When you want to learn a new skill or start a new habit, the most important step is to just get started. For someone who wants to be a runner, the number one action is to go outside and run for a few minutes. Unfortunately we often get distracted by all kinds of questions. What clothes should I run in? What kind of watch do I need? What about shoes? What diet? The right answers to these questions can help you run better. There is a lot of information available and you can keep reading for hours. And that’s exactly the pitfall that can prevent us from starting our journey: endlessly gathering info in search for the perfect approach.
But you’re never done designing the perfect approach. And if you wait for perfect, you’ll only delay the commencement of that project or change you want so badly. Even the best data has no value if you don’t use it (or as Julien Smith put it: there isn’t a single thing that’s made better by starting tomorrow). Sometimes you see this happening to people around you. Maybe you’ve seen yourself do it. The reason for this post is that I repeatedly struggle and fall for this trap myself because of a trait that’s a part of me whether I want it or not: perfectionism. This sometimes causes me to endlessly evaluate and prepare. But if you want to achieve something, especially a new habit or lifestyle, the most important step is to just start. Want to be a runner? Go out and run. Was there something wrong with your last run? Then act on that experience and go figure out why those clothes didn’t work, why your shins hurt or what could have caused that blister on your toe. Make changes accordingly and keep running.
Back to that word: perfectionism. I largely see this as one of my own handicaps. You don’t like doing half work, so you spend a lot of time preparing. Sometimes I find myself stuck in analysis paralysis, spending hours on research without undertaking any action. A different way of thinking would help prevent this from happening all the time. But what thought pattern would you need to change? In a podcast I heard James Altucher and his guest discuss an alternative approach: ready, fire, aim. But wait, aren’t those last two words in the wrong order? That was exactly their message: where we usually spend time to meticulously take aim, they just fire a first attempt and processes the outcome for a better aimed second try. The quote almost sounds comical, but it helps them to skip the step of endless analysis and exchange it for information from real life experience.
With this approach you’re gonna make mistakes and that is scary. If you haven’t examined all the details you cannot possibly expect a perfect performance. If you’re a perfectionist like me, maybe the lack of knowing all the details is holding you back from starting something new. But for these situations, all variations of this quote apply: perfect is the enemy of done. If you really care about achieving something, the most important step can be just to start.
I naturally never liked failing, but this mindset embraces failing because it gives you information to do it better next time. I experienced this during last month’s 12 hour run. Around 4am I got too sleepy to continue, but had been so naïve that I hadn’t brought any sleeping gear whatsoever. Luckily the kind crew of another runner shared a chair and a blanket. Next I didn’t know how to incorporate sleep in a race and wasted a lot of time, ending up not running for almost an hour. I’d be happier if I hadn’t made this stupid mistake of coming so unprepared. I would have loved a flawless debut on the 12 hour, and regret this performance a little bit. But upon further thought I decided to embrace it, because every imperfect task you do teaches you more than the perfect one you didn’t do. I got ready, I fired.. And now the aiming can begin, meaning I’m gonna train when sleepy or tired. If you want to achieve something but you don’t have much knowledge yet, start with what you do know and learn along the way.
In hindsight I’ve done a number of important runs without perfect preparations. I’ve had to pay the price for many preparatory mistakes, but they all wrote lasting memories or opened a door to a next chapter. Like my first marathon, where I didn’t have a GPS watch or heart rate monitoring equipment, and no idea if eating or drinking while running was possible at all. A ravenous hunger and a headache from dehydration, but I made it. During my first ultra (53k) I went off the grid when my phone battery died after 19k. My short running gear left me shivering in the freezing circumstances during the initial hour of my first 60k. But all these runs left vivid memories and helped break personal limits, and above all gave valuable insights that have made me a better runner since. While preparations were necessary, it turned out perfection was not required.
These examples concern running, but the battle with perfectionism can present itself in any activity you’re new to. Don’t get stuck aiming, but consider firing a first shot. To conclude, here’s a podcast excerpt with David Goggins that I sometimes listen to when my inner perfectionist gets stuck in analysis. I think it neatly summarizes the message of this post:
Stop asking these questions, that’s how. Most of us sit back and say ‘I wish I could do that’, and we wait, and we ask more questions. I get it, you gotta have knowledge. Knowledge is power. But how much knowledge do you need? You can go on the internet right now and figure out… everything you need right there at your service. We waste tons of time not starting our journey, for asking so many questions on how to start that journey. Get an idea, start walking and figure it out as you go.
Julien Smith’s short blogpost: Life doesn’t start tomorrow
The Rich Roll Podcast – The best of 2017 (part 1), where David Goggins is featured powerfully in the first 10 minutes (official site, Spotify. I skipped some words for readability but tried to stay true to the audio). It’s an excerpt from this full episode, highly recommended: #266: Navy SEAL David Goggins (official site, Spotify).
Photo: me at the Sittard 12 hour run, © André Mingneau, March 19th 2023