavior without threatening or defining their actual identity. You can still give them positive feedback as well and not end up contradicting yourself and confusing the other person.

This is where the self-proclaiming comes into play. If you always go behind “I’m a pessimist, I can’t X”, you’re rooting the thought deeper and deeper into your mind. A simple change in the sentence – “I tend to think like a pessimist, therefore I think I can’t X” gives you a choice. You can either continue thinking like a pessimist, or you can change your behavior and try thinking like an optimist for a while. You don’t necessarily have to. The choice alone makes a huge difference.

2. It’s a fear. Hear it out.

This idea comes straight from Havi. If you’re afraid of less-than-perfect, then somewhere in your life it was useful for you to be afraid and avoid less-than-perfect. The fear is there to protect you from something.

Admitting that it’s a fear, of course, is a big step. It’s not considered cool to be afraid. It’s a lot cooler to just despise, look down on, not care about or scorn a person or an activity than it is to be afraid. Depending on the culture, some people would rather saw off a limb than admit they’re afraid of the pain. Or they’d rather insult a loved one than admit to them they’re afraid of losing them.

Recognizing the fear doesn’t necessarily require other immediate action. Except maybe going to read Havi’s article about the fear knight. And then slowly considering if there’s a deal you can make with the fear so you can take small steps forward.

3. Something about the big picture

This goes under the perfectionism heading, but I guess pessimists can relate to this as well.

Holidays are coming, and with them the stress to clean out your house. A wonderful chance for every perfectionist to guilt themselves into a burnout. Everything has to be clean, since that’s how Mom used to do it.

A few days ago, I read my favorite holiday cleaning tip in the newspaper. It comes from the Finnish Marttas, although it might be a universal one as well.

You only need to clean out the kitchen closets if you plan to spend your Christmas in them.

Think about the past month. Was there anything you wished you’d done but didn’t, because your perfectionism or pessimism stopped you? Was there anything you wish you’d participated in? What were those things?

Then think about the things you’re really proud of achieving this past month. How did your perfectionism or pessimism feature in that picture?

Finally, think of the moments you were really happy during the past month. How did perfectionism or pessimism come to play there?

I can’t give you a stock answer on how to get rid of the perfectionistic or pessimistic behavior. As I said, I’m still struggling with it myself. But I guess considering the big picture – what will stick with you in a month, a year, ten years – could be a good way to communicate with the fear and put it into perspective.

I don’t even remember the essays or projects I was stressing about three years ago. I don’t remember one single instance when I was happy I didn’t participate in a project or a trip because it failed.

I do remember, however, the thrill I get when I realize all my projects are handed in and I have the weekend off. Or the satisfaction of a horribly difficult job pretty well done. Or the moments we’ve had people over and enjoyed their company, even if there were dust bunnies in the corners and a pile of dirty clothes piling on top of the hamper.

Whenever you hear yourself saying the words “I can’t”, it’s time to stop and think. Do you want to? Is this important? Is there a little itty bitty piece you can do? These are the things you might want to say to your fear and see if it’ll shift a bit.

My perfectionist side is urging me to write a wonderful closing paragraph that draws the essay together perfectly. I’ll gently remind my fear that I can always edit the essay later, and that if my readers want to clarify some point, they can do so in the comments.

Thanks for stopping by again, and until we meet again – keep catching your own insightings.



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This is a series of posts about motivation, based on Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s Self Determination Theory. In each post, I will talk about one of the three key needs that are linked with intrinsic motivation: Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness.

1. a feeling of enthusiasm or interest that makes you determined to do something.
2. a reason for doing something.
(Macmillan English Dictionary)

“I just can’t do it, Captain. I don’t have the power!”
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

It’s no shocker that getting yourself motivated isn’t always a piece of cake. One of the big elements of studying to be a teacher is figuring out the things that will, or will not, keep students motivated. The plus side is that in the process, you (i.e. me) might find something to apply on your (my) own studies as well.

One such thing is the concept of basic needs that, when met, contribute to motivation. Say I’m feeling like there’s absolutely nothing that could ever compel me to do this thing I really have to do.

Hypothetically speaking.

Like the hypothetical mountain of dishes fermenting in the kitchen, or the essay I have to write, or that e-mail I was supposed to work on two nights ago. Or any item on my Todoodlist, for that matter. Man, there’s a bunch of stuff on there.

This is when I summon the Three Motivation Musketeers to the rescue! [insert appropriate jingle] Here they come, eager and intent to save me from the horrors of demotivation. The first Musketeer to draw his imaginary sword *zzing* is Competence.

