Being who you are, if who you are is being better

Whatever your standpoint on meat dresses, no one today is more vocal about being true to yourself than Lady Gaga.

God makes no mistakes.

I’m on the right track.

I was born this way.

As she’s said in interviews, she’s not speaking only to the LGBT community, she’s encouraging anyone who is seeking their identity, and looking for permission to be that person in public.

It’s so simple and trite: Be yourself.

The benefits are obvious: Fulfillment, happiness, success. Surely you’re more likely to be successful at any venture where your natural excitement leads to merry obsession, which leads to hard work and long hours, applied to a field aligned with your innate talents. Even in the worst case — complete failure — it was fun and worthwhile. Years from now you’ll look back and say, “I lived a good life, and it was my life.”

So why is it so hard?

Not just hard to live true to yourself, but surprisingly difficult to even know what “yourself” is?

And further, what about self-improvement? It’s sensible to embrace your faults and work around them, but what about tackling them headlong? If you’re afraid of public speaking, is it smart to pick a career that ensures you’ll never grace a stage, or is it wiser to throw yourself into a stand-up comedy night class that could exorcise your demon?

I used to think that in all things I had to be the best. I was upset if I didn’t get the blue ribbon in the piano recital, the gold medal on the music theory test, and the 1st-place trophy in the Karate tournament.

In high school, however, I started internalizing that there will always be people smarter and better than me at anything, so the new challenge was to (1) be the best at one thing (telling a computer what to do), and (2) be constantly improving in other things. So I didn’t need to beat Alex Saltman on the Math Team, but I worked to beat my own scores in national competitions year over year. I didn’t have to outpace the endless stream of Korean piano prodigies but I did play progressively more difficult pieces, and played them well enough.

But time wears on and responsibilities accumulate and you realize that even just “improving” can be too much work. Today I no longer need to improve my 5k time, I just make sure to run a few 5k’s a week. I don’t need to play harder piano pieces, I just learn something new now and again.

That’s fine for hobbies, but what about your career or your startup? You can’t just say “Yeah I suck at selling stuff, and I don’t care!”

In my case, I don’t suck at selling, but I constantly struggle with procrastination. Everyone does it to some degree — there’s something you don’t want to do, so you invent reasons to fulfill that desire. The reasons are all seemingly-logical but actually-bullshit:

  • I don’t have time for X right now. (Time always exists, you’re deciding to do something else with that time.)
  • It will be more efficient to do X when I’m also doing Y and Z. (But someone’s waiting for X, and you’ve also been delaying Y and Z.)
  • I’m not in the mood for X, and it will go twice as fast when I’m in the mood. (But it’s something you don’t like which means you’ll never be in the mood –or– you haven’t been in the mood for weeks.)
  • I forgot because I don’t have a good system. (But there’s 100 organization systems and tools, and blogs and books for training.)
  • I have better things to do with my time. (But then it should be delegated instead of sitting in your to-do list.)

Still, knowing all this, I persist. It is on the to-do list and it is a “Next Action,” but I deftly roll the deadline over to “tomorrow” and it vanishes for another 24 hours. Congratulations, me, you just out-witted your to-do software.

Besides, procrastination has its advantages. Really! I wrote a whole post about why procrastination is useful for running a startup. See? SEE?!?

I’ve done everything to cope with procrastination: I’ve used GTD for years (and yes, it works). I’ve been inbox-zero for years (and yes, it literally changed my life). I’ve had temporary surges of success and guilt-ridden lapses of ineptitude. I’ve even tried to decide procrastination was a net-positive, hence that article.

So where does that leave me with regard to Lady Gaga’s admonition that I should “be myself?” Should I accept procrastination as a given? Keep writing more articles about how I’m actually wise to embrace it? Or should I continue to fight it, because fighting means I’ll get more done in less time with less stress, and it means I’m optimizing for the long-run rather than what’s easiest in the moment?

I’ve decided to continue to the fight, because I know something else about “who I am” — I’m a person who strives. I’m a person for whom “good enough,” isn’t. I can tell myself it’s not important to run a 5k any faster than 26:06, but I’m going to anyway. I can lecture you about how blogging success is about content and time rather than looks and plugins, but I still wrote my own plugin to manage exactly how the “retweet” link behaves in the RSS feed.

