Until far too recently, I operated under the naivety that the most recent things I undertake should be the best they’ve ever been. I’m not sure if this falls under a classic “perfectionist” mindset, but it’s worth mentioning that I never strive for perfect. Hardly. That said, my brain can’t help but tell me “well, you’ve been doing X for Y years, you’ve got more experience than you’ve ever had, so yeah, the latest should be the greatest.” Wrong.
A perfect example of this is running. If you start from nothing, then your latest run might actually be your greatest run. For years, possibly (depending on how hard you push). But eventually you’ll plateau, or even take a step or two backwards (pun intended). What I’m saying is, if you go out for a run and expect it to be your strongest/fastest every time, you’re eventually going to have a bad time. Not only that, you’ll get worse. Spoiler alert: it was me, I got worse.
It took me way too (mid 30s) long to realize that this mindset is insane. But it made me wonder what else I’m doing where I have–or had– a similar perspective. Parenting, for sure (the similarities in distance running and parenting hit me hard). You’re slowly figuring out how to raise a kid and you might suck at first, but you eventually figure it out (until the kid changes, or daylight savings happens again). I learned that I can’t be the best parent every single day. I’m human, and some days I’m a great dad, and other days I’m a lousy one. Why? Because…
The accumulation of experience doesn’t guarantee better results.
The key word up above is “guarantee.” Sure your experience might set you up of success, or make you more efficient, but it doesn’t mean you’ll avoid failures. Or be crushed by a lousy outcome.
Latest ≠ greatest is most evident to me in creative work. Yes I’ve been doing this for a living for over 15 years now, but I sometimes look at old things I made with a lot of ignorance and only a little experience and think “wow did I peak a decade ago?” “Why is this old thing better than the stuff I made last month?”
If you’re in a rut it might not be helpful to look at your “greatest hits” and compare them to whatever it is you’re doing now. Alternatively, it might be the best time to dig into previous successes. The factors that go in to why a creative project (a song, font, visual identity, etc.) was so good even with less technical/life experience could vary greatly.
Maybe you were in a better headspace, had more time, less stress, were eating healthier, sleeping better, surrounded by inspiring people, had a deadline to hit and hard constraints. It could be anything. Maybe you’re burned out now, spread too thin, working too hard, taking things too seriously. Too busy parenting (uh oh). Forcing it. Who knows? Maybe accruing new skills has you forgetting the old reliable ones. Achievement unlocked or previous achievement neglected?
Listen, all I know is that you only peaked in your past if you stop. End of story. This might explain why I’ve cranked out a lot of mediocre work. I’m aiming for quality, but quantity might help me get there sometimes. In my mind, it’s better than nothing at all. And maybe my best thing has yet to come. Time to get back to it.