The #1 BrainBlock To Avoid At All Costs

The the other day I was in deep conversation with a friend who’s a business strategist, marketing guru and fellow podcaster. I was telling him about the vision for my soon to be released podcast, my goals and my struggles with creating the show.

He asked “What’s blocking you achieving all of your goals for the podcast?

Immediately my head flooded with all the normal excuses and negative thought patterns -- I’m not good at talking, the title sucks, the theme is bad, it’s not clear, the headline needs to grab attention, my intro is weak, it won’t be good enough, people won't listen to it, i’m an impostor, and who would want to be on my show?

Finally, I stopped -- recognizing the ego based thoughts, paused and took a deep breath and said “Nothing. I just need more reps.

After our conversation, I thought about it -- my perfectionist tendencies are getting in the way of me releasing the podcast. My desire to make things perfect is getting in the way of me releasing. If I expect my podcast to be the best thing in iTunes right out of the box, I’m setting myself up for failure and a long and painful journey.

Our conversation reminded me of a passage from Black Box Thinking. Here it is:

In their book Art and Fear David Bayles and Ted Orland tell the story of a ceramics teacher who announced on the opening day of class that he was dividing the students into two groups.

Half were told that they would be graded on quantity. On the final day of the term, the teacher said he would come to class with some scales and weigh the pots they had made. They would get an ‘A’ for 50 lbs of pots, a ‘B’ for 40 lbs, and so on. The other half would be graded on quality. They just had to bring along their one, perfect pot.

The results were emphatic: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group graded for quantity. As Bayles and Orland put it: ‘It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the ‘quality’ group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
— Matthew Syed from Black Box Thinking

This passage reminded me that I had fallen squarely into ‘the quality’ (perfectionist) group and it was blocking me from creating the show.


Mastery Is an “S” Shaped Curve

Because I had set such high standards the podcast, my criteria for success was too high for me to achieve it and the gap between what i want and what i can do now, forced me into inaction. When starting anything new, logic follows that you won’t be very good. In fact, you’re going to need to allow time to work out the kinks, make iterations, change, be dynamic and grow.

Let’s examine the mastery “S” curve from George Leonard's Mastery, because it perfectly illustrates this point.

Mastery Is an S shaped curve

Leonard says when you're starting anything new, you're skill level is going to be low, which mean's you'll be imperfect and make mistakes. The best way to get through this phase is to release or start even before you are "ready". You're going to make mistakes whether you're early or late, so you might as well be early. The Founder of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman said it best when he said: “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late.


Think Reps and Time Under Tension. Not Perfection.

In the world of fitness and bodybuilding one of the drivers of muscle growth (hypertrophy) is caused by the amount of time your muscles are in a state of exerting force on an opposing weight.

Your amount of time under tension (reps) directly correlates with the amount of muscle you will grow (following the recovery period). Look at the bodies of any fitness fanatic, bodybuilder, or fitness model and one thing is for certain -- they have done a lot of reps and spent a lot of time under tension.

Your expertise in any new subject, job, endeavor and skill grows the the same way.


Practical Applications for Reps and Time Under Tension

It’s not just the world of pottery and podcasting where repetitions and time under tension matter. It’s everywhere...

Art - If you want to be create the next Mona Lisa, you could spend the next 10 years working on it. Or you could try to create a piece of art every day, hone your skills and become the type of person who could create the next Mona Lisa.

Music - If you want create a best selling album, you could record and re-record your tracks until you’re blue in the face. Or you could release your mixtape, get feedback, consistently work on it, release again and see what happens.

Fitness - If you want a body that makes heads turn, you could spend thousands on magic pills, read every fitness magazine on the planet and scheme out the perfect exercise and diet plan. Or every single day, you could eat high quality nutrient dense food, eat less carbs, do resistance training, move a few times a day and eventually achieve a body that you’re happy with.

Business - If you want to be a visionary entrepreneur, you could read everything about Steve Jobs, watch hundreds of hours of Shark Tank and talk about your big ideas with your friends. Or you could get a few customers, release a minimum viable product and revise until your product stands out.

Communication and Public Speaking - If you want to become transformative public speaker, you could watch every Ted talk, read about all of the philosophies of speakers and imagine yourself standing onstage at the Grammy’s. Or you could join toastmasters and take improv classes until you’re comfortable in front of an audience.

Love and Relationships - If you want to find that special someone, you could create a list of 33 “must have” criteria for your perfect mate, including income, height, looks, education, age and ethnicity. Or your could embrace vulnerability, lower your shields, go out a few days/nights a week and see if you have a genuine connection with someone.

The reason our perfectionist tendencies overwhelm our brains is because we compare where we are today, to where we want to be in the future. We let our high standards force us to be overly concerned with the end result, instead of focusing on the slow process of getting there. 

It’s not about the perfect outcome you want. It’s about the person you become from showing up every single day and getting .001% better.  


Final Thought

Perfectionism forces you to choose between perfection or Nothing. Unfortunately, most of the time we will choose Nothing because it’s easier.

Nothing doesn't hurt. Nothing isn't vulnerable. Nothing doesn't force you to face reality. Nothing allows you to stay in the fantasy world dreaming instead of doing.

The bad thing about Nothing, is that nothing happens when you do Nothing.

You don't have an impact. You don't create art. You don't change the world. You don't make more money. You don't find that special someone. You don't grow. You don’t achieve mastery.



[1]  Syed, M. (2016). Black box thinking: Why most people never learn from their mistakes--but some do. S.l.: Portfolio Penguin.

[2]  Leonard, G. (1991). Mastery: The keys to long-term success and fulfillment. New York, NY: Dutton.

[3]  Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. New York: Viking.


The Book That Inspired This Article 'Black Box Thinking'

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