Don't Let Your Dreams Ruin Your Life
“The goal is not to attain the perfect pose. The goal is to reach for it.”
This quote was the refrain of a talk I listened to a few days ago on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations podcast (you can watch the video version here).
Listening to that show pretty much guarantees at least one or two a-ha moments (maybe even some life-changing ones) before an episode comes to an end, but this particular talk spoke to me in a deep, rock-your-core kind of way. You know that serendipitous feeling you get sometimes after reading a passage in a book, watching a speech, or listening to a podcast? Like you needed to hear exactly what was said? It was that kind of feeling. The talk built upon some themes I’ve been digging into in my own life lately—namely, perfection.
It was even more poignant that the quote came from a yoga teacher. And not just any yoga teacher, but Cheryl Strayed’s childhood yoga teacher. Cheryl Strayed is one of my favorite writers (she wrote Wild, if you’re not familiar). I’ll listen to pretty much anything that woman has to say, but c’mon … when a writer starts talking about what she learned in yoga class—I am all the way in.
I’ll give you the short of the long:
After graduating from an MFA program in creative writing, Cheryl Strayed was hellbent on finishing her first novel. Not only was she going to finish writing it and get it published, but it was going to be the next great American novel … because, of course it was.
That year, she and her husband decided that she wouldn’t go back to work so she could instead spend her time writing. Her husband is a documentary filmmaker, who at the time had just recently accepted a job that required them to relocate to a small, coastal town in Massachusetts. So, in their minds, it was the perfect scenario. Her husband would go to work everyday while Cheryl stayed home and finished her novel.
Only, like any good story, that’s not exactly what happened.
This was also the first time in her life, according to Strayed, that she had the luxury of cable television right in her own living room…
You can maybe see where this is going.
Rather than sitting down and chipping away at her novel, Cheryl ended up binging reality TV shows about babies and weddings and home renovations (she didn’t mention it specifically but one has to imagine she got hooked on TLC … hard to blame you, Cheryl).
Cheryl recounts that period as one of her greatest struggles. Not necessarily because of the temptation of cable TV—for there will always be distractions that compete with our creative pursuits—but because she wasn’t living up to be the person she thought she was. She knew she wanted to write, to be a writer … so why wasn’t she behaving like one?
In order to climb out of this rut, Cheryl knew she had to come to terms with reality. She talks about how dreaming big and aiming high and believing she could do anything got her to where she was in that moment. Those platitudes of positivity and shooting for the stars had gotten her through her twenties and had helped her stay consistent with her writing. But the truth was, in that moment in the cabin, those ideals were no longer serving her. Instead of lifting her up, they were paralyzing—keeping her from getting the job done.
This whole time, Cheryl had been aiming for perfection when really she just needed to finish the damn book. I’m filling in some gaps here, but I have to imagine that the pressure she was putting on herself to write the next great American novel made sitting down to write feel so daunting it felt downright impossible. In order to make progress, she had to accept her own mediocrity.
It was in this moment that she remembered the quote her childhood yoga teacher had said to her—that perfection isn’t the goal. The goal is to simply reach for it.
Cheryl takes that sentiment even further, adding––“Don’t let your dreams ruin your life.”
That one hit me hard.
I had just had the realization, maybe a day prior to listening to this talk (there’s that divine timing again) that I’m living life as a bit of a slave to perfection. Maybe that sounds harsh, but just goes with me for a minute. These types of awakening moments are not always easy to digest (for ourselves and even when other people are telling us about their own), but in my experience, they are almost always a catalyst for transformation and healing.
I realized how much pressure I’ve been putting on myself. I realized how I set impossibly high expectations for myself—like I’m supposed to achieve every single goal I want to achieve right this minute with the perfect plan, perfect execution, and oh, by the way, I need to make sure I look perfect while doing it, too.
I’ll break it down for you a little bit … maybe you can relate.
It starts by setting an impossibly high goal for myself that I won’t admit is crazytown. Then, I’ll open up my planner, a clean Google Sheet, and grab all my highlighters and get to work. I try to create some structure around this daunting task that at this point, is actually starting to feel more like what it really is—daunting.
As the planning continues, the overwhelm and fear starts to set in. At first, it creeps in slowly which means I can avoid it by just continuing to grind away at my genius plans (see, this will be easy!). Soon, however, it becomes unbearable. It gets too big to ignore.
At this point, I start to panic. And soon after, I give up. No matter how far I’ve come—maybe I’ve just gotten started or maybe I’m months into a project—I halt what I’m doing because now what I’m trying to do feels impossible. What I’m trying to do feels silly and foolish.
There’s no way I can ever meet my own standards of perfection, so … I don’t.
It’s like I squelch my own dreams before I even get a chance to start working on them.
All week in my yoga classes, this has been my theme:
Let go of the idea of perfection. Meet yourself where you are. Consider how the pose feels, not what it looks like, and maybe even have some fun in the process.
It’s not a coincidence that often the themes I bring to my yoga classes and my students are the themes I need to hear and embody myself.
Awareness is the first step. Now that I have a little more awareness around my relationship with perfection, I can begin to change it. I can start to parse through what serves me and what doesn’t. Right now, I’m working on giving myself time to develop and explore.
I don’t know about you, but a big piece of my relationship with perfection is all about not being able to make mistakes. I feel like I can’t afford to make any mistakes or missteps because it feels like I don’t have any time to waste. I have to be a “successful” yoga teacher right now. I need to write a book this year. I have to create a product to sell and generate passive income this quarter.
These unrealistic deadlines and expectations don’t serve me. They are rooted in fear and shame, and trigger a debilitating level of panic. Not to mention, they completely snuff out any organic creative process. Creativity and panic don’t exactly go hand-in-hand.
What’s more, these impossible deadlines are often attached to goals and tasks that aren’t actually meaningful or important to me—they’re attached to things I think I should be doing, not things that actually light me up. That’s because focusing on the things that matter to you takes an ability to quiet the mind, to look inward, to listen to and follow your heart. Perfection often gets in the way of that, asking us to speed up, grind it out, and move forward at all costs.
Awareness is powerful, yes, but it doesn’t make changing these habits—these deep-seated patterns—any easier. I’m realizing that this kind of change takes both effort and surrender. It takes being able to give yourself permission to make missteps along the way (because they’re gonna happen). It takes time—as much time as you need.
Towards the end of her talk, Cheryl offers a quote from the great author (another one of my favorites), Flannery O’Connor:
“To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility . . .”
When I first heard this quote, I found it a bit depressing—maybe even defeating. But the more I read it and internalize O’Connor’s words, the more it resonates with me.
It’s much easier to recognize our achievements than our failures. It’s easier to think about what’s working rather than what’s not working. It’s easier to look at what you do well rather than acknowledge your shortcomings. And I don’t mean just glance over at them, but really look at these things—examine them, turn them over, and eventually, come to terms with them.
This is how we find humility. This is how we offer ourselves some grace and compassion. This is how we accept ourselves. Because after all, we’re human—unique and rare and full of beautiful flaws.
Thanks for reading.