Never give 100%?

Is constantly giving our all – always seeing 100% as the bare minimum – the wisest or most sustainable approach to life and to work?

Gentle reader: How are you approaching life and all its challenges in 2023? What’s your level of drive and commitment as you throw yourself into your life and work?

I would hazard a guess that most people reading these words will be giving around or above 100%, in all directions, at all times. Life never lets up. We feel such guilt if we have not given our all.

Life’s relentless forward motion and ever-spiralling pressures demand that we give our all, always. Yet this endless giving of our all will wear out the best of us, if not sooner then always later.

Is constantly giving our all – always seeing 100% as the bare minimum – the wisest or most sustainable approach? Surely there is a better way?

What’s your 2023 energy?

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“Every dead body on Mount Everest was once a highly motivated person, so maybe calm down.”

These striking words were tweeted by JP Gownder on New Year’s Eve (and then shared on Instagram by Dr Jennifer Cassidy, which is where I saw them). Gownder describes these sentiments as:

“My energy going into 2023.”

Seasoned readers of this blog will know that I am a great believer in serendipity. It must be serendipity that within minutes of chancing upon Gownder’s words, I heard similar ideas being explored by Irish comedian and chat show host Tommy Tiernan, via his recent appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. Tiernan talks about his struggles to keep on top of the comedy game. He sets himself the following challenge:

“How do I make this fresh every night?”

Tiernan would find himself ground down by the repetitive cycles and nightly rigours of life on tour. But over recent years, he has transformed his approach to stand-up through three simple words from none other than Bob Dylan:

“Never give 100%.”

These words rather stopped me in my tracks. Why does the recommendation that we consciously and deliberately give less than our all sound almost shocking in 2023? This idea might seem antithetical to or even heretical in this world of relentless forward motion that urges us to see 100% effort as the bare minimum.

For Tiernan, holding back on stage doesn’t come naturally. But the results can be remarkable. Going out of his way not to give 100% proved transformative and immensely beneficial.

As Tiernan sees it, not giving 100% does not mean phoning it in or consciously producing substandard work. Rather, it is about conserving one’s energies in an honest and deliberate way. By ensuring there are still untapped reserves in the tank, the unused potential energy will likely find its way to the surface when least expected. He says:

“All of a sudden this rush of energy just comes up, and you have no option but to express it. It’s not that not giving 100% makes the whole performance become lethargic. Rather, it opens up the door for other energies. And Dylan is the same. Dylan might play two or three songs [half-heartedly]. And then all of a sudden he’s in his full body, and he’s glinting. But each one makes the other possible.”

Not giving anybody 100%

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But why take Tiernan’s word for it? I went in search of Bob Dylan’s actual words. I found them in Dylan’s 1986 Rolling Stone interview. He apparently borrowed these words from someone else. I quote:

“See, somebody once told me – and I don’t remember who it was or even where it was – but they said, ‘Never give 100%.’ My thing has always been just getting by on whatever I’ve been getting by on. There’s something at the back of your mind that says, ‘I’m not giving you 100%. I’m not giving anybody 100%. I’m gonna give you this much, and this much is gonna have to do. I’m good at what I do. I can afford to give you this much and still be as good as, if not better than, the guy over across the street.’ I’m not gonna give it all – I’m not Judy Garland, who’s gonna die onstage in front of a thousand clowns. If we’ve learned anything, we should have learned that.”

For Dylan, never giving 100% is about knowing your strengths, but taking care as to where and how you choose to employ those strengths. Not all of us have anything anywhere close to Dylan’s abilities. I certainly don’t. But all of us can learn from his suggestion that we never give 100%. Putting them to the test might be the most valuable thing you ever do.

The benefits of hanging back

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There can be incredible benefits in hanging back, in keeping something in the tank.

Hanging back can be as simple as finding time to breathe, time to think (a luxury that always giving 100% can work against).

One small example. In writing, it can be as simple as holding back from the frantic scribbling of words on a page. A lot advice on writing that you might find online tends to boil down to two words: “Just write.” It might be better to expand this to four words: “Just think. Then write.”

It is usually well worth taking the time to think through exactly what you want to say. I had an interesting Twitter exchange with my friends Siobhan and Nick on this very topic the other day. I said:

“I like the distinction between finding time to write and finding time to think about writing.

“The latter is at least as important as the former.

“It can be hard to carve out time to think through what you want to express in words. But it is absolutely invaluable to do.”

It is not just in the world of writing where learning to hang back can bring significant benefits.

What are your strengths? Where in your work or your life might you be able to benefit from giving less than 100%? Where might you feel the benefits of hanging back?

If you choose to put Dylan’s words to the test, I would love to know the results.

May you be nothing but kind today, to others and to yourself.

May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.

Everest

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