Overused Strengths Actually Stifle Greatness: The 10 Lessons of Imperfect Practice

image of person learning to practice yoga with a red sky in the backgroundYogis have something there when they say they are in yoga “practice.” Even the most experienced, bendy, zen master yogi still calls it a practice. I honour, respect, and so deeply value that kind of humility. Perhaps more to the point, the humanity of this. After all, who among us are truly masters with nothing left to learn or grow, even in the realms where we are the most proficient? Who among us hasn’t failed, floundered and been frustrated?

The concept of “practice” versus a goal and defined designations is particularly helpful when we turn our minds and souls to working on things that are pretty darn tough. New habits, challenging our assumptions, clearing out the behaviours that may have “got us here but won’t get us there” (to quote Marcus Buckingham’s infamous book) requires even more profound levels of self-compassion. Self-compassion, I’d argue, is more accessible when we are “practicing” versus “perfecting”; it’s trialling a shift versus committing to a change.

Confessions of Imperfect Practice

image of man on beach behind palm trees learning to relaxOkay, let’s up the stakes with some vulnerability here, my tough nut to crack: hard work. I find it hard work to break free of perpetually working hard.

Here has been my concerted focus this last year: EMBRACE REST AND PLAY.

You might be thinking, really? Is that a goal? Is that even a practice? That sounds fun!

Yes! It does to me too! So why when I want to play, and I know I need rest and decide that summer is the perfect time to get more rest and have more play, I still find myself in the office until 6 pm. I work for myself, for heaven’s sake!

Because it’s not logistical, the most challenging shifts within ourselves are those intertwined with our identity – our sense of how we know ourselves to be – and therefore, our family of origin, successes and values all roll into an essential and sticky sense of self.

So what contributes to this identity (and if it’s “ours,” why can’t we control how it gets activated?) Often it stems from:

  • It’s hard-wired into values embedded in our family of origin. If my family had a mantra – the words that would go on on our family tombstones (forgive the grim analogy) – it would say “here lay hardworking people”.

  • It has been given the societal stamp of approval. “Busy” is a badge of honour.

  • It’s contributed to our success. It’s hard to deprioritize something that is reinforced and revered. I find myself saying things like:

  • “It got me to where I am today.”
  • “Work hard and then play.”
  • “You get if you’ve earned it.”

When the Unapparent Becomes Apparent

image of woman with head on desk by laptopI started to notice how “hard work” is actually more of a liability than an asset was when I slammed headfirst into not one but two burnouts in 2021. I realized that this “functional” quality of hard work and putting rest and play on pause, became “dysfunctional” when there were conditions on if, when, and how I could rest and play even when it was clear to everyone including myself that I desperately needed it.

The word I had to start embracing was “enough.” Enough wine, enough books written, enough courses created, enough hours in the office in general. To embrace “enough,” meaning that rest didn’t have to be “earned,” and play wasn’t related to “then/later.”

You can see why this is practice for me, right? This would not be a switch you can just flip and poof! Rest and play are my jam, and hard work is taking a backseat! (Can you imagine what a terrible backseat driver hard work would be?!)

More than a Goal

A hyper-focus on hard work can inadvertently mean:

  • You deserve it if you work hard
  • Rest and play are not for everyday
  • Feel better by doing better
  • Sick, tired, slow = push on, work harder (otherwise it’s a sign of weakness, ungratefulness, unfairness…)

Is it any wonder this intentional practice was spurred on from burnout?

I am super proud of my family, what we have accomplished and the grit from a few generations ago being farmers who lost their farm to financial independence. I also don’t want to vilify where my work ethic came from. Part of the sticky issue was that I had constructed a “story” that I’m ungrateful for, even redefining my relationship with hard work.

I am finally realizing:

  • I do not need to feel guilty that my life was not as hard as theirs
  • That working too hard isn’t sustainable, and I’m lucky to have a choice, unlike past generations of McVanels
  • Everyone needs rest and play (it’s not just for vacations!)

A Lesson from Yogis…Imperfect Practice

Although it’s sadly been since COVID started that I was in a guided yoga class with a practicing yogi, I fondly remember the guidance they have provided me over the years. Here’s an excellent article about the key lessons from yoga, and I think every single one of them makes for excellent professional advice.

In a nutshell:

  • image of woman on beach learning to practice yogaStop the judgement
  • Appreciate yourself
  • Remember to breathe
  • Release the tension
  • Lose the ego
  • Be interoceptive
  • Set the intentions
  • Feel the feelings
  • Be patient
  • Quiet the mind

I’ll keep working on the practice of work and play with a strong emphasis on the area of stretch for me – play – and in fact, I’m finishing this article, whereas it’s 5:14, and my book and bae are calling.

I invite you to challenge me when I default into hard work, grin and bear it; grit will get us through it mode. And in return, how can I help you with trying to be more compassionate with yourself?

I’ll keep practicing and embracing the flip side of failing when I stumble. Here’s to imperfect practice. Cheers.

Check out these resources for ideas about self-compassion and allow yourself some downtime:

“There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”

– Mother Teresa

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