The Perfect Choice

I can hear the cracks in the wall before the tidal wave lays me low. They sneak up on me – the whispers of shoulda, woulda, coulda. I am paralyzed by my imperfect perfectionism.

Before I can rally, I need a breather. I watch a movie, flip through a magazine or read a book – media filled with perfect people, perfect writing, perfect pictures of a well-adjusted life. I’d love to say I feel so self-confident that these images and words don’t push me farther under the bus of self-loathing. But it’s not true. When I’m feeling low, these are the proverbial kicks to the gut that say “See? I told you so!”

There is, as an NPR blog writer called it, a New Perfectionism. Perfect parenting, perfect workouts, perfect household hints, perfect ways to be an effective and efficient employee, perfect time management skills, perfect possibilities for every aspect of life.  I don’t doubt that there are many people out there who aren’t anxious or overwhelmed or filled with self doubt. I am not one of them.

I’ve been reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. It’s been recommended to me at least 20 times, so I finally cracked it open on vacation. When it comes to my own introversion, it’s not been particularly enlightening. I’m good with the fact that I am an introvert who can function as an extrovert when needed. What I found interesting were the chapters about how extroversion became the ideal in our society – the valuing of personality over character. Selling one’s self became more important than ensuring you weren’t, deep down, a complete shithead.

The idea that how we appear is more valuable than our character is designed to teach us to judge a book by its cover – to sort, categorize and label people based on first impressions. If you have perfectionist tendencies, this value system exploits that need in an endless procession of how-to articles, cults of personality and advertising standards. Perfectionism sells.

While on vacation, it struck me that I’ve been so tired over the last year – working hard, struggling against entropy, trying to be better at everything.  I’ve expended tremendous amounts of energy with very little in the way of return – or at least returns I’ve been able to recognize. I don’t want to be exhausted all the time and it’s not necessary. The New Perfectionism indeed – now I want to be the perfectly balanced person. Nice work, brain. Any more circular thinking you’d like to do?

Friends often say to me: You’re too hard on yourself.  A cliché won’t stop 40 some years of pushing myself. And like any other character trait, there’s an upside. I have worked hard to become a productive member of society, to have stable relationships, to be a decent parent. Those things have not come easily to me. The downside is that not only am I tough on myself, but I’m often tough on others and I don’t know how to relax (And don’t tell me to relax – I’ll just want to punch someone in the face).

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to question this perfectionist mentality. I can’t physically sustain a driven life. Many activities, which take up vast quantities of time, aren’t really important. And lastly, I’ve moved beyond the survival and self-sufficiency stage. I’m here. I get to be a bit of a dilettante. I get to dabble and meander and be a little lazier.

I felt a huge mental harrumph after typing that last sentence. Says who? Now get back to work. Maybe it would be more honest to say that since I will likely continue to push myself, I should redirect those efforts towards fulfilling work, family time that doesn’t involve force marching everyone through chores, activities that enrich instead of deplete. There are choices to be made.

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After reading The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, the idea of choices took on a whole new meaning – and it explains much of the anxiety people feel in our modern society. By pursuing perfection, we are inundated with choices at every turn. Of course, Mr. Schwartz decided the proof was in the pudding by immediately following up with Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. With so many other volumes of What You Are Not Doing Perfectly on the shelves, I’ve resolved any paradox by choosing not to read it.

Faced with so many experts and how-to gurus, the choices are overwhelming. But these choices are only necessary if your perceived goal is perfectionism. And what is perfect? Perfect is often what you want other people to see when they look at you, your home, status, possessions, children or body. Perfection represents love, power, respect – any number of things to people, but perfectionist behavior rarely yields those results. It can be, as I’ve discovered, quite tiring and unrewarding.

If perfection is through the eyes of someone else, then perfect becomes subjective. If definitions of perfection are subjective, it can be ours to define. It may end up looking entirely different than as advertised. Contents may settle. Results may not be guaranteed. Objects might be closer than they appear. There might be unintended side effects – like uncontrollable laughter, unexpected napping, small pleasures and infinite joy.

Perfectionist thinking is hard to unravel. Letting go of the behavior sometimes involves doing a half-assed job, showing up late, putting it off until later, not ironing it, not doing a progressive number of reps, letting the picture hang crooked on the wall. The next step is figuring out what you’d like to do instead  – something rewarding, pleasurable, luxurious, frivolous. I have piles of work to do. I wrote this blog post instead.

