I don't think the American Dream is a lie. But I do think it comes with some serious fine print.
The idea that you can set your sights on something, work hard, and ultimately achieve prosperity in that area, that remains true. The hidden clause is everything we have to give up along the way.
At first, it doesn't feel like there is any sort of sacrifice. The dream, the job, the pursuit, it actually starts out pretty fun. And the sacrifices all feel like minor things. Maybe we stop playing video games. Delete our Facebook account. Spend less time on Netflix.
But then we run into someone who is doing it better than us. It seems like no matter how hard we work, they are always still a lap ahead. And that can be really discouraging. Really draining. It's like Seth Rogen says in a recent episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, "I thought I wanted to be a stand-up comedian until I came to Los Angeles and saw people who really wanted to be a stand up comedian." There is another gear those people are operating in and it becomes clear that we can’t catch up on natural talent alone or even regular hard work. It requires more.
And that's when the sacrifices start to become more intense. If we choose to keep going, something's gotta give. Eight hours of sleep is usually the first thing to go. 7 a.m. wake-ups become 6, become 5. Then it's our time in the evening. Staying at the office until 5 becomes 6 becomes 7. Emails follow us into the night. The workweek begins on Sunday afternoon.
The whole thing is just an equation. 24 hours in the day. Seven days a week. The more time we dedicate to a pursuit, that has to come from another bucket. So, the idea of being at the top of your field, thriving at work while simultaneously being a great mom/dad/husband/wife, awesome friend, in top physical shape, up to speed on any new Netflix or HBO show, time for volunteering, time for hobbies, always getting eight hours of sleep, and then--with what time's left--curling up with the great literary classics, that's a completely unrealistic goal. The American Dream may still be true, but achieving it with 100% marks in every other area of life, that part is the lie.
And the more we go after those 100% marks, the more we feel overwhelmed. But we don't want to quit, don't want to feel like we gave up when we were so close to a dream. Plus there are plenty of motivational speakers and phrases to encourage us to keep going. "Give it 110 percent." "Dig deeper." "Leave it all out on the field."
West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins has the expression: "What you think is 100 percent is actually 70." Legendary Tennessee Volunteers coach Pat Summit said, "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." Gotta keep fighting. Keep going. The hard work pays off. "You get what you put in."
But I want to offer a different Medium Rare strategy. My proposal: When you're feeling overwhelmed, it's not time to keep giving it 100% (or more), it's time to scale back. Settle in at a cool 79%. When the going gets tough, the tough get going… at like a C+ pace.
For the Side Hustler
I'll throw myself in as the example. For the last three or four years, I have gone all in on writing. I wake up at 5:30 in the morning and write until at least 7:30, sometimes spilling over into 8/8:15.
What's the impact? I can no longer be the guy that gets to the day job early. I can't even be the guy who gets in before 8:30. And then, on top of that decision, I usually leave at 5 p.m. because I want to reserve the evenings for time with Ashley and, with whatever time is left over, keep building the side business Long Overdue.
My approach is like the worst thing you could say in a 2019 interview. "You know, Bob, I'm a real 9 to 5 guy. Punch in. Punch out."
So I give my day job 79%. And that doesn't mean I'm slacking. But when people are there at 7:30 in the morning and/or staying til 6 or 7, working on things at night, working on things on Sundays, if that's what 100% looks like, then my 9 to 5 approach would score a 79% (and that might be a generous grade).
Thinking back to Seth Rogen's quote, the hardest part for me in the process of going from, "I want to be a writer, I want Long Overdue to be successful," to, "I really want this," was the sacrifice with the day job; the thing that actually pays the bills. It becomes a tough guilty feeling to wrestle with. When I walk in at 9, I feel like I'm letting people down. I've been working my ass off and this guy strolls in here at 9 a.m. with a smile?!
This is a confusing sentence, but I'm rolling with it anyways - It's a weird balance with any side hustle because you are working as hard as you possibly can, but the hardest work is outside of Work, so, when you're at Work, you feel like you're not working very hard or not working hard enough. There's rarely a feeling of a job well done, more a feeling of, "I'm not doing either job well enough."
And it's not even a sacrifice, it's more of a risky gamble. Giving it 79% at a day job can work, but it's not going to lead to many pay boosts. Not going to lead to many promotions. It's the same way giving 79% to the side hustle would also plateau at a certain level of success. The person who is in the office earlier or staying later, they should climb higher and, likewise, the person who is up at 4 a.m. writing, outworking me, should climb higher in the field of writing. Trying to give 100% to both fields is doable, but again, something else--family, friends, working out, having care-free weekends, joining a beach volleyball team--has to give in the equation.
For the worker
Let's say there is no side hustle. And maybe you have kids, maybe you don't. Either way, you have the ability to give work 50, 60, 70 hours a week.
Even then, I would still argue for the 79% rule. Here's why:
Look at the Chicago Bears last season. They went 12-4 during the regular season. Had they won the Super Bowl rather than ending the season on a double doink, they would have finished 15-4 which clocks in right at a 78.9 winning percentage. Pretty close to the 79% target! The New England Patriots, who ultimately did win the Super Bowl, they finished the season at 14-5. That's just 73 percent. Total underachievers...