If the problem is skill, there’s mostly one of two things going on. Either the task is so horribly and overwhelmingly difficult that I lose hope just thinking of doing it. Master’s Thesis, anyone? It could also be so ridiculously easy that I just can’t come up with the necessary energy to do it, choosing to spend my time doing something more inspiring.

When you’re happily in between those two extremes, you’re likely to achieve the elusive flow Csikszentmihalyi was all about. (For the record: I did have to check and double-check the spelling.) When your skills more or less match the challenge you’re facing, you’re home free.

The thing is, increasing my skill level is not really a viable solution for an acute problem (with the exception of using Shiva Nata to totally activate my brain, of course). So whenever Competence steps up to fight my battle (gently and nonviolently, of course), he’s not really increasing my skill levels as he is tweaking the challenge I’m facing.

Just Too Darn Hard

Daunting task ahead? No way you could ever ever do it? Pick one thing and work on it for fifteen minutes. This is what FlyLady is all about, and her half a million fans can’t all be desperately wrong. Is it the Master’s Thesis? Spend fifteen minutes writing everything and anything that comes to mind about the topic. No topic? Fifteen minutes on brainstorming what it is that you’d like to research.

My Mom and Dad are considering moving house after living in their apartment for twenty years. Imagine the amount of stuff they have, then multiply it by two. That’s how much there is. Whenever I have an afternoon off, I’ll go over, we’ll have some coffee, after which I’ll set the timer for fifteen minutes and we’ll attack (again, gently and nonviolently) a dresser drawer, a bookshelf, the linen closet, the sauna… (Yes, they have a sauna they’ve been using as storage space. That much stuff.)

We’ve sent a lot of stuff to the local equivalent of Goodwill. Although there’s still a lot to do, the biggest change has been my Mom’s attitude. Before, she’d spend her energy fretting about how she never gets around to decluttering and woe is me, for the house looks horrible. Now, she’s actually getting something done. Just yesterday she called, said she was decluttering a bit, and that she’d found a piece of retro clothing – did I want it for my drama prop collection or should she just toss it? I’d call that motivation right there.

Just Can’t Be Bothered

The other extreme is the task that you just can’t be bothered to even start, because… Blah. Boring. Would much rather be doing something else. Enter the pile of dishes fermenting in the kitchen. Not exactly rocket science there, quite the contrary.

My two best self-delusion i.e. motivation-increasing tips for getting around to the apathy-inducing tasks:
1) Multi-tasking and
2) Racing the clock.

They both work because they increase the challenge I’m facing, although in a different way.

1) Multi-tasking

This is really the only reason I’d purposefully multi-task. In everything else, the end result is more or less slipshod and half-assed. On the other hand, if doing the dishes (hypothetically, again) won’t give me any mental challenge whatsoever, then it won’t affect my ability to e.g. listen to an educational podcast, like French for beginners, either.

In fact, it’s giving me the perfect excuse to just spend ten minutes listening to the podcast and actually repeating the model phrases (something I avoid doing when listening to the podcast on the metro, for obvious reasons).

This also applies the other way around. If you’re sitting in front of the TV for your favorite show anyway, why not fold clothes, stretch, or do some other boring and mechanical task. Too much effort during the show? There’s always the commercial break.

2) Racing the clock

This is another FlyLady tip. Say the living room looks like a frat house on a Sunday morning, minus the passed-out people lying on the floor. If I set my timer for five minutes and start clearing the coffee table, the “competition” will spark me up up to get it done in that time. Without the positive time stress, I’d just be sitting on the couch, looking at the mess and poking at the nearest thing out of place. (Again, this is purely hypothetical. Our living room hasn’t looked like that in days.)

For some people, this is the reason they leave everything to the last minute. “I work better under stress.” “I thrive three hours before a deadline.” If you recognise yourself, and it totally works for you, no problem. If you don’t actually enjoy starting every single task at three a.m. on the night before the hand-in date, try creating a “fake” deadline by using a timer.

What if tweaking the challenge doesn’t help?

Some tasks are right up your alley in terms of challenge. Any more difficult, and it’s overwhelming. Any easier, and you’re yawning. And yet you’re not in the throes of the flow, creating a masterpiece or making someone’s life better. In fact, you’re this close to calling it a day and finding out if anyone has anything interesting to say on Twitter. Competence has fought a brave battle, but the Daunting Task and the Horrible Demotivation are putting up a fair amount of resistance.

It’s time to bring in the second Motivation Musketeer – Autonomy. Tune in tomorrow to find out what happens next – Will I Ever Manage To Get Anything Done? [insert dramatic jingle]

And until we meet again, keep catching your own insights!



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