That attitude is something I see in most successful entrepreneurs. Adam Carolla says the same thing; he calls it a “motor” — an internal, unstoppable force causing you to just go, all the time, wake to sleep, for decades.

It’s why I couldn’t just make software facilitating peer code review, I had to make it a so-called “real company,” I had to create the modern theory around it, I had to write a book about it, and I had to push that book into 70,000 people’s hands.

It’s why I couldn’t just read blog posts by Joel Spolsky and Jason Fried, I had to write my own, and I had to get better and better at writing, and promote myself, for no reason or reward other than pure ego.

It’s why I couldn’t just be retired after the sale of Smart Bear, writing blog posts and talking to entrepreneurs. New ideas foisted themselves on me, and I had to run through bad ones until I found a good one, and I had to go start that company. It’s why so many entrepreneurs are serial entrepreneurs — I like to say “You do the third one for the same reason you did the first one — because you are compelled to.”

It’s why I couldn’t just be interviewed twice on Andrew Warner’s Mixergy — already an honor. I had to push for a third appearance so I could interview Andrew on his own show.

But the motor also creates problems common to most entrepreneurs, no matter how old or successful:

  • “Spread too thin” syndrome. You’re interested in everything, you’re good at many things, so you get involved in too much stuff. Now you don’t have enough time for any of them; most suffer as a result, probably even worse off than if you weren’t involved, because then other people could plan accordingly instead of believing they can rely on you.
  • “Shiny new thing” syndrome. You’re bored as soon as a project leaves the childhood of “mostly creative” and enters the adolescence of “mostly execution.” So you don’t give projects the lasting attention they need to succeed.
  • “Work all the time” syndrome. This works better when you’re young, but even then you’ll burn out. I did, and many many other famous workaholics did, repeatedly, thought they rarely admit it. Andrew Warner is honest enough to admit publicly that he sold his company for less than he should have just because of burn-out. Pulling 70-hour weeks catches up to you. Period.
  • “Not good enough” syndrome. Whether you’re actually a perfectionist or just a control-freak, you feel like nothing is ever finished, ever done, ever enough. And when you implicitly believe others will discover your ineptitude, or that others are able to be perfect where you’re not, you (like me) have real problems.

At the end of the day, these things are all manageable by acknowledging them and acting accordingly. Learn to say “no” to new projects (allowing you to continue a healthy obsession over a few). Go on a trip without the laptop so you have no choice but to be “unproductive.” (Do that once for a week and you’ll be so amazed at your increased productivity, energy, and happiness when you return that you’ll never doubt this tool again. Take it from this workaholic.)

So “be yourself,” yes. Don’t vomit out some stupid marketing prose on your website; decide what you believe, then run your company accordingly and publicly and you will be more proud, more fulfilled, and likely more successful. You can’t fight every foible, nor should you. You certainly shouldn’t compromise your ethics and your sense of taste and awesomeness, because those are some of the few things that can differentiate you and your company in the world.

But neither should you stop striving, improving, learning, and developing “who you are.” Stoke your motor.

How you do “find yourself” and draw the line between improvement and acceptance? Let’s continue the discussion in the comments.

 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roger-S-Johnson/1221552838 Roger S Johnson

    Consider this:
    Happiness is a personal  decision.
    It comes right after answering am I happy?
    If the answer is no, then it is just a matter of reversing, of solving.
    Easier said than done, but possible by anyone.
    I sit here loaded with pain killers, but still feeling very uncomfortable;
    but, I can’t say that I am unhappy.
    My answer is not a knee-jerk p. c. comment, but comes after thinking about it for some time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roger-S-Johnson/1221552838 Roger S Johnson

    Consider this:
    Happiness is a personal  decision.
    It comes right after answering am I happy?
    If the answer is no, then it is just a matter of reversing, of solving.
    Easier said than done, but possible by anyone.
    I sit here loaded with pain killers, but still feeling very uncomfortable;
    but, I can’t say that I am unhappy.
    My answer is not a knee-jerk p. c. comment, but comes after thinking about it for some time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.golab Steve Golab

    Great article Jason and very timely given the entrepreneurial climate here in
    Austin, and I think its a valuable lesson for founders.    With respect to your
    question, how do you find yourself, I agree its important to ackowledge that who
    you are changes over time as you grow, and that is preceisely why you need to
    get perspective and make periodic assessments.  Knowing who you are gives you
    the right foundation to make better decisions and prioritize your time.
     
