Entering college, I didn’t know what to expect. High school counselors had warned us how difficult college would be—how everything we knew up until that point would be child’s play in comparison.
My first quarter at UC Irvine, I earned a 4.0 GPA. That came as a surprise. In high school, I never had a perfect GPA (thanks, four years of Classical Latin). So though I aimed for As, what’s another B on my record? By senior year, a letter grade difference affects overall GPA by 0.02. Big deal.
But starting college with a 4.0 GPA, I had something to defend. On the one hand, this motivated me to work hard and excel at my classes. On the other hand, I let it hold me back. I made decisions to preserve my record. I took fewer risks and fewer classes than I should’ve. At times I put grades before learning.
I share this to illustrate a couple points:
First, records can supplant intrinsic motivation. We may turn them from indicators of success into ends in themselves. When this happens, we let that which should spur us on instead become a hindrance.
It follows this cadence: We take chances at the start. We succeed. One success follows another. Finally, we grow fearful of breaking our winning streak, so we quit while we’re ahead. We start to play it safe. We take on fewer and easier assignments, those within our wheelhouse that we’re sure to complete.
In some situations, we may have a reputation to uphold. In most, the pressure comes from ourselves. Still we obsess with the past and lose sight of the future. We cede our potential for the satisfaction of peaking today. But the truth is: Nobody cares about our records, or lack thereof, as much as we do.
There’s a second issue with idolizing your streak, especially for mundane, ongoing tasks: What do you do when you fail? When you lapse on your diet? Miss a day of your gym routine? Break your perfect attendance? Fall back into old habits?
For many people, one slip-up leads to more. They would’ve done anything to prevent that first blunder. But the second was less consequential and the third one lesser still. Their motivation had shifted from intrinsic (pursuing the activity) to extrinsic (maintaining their record). They chased consistency for its own sake. So when their streak was broken, their reasons to be disciplined in the routine went with it.
This doesn’t have to be the case. If you fall, get back up. Justin W. Earley writes in The Common Rule: “The pattern, not the anomaly, is the key.” Cultivate habits, not legalism. Pursue growth, not streaks.
We spend too much of our lives trying to avoid mistakes. When we inevitably slip, we waste even more time moping over it—or worse, jettisoning our progress. Life isn’t about keeping a perfect record. Focus on your goals, take chances, and learn from your mistakes. Celebrate your records, but keep moving forward.
This is the fifth post in our series: Challenging Your Self-Limiting Assumptions.