Another blog prompted by a comment from a stranger at the gym. I’m starting to consider intrusive strangers my new muses.

During a recent trip to the gym, I found myself dragging my pregnant, lethargic, still-sore-from-yesterday’s-workout legs onto the elliptical to get in my recommended cardio for the day. About fifteen minutes into the heart pounding, sweat inducing torture I knock the resistance down a little and give my normally primed for speed interval legs a rest. Today was simply not my day for pushing it. The older gentleman on the elliptical next to me, upon seeing the slow-down, felt obliged to interject some grade-A motivation.

“You’re slowing down already?” he asks. “You gotta give it 100%.”

Note: actual man was not wearing suit and tie at gym.

He smiles sweetly and turns back to focus on his non-sweat producing, resistance level one workout. Really?

I fake a smile and continue chugging along at my slower pace. Just say no to peer pressure! Does he not realize how hard my workout was yesterday, I think angrily. No, probably not. Does he not realize how poorly I slept last night because it takes hours of tossing and turning to find a comfortable side-sleeping position for my pregnant belly? No again. Oh yea, and does he not see I’m clearly pregnant? Hopefully that last one just a little. (Unless he’s conspiring with Jeff from my previous post)

I don’t say these things to make excuses for my actions; I hate making up excuses as much as I hate needing an excuse to begin with (unless of course it’s why my husband is out of clean boxers once again). But sometimes it just isn’t practical to always be going full-throttle or giving it 100% effort, 100% of the time.

I made this unfortunate mistake in college. I knew if I studied enough studied until I memorized the textbook, I could get a near 100% on anything. I tortured myself with multi-day study sessions for 10-question quizzes. I became a shut-in at times with only my coffee pot and sugary snacks to keep me company. Friends would invite me out, but I’d be too busy memorizing the name of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood pet (a pig named Fido in case you were wondering) or the diameter of Mars. I believed that if I could get a %100, I should, no matter how much it interfered with my (sometimes nonexistent) life outside of school. Try my best I did! I tried and I tried and I tried until trying my best became who and what I was about. By senior year I had trouble grasping the idea of “enough.” What do you mean when you say give it “enough” effort to get an A? What is this elusive, mystical word you speak of? It’s either all or nothing. I either succeed or fail, and anything less than all my effort is decidedly failure.

If only I were as enlightened then as I am now.

Following college I started and stopped a couple different graduate programs and a handful of sub-stellar jobs, all of which I was less than enthused about. I would begin a program with my college ambitions and attitude, realize I didn’t feel driven or passionate enough about what I was doing to put forth 100% effort, and because I couldn’t put forth 100%, well I might as well not even try. I became a habitual quitter. I felt awful, like a flat out, no-good failure. The fortunate thing about hitting this low is that it afforded me the opportunity to reflect on how I had somehow gotten things so wrong.

For me, this light bulb moment came on a warm summer day when I was out running in the park.

In the park on a not so sunny day, do something that is decidedly not running.

After submitting yet another resume to potential employer # bajillion, aka, “another employer who won’t even send me a rejection letter,” I was desperately needing to vent my frustrations. I hit the path with the intention of going full-speed-ahead until all my anger and pent-up despair was lying in sweat puddles under my feet. Only a couple minutes into the run I felt tired, and my lead laden legs begged me to slow to a jog. This apparent weakness annoyed me and I pushed on in defiance, forcing my legs to keep the steady pace. An internal soundtrack played through my head.

Dana’s Motivational Soundtrack

1. The You’ll Never Be Good Enough Blues

2. Give it All or Give Up Boogie

3. Baby Say Bye Bye Bye to Your Dreams

4. You’re not a Survivor

5. Oops I Messed Up Again

6. Rumour Has It You’re a Failure

I couldn’t put it on mute or flip the station. I began to cry. Cry, sniffle, inhale, exhale. Cry, sniffle, inhale, exhale. Cry, sniffle, cry, sniffle, cry, sniffle. Must. Stop. Running. To. Catch. Breathe. I came to a halt about a mile down the trail and hobbled to the nearest bench to sit down.

I can’t even run well anymore. I’m horrible at everything. I used to be so motivated and dedicated, what happened?

What did happen? I asked myself. Why was I so unhappy?

I thought back over the last couple years about the effort I put into pursuits that didn’t interest me. I thought about the all or nothing attitude that usually led to nothing and about how tired and defeated I felt from putting 100% effort into everything I did. What would happen if I didn’t always try my best? What if I gave 100% effort only to those things I really care about and 90% to everything else? What if I let the situation I’m in and my abilities at that moment determine how much effort I put forth? Is it okay to be less than my best?

I got off the bench to finish the last two miles of the three-mile loop, continuing on at a slow but steady jog. I took in the smell of the woods around me, the light glinting through the tree tops, and the sound of squirrels running across remnants of dead leaves. I reached my car feeling calm, happy, and accomplished. I hadn’t given it my all; I couldn’t finish the run saying I put forth 100% effort, but I could say I finished. And finishing, feeling happy and at peace, was more important at that moment than fast.

Today I live by the 90% rule. I give 90% effort, 90% of the time and save my 100% effort for the 10% of the time when it really counts. What I’ve discovered time and time again is that while my effort levels may have gone down 10%, 90% of the time, my enjoyment of life has gone up 100% almost all of the time.

I now let my effort level be determined by the situation I’m in and the amount of passion I feel for a given pursuit. If I’m having a hard day or I’m physically and emotionally drained I let myself slack a little. Ah, “slack,” it used to sound like such a dirty word. If I’m forced into a task I feel less than thrilled with, say a boring project at work, I do it well enough.

How I’m usually feeling at work.

I’ve detached myself from the belief that nothing but the best will do and attached myself to the notion that “good enough” often leads to more happiness. And I’ve learned over time that when I’m happy, it’s much easier to put my good foot forward and be at my best.

After 30 minutes on the elliptical, I hit the stop button and step off the machine. “You’re giving up already?” the nosy man next to me asks.

“No,” I respond, “not giving up, just accepting that good enough is my best for today.”