The pursuit of perfection often ends in an upset loss at the very end. The year the Patriots went 18-0 ended in a Super Bowl loss. The Kentucky Wildcats from a few years ago, undefeated until the Final Four. In the office world, this is the guy who is crushing it for 51 weeks straight but then starts a fight at the holiday party in week 52. Too much perfection finally broke him down.
So, even if you are working 70 hours a week, there are ways to still give it 79% and not strive for all out perfection. What this might look like:
- Occasionally taking a two-hour lunch with a few co-workers
- Having a few typos in an email because you didn't re-read it more than once
- Not ending the day with 0 unread emails in the inbox
- Coming up with a new idea and it being a total flop
- Getting into work at 9:15 on a Friday morning because you were out doing karaoke with the team until 2 a.m.
Take a few losses during the regular season. Get yourself ready for the playoffs.
Another thing to consider: What's the pace you can comfortably run at for 52 weeks? There’s no award for fastest first lap in the mile run. One of the problems with giving it 100% at all times, besides the holiday party breakdown, is what happens when you get the annual Midwestern sinus infection? If you're running at 79%, less than your max capacity, you can take that sinus infection in stride. No real dip in performance. Not the same if you’re full pedal to the metal.
We remember the contrast in our coworkers. Our brain catches the break in the pattern. For example, you know the coworker who is not only always on time for meetings, but always a couple minutes early? Any time they show up like two minutes late there's tons of concern. "Is she okay?" They end up writing an apology email to the entire team. And they were just three minutes late!
But it works in the reverse. So the employee who gives it 79% until the main busy season, once they're dialing it up 21 notches, the hype spreads. "Have you seen her? She's on fire!" That's the 5 seed who makes a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Turning it on for busy season is easier on ourselves and our loved ones too because it comes with a clear start and finish line. At home, you can can tell family / friends, this is my crazy season, sorry I won’t be as available. This works because there's an end to it. Like accountants with tax season or retail workers in December.
In the book The CEO Next Door, the author talks about reliability and consistency as the biggest traits for people in leadership positions. “Most boards, we find, choose a predictable performer over a mercurial genius.” So, in terms of predictable performance, running at 79% is better than 110 down to zero then back to 110. It’s why Steve Jobs became a better leader later in his career when he became the calm turtleneck guy.
For the parent
Disclaimer - Any time a non-parent talks about parenting, it should be taken with less than a grain of salt.
But I was thinking about this the other day, the "Dad Bod" is the perfect visualization of giving physical fitness a 79%. Whenever you see a Dad Bod it's a sign, "Alright, that guy's working really hard, he's there for his kid(s), and yeah, that means there will be a few more chicken nuggets than crunches at the gym."
I feel like it's actually uncomfortable to see a dude in their late 30's or 40's at the beach with a six pack of abs rather than a six pack of beer. Our reaction is more concerned than impressed. "Why's he still working out so hard? Shouldn't he be spending more time with his family?"
And for Moms, they are masters at giving texting and social media a 79%. When a mom posts pictures of their baby, pictures of their kids, that's not bragging, it's them saying to their network, "Alright, here's what's going on in my life. Everybody got it? Cool. Now I gotta go back to doing Mom stuff, work stuff, my-kid-just-threw-his-spaghetti-at-the-wall stuff for the next 24 hours."
Single people or married people without kids, we respond to texts in a split second. Constant updates. Are you there? You there? You up? Moms have given up on giving texting 100%. "Quality over quantity" is there way of giving the communication bucket a 79%.
Ok, so why 79%? Why not 80%
It comes down to one simple rule: Beware of the B minus.
The student with the C+ was always the cool kid. They had a mystique about them. They would get 100% on the big exam (without studying) but they blew off homework assignments, missed a couple of classes, and never participated in the dreaded “binder organization check.” At the end of the semester the teacher offers them extra credit, “All you have to do is go see this slam poet and you’ll reach a B-.” “Nah, I’m all set,” the student replies. Rides away on a motorcycle.
At work, they are like Peter in Office Space. They are viewed as having tons of upside. “Maybe they’re not being challenged enough.” “If we can just motivate them.” In the dating world, they are the project. Rough around the edges. The chemistry is there, but the little things are missing.
Compare that to the B minus. The 80% score in school usually meant achieving perfect marks on everything, but then bombing the final exam. The B minus gives off this vibe of, “That person is working as hard as they possibly can, this is their ceiling.” You’ll see B minus contestants all the time on The Bachelor or Bachelorette. They do well, make it to the final four, final three, but are ultimately sent home with the message of, “Look, you did everything right, there just wasn’t that same… spark.” Then they take the C+ contestant into the Fantasy Suite.
So, give it 79% across the board. Or, if you want to go all in on the American Dream, want to go all in on time with your family, let the other stuff drop. Going to the gym can become occasionally doing five pushups in the living room and saying, “Eh, I think that's good.” Volunteering for a good cause can become seeing a street canvasser and thinking, “You know what, I almost stopped to talk with them.” Winning fantasy football and putting in hours of NFL research can become, “Hey, is Dan Marino still on the Miami Dolphins?” That level of obliviousness is totally ok!
Balance all of the other scales. Take a 50% here, a 60% there. That way, when you add everything up, you average out at a crisp 79%.
Nothing overwhelming about that.
Next week, I'm doing one more post focused on the 79% rule. This one will have a personal finance focus. The title: "The surprising freedom of being in debt." And for more articles during the week that are focused on the process of writing, editing, and publishing, check out the new-ish blog over on Long Overdue.
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