Created with Sketch.

Why you’ll never give things your all

Imagine giving it your all.

Imagine you created a product, built a business or lead a project that you poured 100% of your potential into. Imagine you harvested every scrap of your potential, then found some you didn’t even know you had. Imagine pouring all of that into your work.

Then, you birth your thing into the world. You put it out there for the market to judge.

There is nothing more terrifying

Imagine the market rejects the work that you poured everything into. Imagine your peers just “um” and “ah”. Or maybe offer you some “constructive criticism”. Imagine your mentor says “Consider this one a learning experience – next time will be better!”

Normally, you tell yourself, you’d be fine with those responses. For any project but this one – this was THE ONE!

Imagine, essentially, that you serve up a platter of everything you’re capable of… and it isn’t enough.

Are you terrified yet?

This may be the first time you’ve considered this possibility consciously. Your unconscious mind has been well aware of it though. For some time. In fact, every time you’ve set out to give something your “all”, your unconscious mind has deliberately held you back. Even without you knowing.

Giving your thing just 90% (or even 95%) is a fantastic form of psychological protection. It insulates you perfectly from the risk of failure destroying you. It separates your identity from the possible failure of your work.

If your project fails, you can always tell yourself: “I only gave this 90% – if I had tried a little harder, it might have been a success.”

This is a lie, but a convenient one. The 90% part might be true, but the rest is a guess – an assumption that cushions your ego from bruising.

My experience working with entrepreneurs (those with a track record of pumping out extraordinary work) taught me this:

The serially successful have made peace with shipping at 90% potential. They don’t try to put 100% of their potential (and soul!) into their work – they save some energy for building the tough skin and stamina required to keep working on newer, better stuff. They cultivate the power to keep going, regardless of how the last venture performed.

It’s only the wannapreneurs who talk about committing to their passion and contributing all their potential. People who have never finished anything find it easy to talk about giving everything they’ve got. They’ve never had the experience of their “all” not being enough. The good news for them? They probably will never have to!

The words of irish comedian Dylan Moran have always had an impact on me:

“Your potential is a lot like your bank balance – you never really want to know exactly how much is there…. You never want to know that, if you harvested every scrap of your potential, the most you’d ever achieve is maybe eating less cheesy snacks…”

Street smart entrepreneurs settle for working at 90% capacity. They know that one failed “100% project” will utterly destroy them. They know it’s not a risk worth taking. They know it’s impossible to be prolific when you exhaust 100% of your potential on a project.

Are there entrepreneurs that do it? Yes. The world is full of examples of people who have martyred themselves to their cause (or business). Sometimes, these kinds of projects actually kill people. It usually happens somewhere between giving 99% and 100%.

Ask any successful business person, artist or revolutionary: Could you have done better on the last thing you “finished”? We all know what the answer (always) is.

Become a street smart entrepreneur. Get used to pumping out work at 90% of your potential. Use the psychological cushion when you fail – don’t take it personally.

This sounds totally counter-intuitive. In fact, it almost appears wrong even as I write it: If you surrender to your unconscious mind holding back a small chunk of your potential on every project, you’re far more likely to be successful.

The logic is simple. If the only way you can succeed is to harvest every scrap of your potential, divert all your energy from everywhere else (your health, your family) and sacrifice it on the alter of your “thing”… then that thing isn’t worth doing. I doubt if it’s even possible.

Instead, imagine committing only the vast majority of your potential to project after game-changing project. Imagine the collective impact over your lifetime. Imagine stretching and strengthening your potential – baking a bigger cake rather than taking a bigger slice.

This post has one point: The next time you beat yourself up for “not giving it your all”, stop. Relax. Be thankful that your intuitive, unconscious self knows exactly how much to hold back.



+ Add Comment
  1. Hi Peter,

    Giving it 100% seems to fall into the perfectionist category. People keep fiddling with it, waiting for it to be perfect when that will never happen. One of my greatest bosses taught me to “just do it.” Get it out there, tweak it later.

    A big problem I experienced in corporate-land were folks who could not get things even almost finished. And you see it today — everyone needs to get one more degree, one more certificate, one more something to be something or start something.

    Our credential crutch is entering dangerous economic waters. Some of the brightest folks will never get a degree. They often just do it. Check out the list of famous dropouts. It’s amazing.

    Fun topic! thx, g.

    1. That’s an interesting point of view – I don’t see giving it 100% as perfectionism, which generally means people can’t let go until it’s “perfect” (when there’s really no such thing).

      Giving it your 100% seems far more like letting go so much you don’t hold anything back, don’t you think?

      1. Good Point! Now that you’ve got me focused on this, I’m not sure it’s even possible to give 100%. If perfection isn’t possible. 100% can’t be possible either. What would that mean? I’m trying to visualize 90% versus 100% versus 120%.

        Peter, this question has many layers … G.

        1. It’s a very interesting discussion going on and I really feel like contributing 🙂

          I think if one takes this fact ‘seriously’ that perfection doesn’t exist so they should not aim for the best, then they are just not putting all their potential to work. And if they disregard the fact and just focus on giving their best, whatever that might be, then they can certainly produce much better results.

          In my opinion, giving it all you got is not aiming for Perfection but is more like aiming for the best results you can produce. Thinking that perfection doesn’t exist so I can’t give it my all, is simply like putting a limit on one’s potentials which can affect the outcomes.

          that’s the way I see it..:)

  2. I work in a field that is both technical and creative. The technical side does require perfection, while on the creative side, I thrive on exceeding my clients’ expectations. Thank goodness for deadlines, because creativity never ends. There’s always another idea, another version — yearning to show itself! If I let that take over, my designs would never be completed.

