Let’s get this out of the way:
We can’t be the best at everything.
For high achievers, that can be difficult to accept. We strive so hard to embody excellence in our work that settling for competency in other areas of our lives just feels wrong.
Here’s the thing though – being okay with being okay is crucial to fostering what makes us great.
Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. In one of his classic blog posts, Eyal reveals that the key to enjoying what we love comes not from thinking like an expert, but learning like an amateur.
Amateurs operate on passion. They have a goal they want to achieve – lose weight, write a book, build a car, whatever – and the ones that succeed do so in incremental steps. As Eyal puts it, “an amateur is a consistent practitioner of a healthful habit“.
The initial steps in the process are small. A budding swimmer looking to achieve a certain time in the 500m freestyle, for instance, doesn’t just jump in the pool every day expecting to hit their target. Instead, they might look to do something as simple as increasing the amount of laps they do a day.
This is what Eyal calls MEA – Minimal Enjoyable Action. An MEA is an action that strengthens our habit without diluting the pleasure we receive from the activity. We enjoy it, so it feels almost effortless, and therefore more easily becomes a consistent practice.
The swimmer returns to the pool every day, and every day they do a few more laps. Not only does this boost their stamina, allowing them to swim faster and stronger, but by consistently meeting their targets, they are also strengthening their willpower.
Before too long, they will be ready to try for their target time without the monumental pressure (and, often, the crush of defeat) that comes from performing every action with the intent of being the best.
Challenge is important. Challenge encourages us to grow. But not everything in life should be a challenge, especially not a challenge to be the best at everything you put your mind to. Not only is that unhealthy, it’s unreasonable.
If you just want to play guitar so you can perform for a few friends, you don’t need to have the skill of Carlos Santana. Playing basketball on the weekend is fun, but not if you’re busy obsessing over how to play like Kobe or Shaq.
To create great work takes focus and dedication. It is in this endeavour that you should commit to the pursuit of excellence.
In everything else, it’s fine to be fine. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can spend more time enjoying what makes us happy in balance with that which makes us great.