42 Comments on “The Perfect Choice

  1. Terrific post. Glad you decided to write it instead of doing other things. There is no such thing as perfection. Do your best, be kind and loving and forgiving (to yourself as well as others). The more I see pain and loss and sadness around me the more I tell myself to be satisfied and grateful and to accept myself warts and all.

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    • Thanks, Fransi. I do often try to tell myself those same things, but I’ve also come to terms that I am who I am and instead of battling perfectionism altogether, I’m just slowly trying to walk myself back from these tendencies. I am glad to recognize that perfectionist behavior rarely lands as perfect and that “perfectionism” is a marketing goldmine.

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  2. What a thoughtful, well written post, Green. Life is overwhelming enough without the struggle for perfection. Yet, don’t I find myself idiotically chasing that ideal all too often. Sigh.

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    • Thanks – I think I will always be chasing the ideal in some areas of my life, but I’m absolutely wiped out trying to chase it down in every area. Nobody gives a shit if my windows aren’t clean or my clothes are wrinkled or if I ran half a mile or 10. And I need to keep repeating that to myself until my recalcitrant brain absorbs it!

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  3. My best lesson from grad school was that good enough is just that, good enough to graduate. It has all the same challenges as perfectionism, with a slightly lower bar, but requires a lower anxiety expenditure to reach. With a lower bar of success, accidental perfection (it happens) can be celebrated with all the energy saved in just trying to be good enough. It doesn’t really work wonderfully for me, but it works better than the frustrating pursuit of perfection.

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    • Being comfortable with good enough is a huge challenge for me. If there’s an extra mile to be gone, I’m already training for a marathon. It’s behavior I constantly have to pull back from.

      You make a great point about accidental perfection. I have been frequently surprised when success or happiness comes with little effort. Then I have to convince myself I actually deserve it. Always a work in progress…

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  4. Very true about this perfection-oriented modern world. I’ve found it revolting and stupid, and it’s not like we haven’t known all along that it’s revolting and stupid. There are original episodes of Star Trek that touch on this. A favorite Jimmy Buffett song touches on it. Science fiction writers have warned about the allure and pitfalls of perfection and utopia for ages.

    People are just too stupid to pay attention, and now we live in a world that, as I think of it, is based on shadows, lies and illusions. The book’s cover, indeed.

    To my mind, maximizing your efficiency, paybacks, perfection, whatever, all the time is a sure way to unhappiness and frustration. Perfection is hard to achieve and harder to maintain. It’s friggin’ exhausting!

    We share in common a trait of extreme dedication to the perfection of our work, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s a great thing; it kept me very gainfully employed for decades. The hard part is turning it off.

    I don’t know if I’m just lucky, or if I figured this out early, but I draw a line between work and life, and I don’t apply the same dedication to my life as I do my work. In some areas, housekeeping for example, I’m pretty awful. It creates some sense of balance. It’s possible I have a touch of what these days is labeled “OCD” but I’ve managed to subsume it almost entirely in my work.

    There’s an old saying about not sweating the small stuff (and that it’s all small stuff). I’ve considered that a pretty dumb thing to say on both counts. You do need to sweat the small stuff (sometimes), and it’s definitely not all small stuff. The trick, perhaps, lies in another old saying: Pick your battles.

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    • I’m an indiscriminate perfectionist and constantly frustrated with myself, so there seem to be no boundaries for opportunities of self-loathing. I’m fond of the “pick your battles” mantra – except when I start seeing everything as something I’d pick.

      Some of my perfectionist tendencies are from growing up with someone who has OCD. I remind myself what an unhappy scenario that is, so that I don’t replicate the behaviors with my family. Spending time in the Army didn’t help – reinforcing rigid standards for cleanliness and tidiness.

      I’m not very fond of the “small stuff” saying, for some of the reasons that you point out. The other reason being that what is small stuff to one person, could be of great import to someone else. It needs too many qualifiers to be useful and pithy!

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      • Mos def! Life can’t be expressed by bumper stickers. It’s far too complex for that!

        Another angle of attack, maybe one that might be easier than trying to change oneself, is to work on accepting and embracing who you are. That’s something I’ve focused on the last few years, and it’s been helpful.

        I think all intelligent people feel self-loathing sometimes. If we have high expectations of ourselves (and therefore usually others), we can’t help but fail those expectations sometimes.

