What I Do When it Feels Like My Work Isn’t Good Enough

In the beginning, it was easy. There was no pressure. There were no outside eyes. There were no expectations.

When I started writing, I wrote in a private document for over a year before I published my first article on JamesClear.com. I wrote about what I wanted to write about. I wrote because I wanted to get my thoughts down. I wrote because I felt like I needed to write.

After a few months of sharing my work publicly, things began to change.

As I developed an audience, I noticed that I began judging my work. In the beginning, I was just happy to get my ideas down on paper, but now I felt like they had to be “good” ideas. I began comparing new articles to my most popular ones. I was constantly measuring everything I wrote against my internal standard of good and bad—even though I didn’t know exactly what that meant.

Thankfully, I didn’t let my self-doubt stop me from writing. I figured this was part of the creative process for anyone who created things consistently. I told myself that judgment and self-doubt was just a toll that I had to pay to continue the journey and create better work.

In a way, this is true. Everyone deals with self-doubt—artists, creators, entrepreneurs, athletes, parents. But in a way, I was wrong. Self-doubt is not a cost you have to pay to become better. Let’s talk about why.

The Inner Game of Tennis

I just finished reading a book that has been on my reading list for quite some time, The Inner Game of Tennis (audiobook) by Timothy Gallwey. It is a book about life, not just tennis.

In particular, there was one quote from Gallwey that made me pause and rethink my early months of writing and self-doubt.

“When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless.” We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.”
—Timothy Gallwey1

Ambition and contentment are not opposites, but we often make the mistake of thinking that they are incompatible. On the one hand, experts tell us that we should be mindful, focused on the present, and content with our lives regardless of the results. On the other hand, coaches and champions tell us that successful people out work everyone else, that we must never be satisfied, and that complacency is undesirable.

The rose seed, however, is both content and ambitious.

As Gallwey says, at no point are we dissatisfied with the current state of the rose seed. It is perfectly all right at each moment. Yet, it is also incredibly ambitious. The rose seed never stops growing. It is constantly seeking to get to the next level. Every day it is moving forward, and yet, every day it is just as it should be.

Is Judgment Required for Success?

Is judgment required for success? Do you have to be unhappy with your work to discover the drive to become better? Does judging ourselves make us any better?

I don’t think it does.

Those tasks are easier said than done, of course. When I find myself falling into the trap of judging my work, here’s a strategy I use to pull myself back on track: I try to remember that each outcome is simply a point along the spectrum of repetitions.

goals vs repetitions

Here are a few examples…

Writing: In this case, repetitions might be “number of articles published”

  • Point A is getting your first 1,000 readers.
  • Point B is landing a book deal.
  • Point C is speaking internationally about your work.

Entrepreneurship: In this case, repetitions might be “years in business” or “number of sales calls”

  • Point A is making $10,000.
  • Point B is making $100,000.
  • Point C is making $1,000,000.

Weightlifting: In this case, repetitions might literally be “squat repetitions” or “number of sprints”

  • Point A is squatting 100 pounds.
  • Point B is squatting 300 pounds.
  • Point C is squatting 500 pounds.

Photography: In this case, repetitions might be “number of photos taken” or “number of galleries called”

  • Point A is selling your first print.
  • Point B is making a full-time living from your work.
  • Point C is showing your work in your first gallery.

Every outcome you can achieve is simply a point along the spectrum of repetitions and time. The number of repetitions you need to put in for a particular goal is dependent on your circumstances, your experiences, your training, and many other factors. Everyone’s spectrum of repetitions is unique: your spectrum is different than mine.

It is important to realize is that just because you are at Point A and someone else is at Point C that does not mean you are doing bad work. In fact, there is no bad work or good work. Just as there is no such thing as a rose seed that is a bad rose bush. There are just points in time and repetitions completed.

Release the desire to define yourself as good or bad. Release the attachment to any individual outcome. If you haven’t reached a particular point yet, there is no need to judge yourself because of it. You can’t make time go faster and you can’t change the number of repetitions you have put in before today. The only thing you can control is the next repetition.

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Footnotes
  1. The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey