“Pff, you think you’re good at singing?”
I turned to my friends and laughed. Hard. I looked back at him with a condescending grin on my face. I wanted him to lose. I wanted him to be embarrassed. Because if he was being made fun of, it meant I wasn’t. I learned quickly that middle school was a dog-eat-dog world, and today, he was fresh meat.
“Yeah, I think I am,” he said trembling in the shadow of our haunting laughter.
Aside from bullying to protect myself, I picked up another habit in middle school that I’ve used far more often. It’s the all-or-nothing habit. If I can’t do it all the way, I’m just not going to do it. Reminds me of Ricky Bobby from Taladega Nights: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” It might sound familiar to you too:
- Homework—Now? Meh. Tomorrow.
- Work—Pretend I’m busy, go home, try again tomorrow.
- Workouts—15 minute run, OR 15 minute snooze, zzzzz…
- Money—I’m already in debt. One more swipe won’t kill me.
- Friendships—Oh, we can only hang for 30 minutes? Nah, let’s reschedule.
- Dating—You mean, they might say no? Not for me.
- Diet—I’m just not hardcore enough to follow all of those diet rules. Eff it.
This all-or-nothing mentality isn’t all bad. It’s not even our attempt to sabotage ourselves; rather, it’s our attempt to protect ourselves. Somewhere in our lives, when we didn’t give 100% to something, someone made fun of us, told us we didn’t do well enough, criticized us. And it hurt. It told us in our most vulnerable moment, that we are what we feared: not enough.
So instead of putting ourselves at risk of being criticized again, we evaluate: can I go all the way, or will I fall short? We play out the risks in our mind, typically starting with worst case scenario, and if it’s not ideal, we avoid it altogether. We drink, we eat, we watch TV, we play games, we escape, we run, we hide. Because we found some kind of refuge from the hurt there.
However, this all-or-nothing mentality has its own downsides. Since a lot of the times we choose the 0%, we end up not doing anything at all to move towards what we know we want. Instead, we walk away from the start line. And when we come back, the race feels all the more overwhelming because the “should have” pressure has been ticking the whole time. We’re afraid to get caught anywhere short of ideal because we’ll get gunned down by criticism.
So a lot of the times, we walk away entirely. We abandon working out. Our grades suffer. We hide until the very last minute when, ideal or not, it has to get done. Then we’re getting chased off the start line by the bulldozer of consequence—deadlines, due dates, unsatisfied clients, dire health problems, broken relationships, debt, etc.
We get stuck in paralyzing fear of criticism until we get cattle-prodded forward by the fear of consequence. We’re always either stuck or sprinting for our lives. Both ways are exhausting, and both ways we feel powerless and painfully out of control of our lives.
But there is another way. And I found it in the most unlikely of places: back in that middle school class when someone I bullied flashed a moment of brilliance.
It was almost like my taunt reverberated through his mind. “Well then…
He looked back at me, and something deep stirred in him. I saw the fire in his eyes turn on. He pushed his chair back and climbed on top of the table. And he sang, at the top of his lungs, in front of everyone.
I remember how tense I felt in that moment. I felt like I needed to make fun of him to protect myself because his success made me look like the fool. But I couldn’t because I admired him. He didn’t sing on pitch, and he would never be America’s Idol, but he wouldn’t be stopped anyways. One moment, he was paralyzed with fear, and the next he was on top of a table in front of a crowd doing the very thing I thought he never would. There was something ferociously brave about that moment that’s stuck with me over the past decade.
I call it the Courageous Middle. It’s the space between 0 and 100, the 1 to 99. It’s anything that puts you at risk for judgment or criticism. It’s every step forward from the start line. It’s progress. It’s conquering the fear of idealism. It’s recognizing anything is better than nothing. It’s realizing that one step puts you in motion. It’s taking your life back for yourself. It’s saying I will no longer live my life based on how you think I should. It’s imperfectly living your life judged by your standards. It’s defining your life by forward movement and not sideways criticism. It’s the Courageous Middle.
Instead of skipping the gym because you don’t have time, it’s doing five push ups before you go to bed, or five math problems before you play games, or ten minutes working on that project that’s weighing on your shoulders, or fifteen minutes tidying up the house. While it doesn’t feel like much, knowing that you did something to move towards what you want will propel you into next day because it’s always easier to keep moving than it is to start moving. Progress is success. Moving every day—even if it’s 1%—is a win because you’re refusing to stay stuck in the fear of not doing/being enough.
The most courageous step you can take every day is the one that keeps you going. So take it today—that messy, imperfect, seemingly insignificant one. Starting is victory. Continuing is victory. Imperfect progress is the goal. Whatever’s got you stuck—losing weight, your relationships, your career, house projects, whatever—you have the strength to take one step. So today, stand up and belt it out. Be brave.
The secret to getting unstuck is in the Courageous Middle. And it’s yours for the taking.