        Maybe the trick is to consider the full balance of your “account.” What’s the ratio of your successes to your fails? If your successes outweigh your fails (which I suspect they very much do), then maybe what you really deserve is a pat on the back!

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      • Fruitcakes from the album of the same name!

        “I don’t want that much organization in my life.
        I don’t want other people thinking for me.”

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    • “what these days is labeled ‘OCD’ ”

      Please understand that OCD is not a recent “fad.” Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a serious illness. At its worst, OCD can virtually immobilize and disable. The disorder and its symptoms have been recorded for centuries. I’m not sure how recently the disorder was named OCD. Perfectionism can resemble OCD to some extent. I’m not an expert, so I’m not sure if perfectionism can be considered a symptom of or a milder version of OCD.

      OCD is a serious disorder. I recommend “Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior,” by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD, 1996. (Please don’t dismiss “Brain Lock” as a “self-help” book. Or perhaps I should say it is a legitimate self-help book. It can help people understand and cope with OCD.) Unlike perfectionism, people suffering with OCD are very good at hiding it, keeping it a secret. I urge anyone suffering with OCD to seek help from a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist.

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      • Yes, and I meant no offense to those suffering from the disease. My point is that compulsive behavior, or perfectionism, can be labeled as OCD, because the concept has become a metaphor.

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      • I think most people these days understand that OCD is a serious mental illness. As someone who was raised by a parent with OCD, I can attest to the misery it entails, not just for the sufferer, but for those around the person. My perfectionism is partially rooted in being raised by someone with OCD, so there can be correlations. If you are told to scrub a floor over and over because it’s not perfect, you learn to become very critical of yourself and others, not realizing compulsive behaviors are at work. As a kid, I didn’t understand that there was mental illness and it’s taken me years to recognize the impact and to look at my perfectionism with new understanding.

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  5. Very thought-provoking. I’ve yet to read the introverted book, but it happily is collecting dust in my to be read pile. I’ll get there, and soon (hopefully).

    This notion of new perfectionism really strikes me. I find myself often pushing, pushing, pushing – but to what? I’m not entirely sure. A perfect sample of me, I suppose. This sort of epiphany and stopping to ask yourself, “What exactly am I doing?” can be quite overwhelming to begin picking apart and figuring out. Like you said, it doesn’t mean stopping altogether, maybe it just means changing the way we do things. Far too often, I’ve wasted hours of a day working on something that means literally nothing to me, but the appearance is what is wanted / looked for by others. Thanks for really juggling my brain this afternoon… I needed to think about this 🙂

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    • The New Perfectionism idea really struck a chord with me and so did the earlier chapters in Quiet, especially in regards to the history of what constituted a person (character versus presentation). It really made me think about all the anxieties created by this need to focus on outward versus inner person and made me look at my “to do” list differently. So much of what I was stressed about was inconsequential.

      I, too, have wasted hours on projects that in the long run, were completely insignificant and I think “What did it take away from? What could I have been doing instead?” That’s when I feel this crushing sense that I’ve gotten life all wrong! My epiphany has come about due to simple exhaustion – if all that work just brings me to this point, I need to make some changes.

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  6. I just can’t get enough of your writing. You put so well into words what I struggle to even pin down in my head — and I can identify so well with this. I definitely need help unraveling the you’re-not-worthy-if-you’re-not-perfect thoughts that so often plague me. (“…now I want to be the perfectly balanced person” – ha! oh, yes. Me too.)

    Really. I love this. I, for one, am glad you chose to write this post instead of doing piles of work. 🙂

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    • Thanks so much for your kind words. What you wrote – the you’re-not-worthy-if-you’re-not-perfect thoughts is exactly what I’ve come to regard my perfectionism as – a deeply felt sense that I am not worthy as I am, but only as I do. Intellectually, I know this is not rational and that I can decide my own worth – just not easily or without hard work. And then at some point, while you’re trying to mend your thinking, it morphs into yet another thing not done perfectly!

      At that point, I just have to start talking myself down from one tree at a time, in the hopes that slight behavior modification will become habit and that I appreciate more and judge less about myself. There’s a serious learning curve, though!

