I was offered the same gift twice. I know that sounds a bit strange. Like there was some lame-o out there who gave me a pair of my own used socks or something. But that’s not the case. This gift was one that–while it was given to me twice–I could only accept once.
The first time it was offered to me was the summer of 1996, I had talked my way into a job that was a little too big for me.
Okay, it was way too big for me.
I honestly didn’t mean to lie or exaggerate at the interview. I just really had no idea what I was getting into. That there was more to using Microsoft Word than just typing and then remembering to hit save, which back then, you actually had to do.
So here I was–this ditzy little woman who didn’t know the first thing about a mail merge and who called tech support in a frenzy every fifteen minutes to ask questions about how to use Excel because I had no clue what the phrase “tech support” actually meant. And I was working for a large national promotions corporation as an administrative assistant.
Things did not go well.
In spite of this, my boss, was very generous with me. The first time I received the aforementioned gift, it came from her. I was several months into the position and somehow we had made things work in such a way that I could actually be of some use around the office.
One day, when I was fretting over a mistake that, looking back, was both inconsequential and minor, my boss sat me down. She said, “Julie. This mistake is done. Do you know what you get for it?” I shook my head, unable to speak. I was sure I was going to get fired.
Instead of saying anything, my boss held out her hand, fist closed, thumb on top. “Do you see this balloon in my hand, Julie?” she asked. Not waiting for an answer, she moved her fist closer to mine. “I want you to take it from me.” I did, miming along. “Now open your fist, Julie.” she said. “Let it go.”
As I did, she looked up toward the ceiling for a long moment. “There it goes,” she said before looking back at me. “Bye-bye, mistake!” She smiled. “Next time, let’s just give things a B- effort.”
A B- effort? I thought. What the heck good will that do, not to do my best? That was the first time I was offered the gift. I could not receive it.
Fast forward half a dozen years. I had left the too-big job, gone back to college and, really not understanding the value of a B- effort, graduated Magna cum Laude with a degree in English. I was working my tail off as a high school teacher and constantly stressing (read: humiliated when I found small typos in the notes I typed for myself , freaked out if a parent called with a simple question), when I was offered the gift of the B- effort once again.
This time it came from a student.
I had one in one of my creative writing classes whose work far surpassed that of her peers. Hell, her work far surpassed mine. She made everything look easy from implementing concepts, to acing quizzes and tests, to winning awards in contests published outside of the tiny private school arena in which we interacted. She was proliferous. She was clever. She was…probably a genius.
“How do you do it?” I asked her one day.
“Mrs. Nondorf,” she replied in a way that was at once wise and innocent, “I just give it a B- effort.”
“A B- effort?” I hoped she would elaborate.
“My mom says there is no point in trying to be perfect, and that when we do, we just stop the flow of all the excellence that could be.” The bell rang, and my student gathered up her things. She left my classroom and took the simplicity of her way of being with her.
I didn’t have time to ponder what this girl was trying to explain; my Short Stories class was on the way in. I also had no recollection of the conversation I’d had with my boss all those years back. And for some reason, the concept of a B- effort just didn’t make any sense at all to me. After all, why would you not “shoot for the stars” as the cover of my bright, pink, Flavia illustrated journals encouraged? Why would you not do your absolute best, even if your absolute best required more than a B- effort?
Fast forward another half-dozen years. In spite of the fact that I’d forgotten all the questions I’d ever had about a B- effort, I was about to have them answered. I’d suffered a serious illness and was unable to work. My house was a mess, and I don’t just mean by perfectionist’s standards. I mean a real mess: not only were the closets in disarray, with things in tottering layers up to the ceiling, but so were the dish cupboards, the checkbook, the yard, the garage, the basement. Life had literally fallen apart during the worst of my sickness.
I complained to my therapist one day: “Everything is in disarray! I’ll never be able to clear it up! This disaster is all my fault!”
No, he didn’t advise me to give it a B- effort.
He just looked at me.
He waited to see if I would keep talking.
When I didn’t, he asked, “What’s the worst that could happen if you just let it be?” a question I thought was ludicrous.
But when I followed his advice–not because I wanted to, but because I had to–that’s when things started to come together. Moments from my past–like my boss handing me that imaginary balloon, like my student handing me the advice of her good mother–came back to me with new clarity.
I would be lying if I said, “Since then I’ve been able to give a B- effort to everything, and it’s made me a writing super-star!”
But what has happened is nothing short of super: I’ve been waking, albeit slowly, to the concept, and finding that it’s a heckuva lot better of a way to live and to write than giving everything an A+ effort. As proud as I was of my A+ effort, it didn’t get me much save for a really bad stomach ache.
But my B- effort? Now that’s bringing me things that don’t make me sick. In addition to a happier husband, dust bunnies in every corner, fragrant garbage, and a very weedy lawn, I’ve got a kid who doesn’t play nearly as many video games, a lot more time to heal, and pages and pages of writing that I can honestly say I had fun creating.
And isn’t that the whole point of being creative? To have it overflow in a positive way into other areas of our lives?
I think it is.
What would a B- effort bring you?