    I read a great quote by Frank Outlaw the other day:
    “Watch your thoughts; they become words.
     Watch your words; they become actions.
     Watch your actions; they become habits.
     Watch your habits; they become character.
     Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

    • http://profiles.google.com/stonerosedesign Randy Zeitman

      Wow… that’s a killer quote!… hello facebook!

  • Shaimagz

    I really enjoyed reading your article, mostly because I felt like I’m writing it. 

    I agree with almost everything except for the meat dress and the idea behind it. Besides the fact that it was just a marketing meme, there are things that people see as “being better” but they are actually wrong (a murderer who thinks about “being better”). Now I’m not saying that gaga’s dress is like a murder or something but I believe you need basics to learn before you know what is a good thing that comes from the deep side of you and what’s not.

  • http://patrickfoley.com/about Patrick Foley

    How do you find yourself? As Kermit the Frog would say, “Have you tried Hare Krishna?” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0079588/quotes

    Seriously, though … one thing I’ve learned about myself is that I have a very strong tendency to beat myself up. I believe this inner dialogue causes me to be good at most things quickly, but it makes it very difficult for me to be truly excellent, to achieve my potential. As with Jason, music is an obvious example for me. I was an accomplished violinist, good enough to win a scholarship to study with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eduard_Schmieder, but I managed to sabotage my musical career, flaming out in spectacular fashion. I’ve repeated that pattern in business multiple times as well.

    Here’s the cycle: Because I beat myself up so well, I do everything I can to avoid that self-induced pain — I’m naturally smart, so I reach “competency” very quickly (thus no need to beat myself up). But to be truly excellent at anything, you have to get to the REALLY hard parts. The really hard parts are different for each person — they’re the parts where you don’t succeed right away, the parts where you have to muck through something you’re initially bad at before you can get OK, then pretty good, then damn good, then great. While it is true that some people get lucky in business and in life, there are no prodigies who are _instantly_ great at complicated endeavors. Every so-called prodigy still put in the work required to get great, and they made their way through the really hard parts (I suspect prodigies are exceptional at staying out of their own way). I tend to avoid the really hard parts, because I can’t take the punishment I inflict on myself. Instead, I shift gears and start something completely new.

    Now that I’ve noticed this pattern of beating myself up and the cycle of pain avoidance it begets … what do I do about it? It’s tempting to take the advice from this sketch and just stop it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYLMTvxOaeE. But that is in fact easier said than done.

    What has been helpful for me is simply NOTICING the fact that I beat myself up as I’m doing it. I’m still quite amazed at how much I do it; it seems fruitless to stop it – this is clearly a part of who I am. But noticing is simple. I like noticing. It’s fascinating to learn something about myself and observe it. In my case, once I do notice that I’m beating myself up, I instinctively ease off a little. And now I’m at least somewhat bemused by these tendencies. Depending on the situation, I can choose to muscle through the discomfort, or I can choose to change directions and feel relatively OK about it (for example, procrastinating might just mean that I haven’t had enough “me” time today).

    Sorry, I’m rambling. I suck. Oops … sigh.

    • http://profiles.google.com/stonerosedesign Randy Zeitman

      “But to be truly excellent at anything, you have to get to the REALLY hard parts.”

      Right…and I’m like that too… and the deception is that, to me, objective excellence means ‘suffering enough’ (criteria unbounded by agreement of others – objective but only internally (subjective) ) , vs. ‘accepting what most  what most others would accept as excellent’ (criteria bounded by agreement of others –  objective externally (actual objective) )

      ” I’m still quite amazed at how much I do it.”

      yea… only constantly. It’s a core value… “if I can’t be excellent/amazing then I SHOULD be excellent and if I don’t I’m a quitter and I’m not living life to the fullest because what else can fullest mean but 100%…”

      Smart people can actually have it really hard. Most folks think ‘smart makes life easier’… well no!  And if you’re a smart and beautiful woman?… have sympathy!

      • http://patrickfoley.com/about Patrick Foley

        I agree with you on all three points, Randy.

        There are a few things where I don’t expect (objective) excellence from myself – I’m a slow runner, for example, and I don’t ski well. Those are some of my favorite activites, perhaps because I am unencumbered by the typical “should be excellent” vs. “I’m a quitter” tension.