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      • “I’m not worthy as I am, but only as I do.” I internalized this early and have driven myself with it for most of my life. I think I learned it early on in Christian education. I think it’s related to the American work ethic which traces back to the Puritan work ethic. Secular education can also instill this extreme work ethic in children at an early age. You must get get good grades, so you can get into a good college, so you can get a good job, and earn a lot of money and be “successful.”

        Work ethic is good, I think, but the extreme version that you and I and many Americans live by is killing. In Japan they have a word for “working yourself to death.” I suppose this is why many of us need alcohol or pills in order to merely relax.

        As I approach retirement, I am beginning to realize how much this drive to achieve has dominated my life. I’m trying to figure out how to tame the drive and learn to enjoy life. I literally don’t know how to “play.”

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        • I’ve always heard the urban legend about the American work ethic, but just recently read this study regarding the fact that we actually work fewer hours than a decade ago, although we’re still in the top 10 countries for longer work days, no guaranteed vacation days or sick leave.

          After working many years in office environments, I think the biggest problem with many jobs now is that we spend so much time at work that personal and social activities get rolled into the work day. Blurred boundaries make the amount of time spent at work longer, while the actual amount of productive, satisfying work is relatively small. Jobs that are physical labor are different – but paid less, hence the inability to take vacations or have paid sick leave.

          As with everything, balance and moderation are key. I think boundaries are important as well. Work needs to have a stopping point, when other priorities like family and hobbies and relaxing should have focus. Working from home for the last 7 years has made this critically important for me. I haven’t mastered balance yet!

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        • No question about it! I’ve read studies indicating that cell phones and social media are playing a role in blurring the boundary between work life and personal life. Everyone is being asked to “do more with less” (the true mantra of modern business). We’re bombarded with advice on how to perfect ourselves and maximize every moment and resource.

          It’s a wonder peoples’ heads don’t explode.

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  7. This was shit good! I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist but other people have and only because it’s an overused word used to describe someone whose standards are higher than their own. That’s not perfectionism. That’s comparing. I used to do a lot of comparing and judging, mostly of myself in comparison to others. No more. I’m trying to hear that inner voice when it’s guiding me. Sometimes I connect and sometimes I don’t but I’m more aware now. So are you. We just have to stop pushing ourselves in any desired direction. That’s not so easy. 🙂

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    • I often wonder where the line between high standards and perfectionism lies. My guess would be at the point where insisting on high standards makes you and everyone else around you miserable. You’re right, though – people who level that label indiscriminately are often dealing with their own insecurities.

      My inner voice swears at me a lot. On a good day, it’s telling me to slow down, chill out, back off. On a bad day, it sounds like a drill sergeant telling me to drop and do 50 since I didn’t get the lawn mowed or sent my kid on a play date in dirty clothes or had a typo in a work email. My inner voice needs some work!

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  8. A long time ago, I decided that the only thing that was important to me was that I could sleep well at night.
    It has since been updated to include don’t go to bed mad at my wife, and don’t go to bed with her mad at me.

    I don’t hit those standards every night, but it’s infrequent that I don’t, and that’s enough for me.

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    • I don’t sleep well at night, but that has little to do with marital discord and more to do with bouts of restless insomnia. I’m greedier about what’s enough for me, but I also spend a good portion of my life taking care of others. Solitude rates pretty highly, as does time outdoors – those are the proverbial oxygen masks for me to be a better spouse and parent.

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  9. Great post and really enjoyed reading it. I actually read the Quiet book. I expected lots of great insights from it but didn’t really get many. Parts of it are interesting but I didn’t learn too much about myself as an introvert.

    This perfectionism thing can be a real problem at times. I think most creatively driven people have it. It’s hard not to fall into that trap of working all the time, even when relaxing. Hardly a minute goes by when I’m not thinking of some project or other that I’m working on. Actually the only respite my brain gets is when I’m training in martial arts. One of the benefits of such training is that it keeps you in the moment totally. I think if you can find an outlet like physical training of some kind, this can be a great release, physically and mentally.

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    • I’m with you on physical training being a respite. That and being outside are really meditative for me – meditation in motion and having my tiny life put into perspective. Although my perfectionism has, of late, caused me numerous injuries, especially in Taekwondo. I have to completely re-evaluate my workouts, so that I can continue doing the things I love to do. Such are the consequences of age and unrealistic expectations!

