When "almost" is enough

When my two sons were younger, I taught them to swing a bat at a plastic ball tossed underhand. When they whiffed, which was often, they would call out "Almost!"

Not "oops" or "darn" or "never again," which would have signaled frustration, but "almost."
They almost hit it, and they were ready to try again. If they missed again, so what? As long as they swung the bat, as long as they made an effort, they had almost succeeded.

I remember smiling every time they said it, and reminding myself that this was a good philosophy for any effort. Do your best, and see how it turns out. "Almost" keeps you from giving up or stomping off in anger or blaming the pitcher or the coach.

There's an optimism attached to "almost" that's missing from most other words. "Almost" means not yet, but I'm still trying.

Grown-ups use "almost," though mostly to buy time or to qualify answers when we're uncertain. What do we say when asked if we're done with a task? "Almost." How do we answer when asked if we'll meet a looming deadline? "Almost." What do we think when someone calls the boss a "perfect idiot?" We think "almost" because nobody's perfect.

Most of us know the difference between a job well done and one done well enough. That gray area in between is where "almost" lives. We all want to excel, but let's face it, the closest most of us come is "almost." Why chew your lips off trying to be the very best when "almost" is close enough for jazz?

The "almost" approach takes the pressure off. And it leaves the door open for another attempt. How often have you done all you can, working long hours and giving yourself a big fat headache, only to find that the results weren't quite what your superiors had in mind? There's no sense trying to tell them about "almost," but "almost" can be a cushion to collapse upon when you think you can't take any more.

While "almost" may lead to better mental health, it's a philosophy you're better off keeping to yourself.

Bosses don't want to hear that you "almost" did a good job. They want it all done and they want it done right, which means they want it done the way they would've done it themselves. The fact they didn't do it themselves probably means it was a dirty job to start with, but that doesn't let you off the hook.

I'm not endorsing goldbricking or lollygagging. I think you should try your best. But striving for perfection comes with a high price: Ulcers, migraines, depression, anger, impatience, spoiled relationships, the various escape hatches seemingly offered by drugs or drink or other bad habits. All because you weren't perfect, even if you "almost" made it.

We should embrace "almost." Let it soothe us. Let it ease that impatient hustle-bustle that plagues our lives. We all know we can't be perfect at every task, all the time. But if we almost make it, if we've done the best we can under the circumstances, then "almost" is probably good enough.

It's a hard lesson to learn. Americans are competitive strivers. Society demands that we go full tilt all the time, trying to get ahead, to make a buck, to outdo our co-workers. Outside of work, we struggle to have the cleanest house, the slimmest thighs, the funniest jokes, the lowest golf score.

The pressure builds as we push for perfection. The result? All the fun goes out of the tasks. It's possible to enjoy the most mundane chore if you slow down and pay attention. But we all go too fast, trying to get it over with so we can move on to the next thing. If we don't stop to smell the roses, the only odors we get are sweat and fertilizer.

I spent many years working for newspapers, where the daily grind consists of going as fast as you can without making a single mistake. These days, I'm trying to slow down, to savor the work, to stay optimistic about how it will all turn out.

Am I succeeding?


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