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Beware Binary Success Measures, or, Why "All or Nothing" Stinks

200910210905.jpgHelp me out with something: In considering the outcome of a project, we usually have a pretty firm idea of what success means. The question is integrated directly into GTD, in fact, and it makes sense. After all, why are you doing it, and how will you know you're done.

But there's a trap. If your metric is binary, then you've set yourself up for suffering during the entire thing. You'll be forced to ask yourself at each step, "Will I be successful?". If it doesn't look to be so, you'll be unhappy. But the point is that continual questioning along the way spoils the fun a little bit. (This is what I was getting at in in Coffee, Booze, And Sex: Is It The Journey Or The Destination? - life is in the process.)

What about if things are looking good? Well, you're still attached to the outcome, so the satisfaction of being on target is short-lived. Unless you're certain, you'll keep coming back and questioning. As I understand it, this is built into Buddhism (details, anyone?) See, for example, The origin of suffering is attachment, which identifies craving and clinging in particular.

So here's my question: How do we balance a clear craving (wanting a project to work out in a certain way) with desire to enjoy the life of the thing (being in the moment)? Let's be honest, if I'm putting together a proposal, I want it to succeed, and I'll be disappointed if it doesn't. Is it weakening our effort to even consider not reaching the goal? how do we handle this case? One thing I've been experimenting with is spinning it at the end. "It didn't work out the way I wanted/envisioned, but what I learned/enjoyed/experienced was..."

I'm curious: What do you think? How do you enjoy the ride while simultaneously managing your binary desire?

Reader Comments (8)

Why do you see the disappointment and enjoyment as at odds with one another? Isn't the "potential for disappointment" part of the fun? If success were guaranteed, would you enjoy the pursuit as much?

So I ask, "When are you suffering?" Is it the anxiety during the pursuit, that anticipation of potential "unsuccess"? Or is it the actual failure? A success or failure, once achieved is an essential part of the unalterable facts. Either way, we begin again with "How interesting? Where next?" If you are suffering even before the outcome is determined, then perhaps you are clinging a bit too much to your outcome. But your anxiety is real, so attend to it, recognize it as a sign of your passion and commitment to the outcome and see if your aren't then a little freer to enjoy the pursuit.

October 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott Mardis

Thanks for your post.Nice webdesign.

October 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterodżywki

Excellent thinking, Scott. I can't begin to respond - I've got to take it in. Great to have your comment!

October 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Another thought: This seems like an instantiation of "contrast leads to appreciation," and its variants, which I think about. Good stuff.

October 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Thanks, odżywki! I'll tell my awesome designer :-)

October 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Wow, you gave me something to ponder on... It may seem hard but I don't think it's impossible to balance a specific clear craving with the desire to enjoy life. I don't have the solution but we can all try.

October 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNikka

I think you're right, Nikka. I'm navigating that road myself, clearly. Thanks for commenting.

October 26, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Disclaimer: this comment is not of a particularly practical-nature.

How do I balance the two? By trying to remain aware, conscious. The info I'm receiving is never static. If I try to really tune in and be aware of my anxiety, let's say, I'll notice that it's not a constant thing. One second I feel my strong, quick heartbeat and the constriction of my chest, the next second I notice an absence of those sensations, then the heartbeat and constriction again... It's the same way with other things. Right now I may be very aware how much I want my project to work out the way I want it to work out (ego/personality-drive), but when I tune in, I might also be aware that simultaneously there's a part of me that just doesn't care and/or is also enjoying the process. Paradoxical and conflicting - and usually true. I might also find that one project's outcome seems all-important to me right now. At another time, I notice that I don't care so much about it or about a different project. To me, awareness and an acceptance of "what is" are tantamount. What I'm feeling/thinking right now at this moment is OK: whether that means I'm attached and clinging and/or in the moment. When I don't try to change who I am, what I'm thinking or feeling, and instead try to really see and understand, I notice how much my internal processes are in a constant state of flux (balance?). And the more light I shed on them, the more my attachments tend to dissolve on their own after awhile, anyway.

November 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRainier

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