        • http://profiles.google.com/stonerosedesign Randy Zeitman

          And I agree back at ya… you don’t beat yourself up about things you know you can’t change, and smart enough to know the difference (12-steps mantra).

          (but  however slow you are you try to run as fast as you’re slow is!)

  • http://profiles.google.com/stonerosedesign Randy Zeitman

    “I’m a person who strives. I’m a person for whom “good enough,” isn’t.”

    Well then is it possible you’re not at all a procrastinator but just get easily overwhelmed and frustrated because you want to be great but you don’t have finite energy and drive to do everything, and as well as you like?

    I recently started working with The Procrastination Workbook (and smartrecovery.org) and I now think I’m not lazy at all, I am just a passionate perfectionist with a low-frustration tolerance so I find it hard to shift gears.

    And also this….
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisficing

    Satisficing, a portmanteau “combining satisfy with suffice”,[1] is a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than to identify an optimal solution. A satisficing strategy may often be (near) optimal if the costs of the decision-making process itself, such as the cost of obtaining complete information, are considered in the outcome calculus.

  • http://twitter.com/stuckaholic Alex Dogliotti

    Hey Jason, nice one. You know what I think though? There is a thing that may slow down how you know and behave like yourself. The people around you. Example: I’m good at doing X. Doing X super well is not very important to me though. Yet, my family and friends tell me I’m so good at that I should continue because I get good money and I’m just great. How long will you last before you start believing them? Because when you do, you’ll settle for something you don’t love. And you’re not gonna be yourself. You just think you are.  

  • http://twitter.com/stuckaholic Alex Dogliotti

    Hey Jason, nice one. You know what I think though? There is a thing that may slow down how you know and behave like yourself. The people around you. Example: I’m good at doing X. Doing X super well is not very important to me though. Yet, my family and friends tell me I’m so good at that I should continue because I get good money and I’m just great. How long will you last before you start believing them? Because when you do, you’ll settle for something you don’t love. And you’re not gonna be yourself. You just think you are.  

  • http://jayliew.com jayliew

    Lady Gaga’s song “Hair” really resonated with me. Not many in my social circle, even my own family understands why I would quit a steady “good” job, and instead move away and burn up my savings trying to build a startup. My father even admonished me – I did it anyway. “Hair” really captured that – I just needed to be who I wanted to be. Even if nobody understands.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthiasgalica Matthias Galica

    I really needed to read this right now. I look forward to tell you how much your blog has helped me get my mind right someday. Kudos sir.

  • http://twitter.com/HOLLYISCO HOLLYISCO

    Wow, this really resonated with me, especially the “spread too thin / shiny new thing / work all the time” syndrome. << Those three are killers! Time for some entrepreneurial transformation. Thanks for the great read.

  • http://blog.usermood.com Dave Churchville

    In learning not to do too many different things, I first had to accept that I’ll always be interested in new things, it’s part of who I am, and it’s not a character flaw (per Gaga,  “baby I was born this way”)

    But spreading myself too thin *was* a problem, and one I’m still working on.  And I know it’s a problem, because it makes me less effective, and therefore, less happy.

    So my rule of thumb is basically asking “Is this behavior making me less effective”?  If it isn’t, I don’t have to fix it (like having ideas, or getting excited about new things).  If it is, I work on fixing it or mitigating it (like writing down new ideas, but not acting on them or saying no as the default to new projects, instead of yes).

    Life is short, so focus on what makes you happy, and if you can’t tell, at least focus on what makes you more effective.

  • Peldi Guilizzoni

    Thanks for this one Jason, I will try the “no computers for a day” if I can muster the courage for it. :)

  • Katie Benedetto

    Your list about things entrepreneurs do hit me straight-on. Thanks for sharing. Leaving for a week long trip without my laptop sounds like torture, but true to form, it’s actually a to-do on my spreadsheet of personal goals this year. Thanks for the encouragement. :)

  • Anonymous

    I have a similar problems.  I like to keep putting things away, especially when I feel the task is going to be a struggle. 
    I am working in a big company and sometimes I do think what the hell I am doing here? That usually motivates me to an action, since my main motivation is to be my own boss. 
    But I believe that you Jason are rather winning than loosing your battle.  

    Good luck with the fight anyway :)

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