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      • I’m wondering if physical training can’t at times be a version of perfectionism. When I was younger, I think I turned many physical activities into pursuit of the perfect body or pursuit of the perfect tennis swing. The striving for perfect form and technique can be seen in everything from martial arts to dance. I do agree that if you can give the activity your full attention, you can have a respite from other pursuits.)

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        • I think anything can be turned into a perfectionist aspiration. I find the happy psychological effects of exercise beat back some of my perfectionist devils, though, so the benefits usually outweigh my need to do things “right”.

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  10. Fellow perfectionist appreciates your insightful post and almost didn’t post a comment because she couldn’t think of exactly the right thing to say.

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  11. I feel qualified to comment on this only because I have lived at least 20 more years than you have.
    I used to envy others…. I thought my friends had the perfect marriage and I didn’t. They ended up divorced.
    I thought one of my friends was the perfect mother, wife, career woman…. she had a nervous breakdown.
    I have watched sports stars and politicians who I once admired, fall from grace by not being perfect.
    I feel blessed that I am not a perfectionist. It must be very hard. I received a thank you card just today from a very young friend who is quite hard on herself. She thanked me for trying to teach her to “just go with the flow”.
    I know its not that easy for you.
    This is a great post….I hope you realize how talented and introspective you are.

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    • Thanks so much for your generous words.

      It’s a case of the devil you know – as frustrating as constant striving can be, I’ve also enjoyed some success. Unfortunately, I will never know if it would have come with less effort. What I do know is that I no longer have the energy to be so demanding of myself. Once that realization hits, it becomes a matter of scaling back perfectionist tendencies. It’s a mental decluttering and I’ve started picking away at things in order to decide what I want to be important and how I want to spend my time.

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  12. Lots of food for thought in this post, really enjoyed it. Have been pondering thoughts like these in recent years — so much of life has turned into the Martha Stewart-like expectations, but often we even perceive such expectation where there is none. A friend stopped by the other day and was commenting on what a comfortable home we had, and then said “you must have a cleaning person” — I laughed and told her I did a quick sweep and vacuum before she came over so she wouldn’t realize the slobs we truly were. I then gestured to the kitchen sink full of dirty dishes. Her response – “I hadn’t even noticed that”! So often we are so sure it is noticed we obsess about presenting that “perfect” image, when in fact it is the comfortable, lived-in house that welcomes friends which is remembered, not the artfully arranged counter decor.

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    • I think you’re right about our own perceptions versus what other people see. The nature of perfectionism is having standards and expectations of ourselves that no one else has of us. It creates a level of unnecessary self-consciousness. How people feel around each other is always more memorable than the setting, hence the sense that you have a comfortable home – because you’ve made them feel comfortable. I try to remember this prior to company coming over – all you need is a comfortable place to sit, some good food and the rest will take care of itself.

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  13. Ugh, having trouble with gravatars and comments this morning. Michelle, my daughter had such a problem with perfectionism from the very beginning. Two weeks into first grade her teacher said she was going to flunk if she didn’t stop crumpling up her assignments before she turned them in.

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  14. Wow! I can so identify! I’ve lost jobs because of insisting things be done the RIGHT way, not half-assed – even on the advice of people who tell me to just do what I’m told even though I know that what I’m told is wrong. I would argue that there is a BETTER way to do things and get shot down by management. I just couldn’t get it into my mind that I work for a salary, I thought my EXPERTISE and KNOWLEDGE were what I was hired for, only to discover that I was just filling a position that required me to take orders and do things the way THEY said to do them. Pissed me off, so I lost my impetus and eventually my job.

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    • I certainly recognize this trait in myself, especially earlier on in my work career. I’ve learned flexibility over the years, but it doesn’t come naturally. Fortunately, I’ve learned to offer ideas about better ways to do things, which helps counter my irritation with rules that have been set up, but that no one follows. What’s the point? So my expertise and knowledge have transitioned from someone who knows and follows the rules to someone who makes the rules. It’s definitely less frustrating that way!

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  15. Wisest guide I’ve found regarding excellence, perfectionism, etc. is Marsha Sinetar, “Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow” and many other books. Ms. Sinetar has great insights on “workaholism” and talent. Talent can drive people to work relentlessly to develop the talent, but that is not the same thing as perfectionism or workaholism.

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    • The irony about many perfectionists is that they don’t see their own talent, hence the constant drive to pursue, work at and intensely focus on trying to be the best. I’ll have to check out that book. Thanks, John.

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