  3. Ha, that advice will go a long way to those days when writing a blog post is a struggle (yes, they happen). “S’alright James, go ahead and half-ass it. Don’t give it your all – save that for next month, yeah?” Woot, instant flowing words!

    Joking aside, it’s an interesting bit of advice. Takes the pressure of performance off with everything, I’d say, yeah?

  4. So why are you doing it – whatever it is you do every day?
    There is, of course, another way to look at it – the way of the awakened warrior spirit.
    Make whatever you are doing now for whatever reason you are doing it
    sacred, thrilling and delicious.
    The thing itself is completely irrelevant and the only interpretation that matters
    is your persistent perception of it.
    Sunflowers, viruses, buddhas, assassin bugs coke cans, Abyssinian rollers, slabs of concrete, affidavits, love songs and doilies lie scattered about the planet all equally holy.
    The awakened warrior spirit weaves through them a tapestry of passionate detachment on a loom of lightness.
    The awakened warrior spirit is persistently alert to the electrifying power that enables it to construct a new heaven from whatever detritus its foot chances upon.
    It’s not what you do but how you do it.

  5. Dear Peter,

    Your post resonates with me and I wish I had read this advice about three years ago. Whereas most of the comments so far have equated 100% as a level of perfection sought, I can relate to your advice moreso from the cautionary statement, “If the only way you can succeed is to harvest every scrap of your potential, divert all your energy from everywhere else (your health, your family) and sacrifice it on the alter of your “thing”… then that thing isn’t worth doing.”

    When I began my project I did not think I had to divert all of my energies and no one mandated that I do that. But as I became more and more involved and my enthusiasm grew while I beheld what my project was becoming, I devoted more and more resources to it. It soon took as much time – if not more – than my “regular” job.

    I did not try for perfection; although, I wanted to make certain as many details were as accurate as they could be. But as time went on I did pour virtually every asset I had into the project and I was emotionally invested in it far more than I realized.

    When someone I looked up to delivered a strong criticism and it was followed shortly by others with other criticisms it devastated me. I stood back, realized how much I had invested into it and how much I had denied myself and my family while I had been developing it. Thereafter, I found myself unable to think about the project without a great deal of negative emotions also coming along. In fact, it took over six months before I could venture back to it in a neutral state and stay that way.

    While many people have praised my work – and the criticisms were never made public – the impact of the criticisms on my psyche have affected my work. Even now, I am reluctant to ever take on a similar project. Had I not been so invested, I know I would not have reacted so strongly.

    My supporters are mystified by my reluctance to be involved again since the first effort was viewed by many as being wonderfully successful. I have learned though – as you said – if it takes that much in resources, there’s something wrong with the way you are doing it.

    Harry Chapin perhaps detailed it best in his song, “Mr. Tanner.” I just never saw the possibility of it happening to me.

  6. Peter,

    Awesome post!

    I’ve been interviewing and researching high achievers lately. And they work from this same seemingly-paradoxical place. They produce amazing work (so they obviously care deeply about doing so) and yet they don’t see the work as “them”. They see themselves as the shepherd bringing this work to the world. So the criticisms and revisions that any great work endures, which most of us interpret as ego damaging, they see as making the work better which means they are a superstar shepherd.

    They’ve basically figured out a clever method of strategic association and disassociation. Which ties in to exactly what you are saying about the problems that come up when people get *too* associated to their work.

    See you soon,

  7. ooooh I like this post! This is soooo true!

    I find that although I might work very hard for something, I am very blase about the results. I launched my first book recently and knew what I could have done better before it hit the shelves. Someone explained to me that this is very common with authors. I am reminded of the quote that “yesterday’s win is today’s ego trip”, especially when I found myself needing to write bio’s etc.

    Thanks for articulating this distinction so beautifully.

    Serena : )

  8. Great post Peter. I recently had a project where i had created a commercial, advertising copy, newspaper adverts, built a working prop, interrupted a national marathon to shoot part of the commercial (illegally) and had a product ship from halfway around the world only to have the product fail miserably in the market. My ego was bruised, but my creativity wasn’t hampered. Luckily for me I had “shipped” my creative work, before i thought it was 100%, so apart of me was able to let go of the project and move on. Big lesson for me. Keep your inspirational nuggets coming!!

  9. The other day, I read a similar post from Seth Godin when he talked about “How do you know when it’s done?”

    His take on this was very simple,

    “Of course, it’s not done. It’s never done.

    That’s not the right question.

    The question is: when is it good enough?”

    That’s just the reality of life as it turns out, it is never really done. It is done when we die, but as long as we live, 90% [doing it good enough] is the acceptable standard of success. Death is probably when it is really, really finish – 100%

    I guess this is why you say our unconscious mind deliberately insulates us from giving our all. Nature has found a way to delay our best for the last -death.

    In my opinion, we just have to keep giving and giving all that we consider good enough [90%] such that in the end, when death comes knocking, we can let go of the remaining 10% – perfection!

  10. Peter, have you read Ernest Becker’s ‘Denial of Death’? This book talks about how we avoid reaching our full potential for fear of becoming perfect, or too good. I’d recommend reading the book despite it’s unappealing name as he has a lot to say about thwarted human potential and the unconscious derivatives of this which you allude to in your post. I can’t really do justice to his ideas myself! Read it!

  11. I loved this, Peter. It really resonated with me.

    Maybe the only ‘work’ you should put 100% into is work you do on yourself. If people don’t like the outcome, you can always find new people 🙂

Leave a Comment

Outsource your battle for Focus and Productivity

Commit Action’s Executive Aide service helps business owners become the highest leverage version of themselves possible.

Visit Peter’s other business