Relax: How you do one thing is NOT how you do everything

You can relax now.

written by oz chen

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how you do one thing is how you do everything - why this is false and perfectionist

If you’re that person who puts toilet paper next to the holder instead of taking 10 seconds to install it… you’re a disgrace to humanity.

If you can’t even do this one thing right, you won’t get anything else right. I don’t care that you’re the CEO of a successful non-profit that saves baby seals. Leave your job, abandon your family, and eke out the rest of your life as a vagrant. Might as well quit while you’re ahead.

All because supposedly “How you do one thing is how you do everything.”

How did we get here?

It’s not clear where this phrase comes from. Some have tried to pin it as a Zen buddhist quote, and others have repeated it as a business mantra.

I assume good intent on its origins.I imagine “how you do one thing is how you do everything” is another way to tell someone: “Hey, stop being a dick to waiters.” To make them reflect on how shitty they might treat other people.

But ultimately, notions like these supports a rigid culture of perfection. It can show up in small insidious ways…

Have you ever received a compliment and tried to balance it out with something totally irrelevant?

Hey great job with that PowerPoint.

Umm…I was late picking up my kids from daycare last week though, so I’m actually a shithead.

The giver of the compliment would be dumbfounded since the two tasks have no relation. But in the respondent’s mind, they are not enough. They won’t allow themselves to feel good about one thing if they feel bad about another.

That’s why I love the Me / Also Me memes. They acknowledge and make fun of the fact that we are all multitudes.

Not all actions are equal

“How you do one thing is how you do everything” implies that all actions are equal. The last time I checked, wiping my butt has had no impact on my writing ability (unfortunately).

This way of thinking breaks when you apply the reverse:

If all you have is a hammer, then everything else looks like a nail.

How you work through a work problem may be different from handling your relationship, which may be different from what managing your diet. If there’s a common approach or mental model that works across various domains, great.

The real challenge is choosing the right approach, at the right time, to solve the problems we want to solve.

Progress over perfection

Be careful when you hear extremes used in language, like everything, nothing, always or never. Writers like me will use it to convince, and sometimes to generate attention. When there’s chaos, people want order. And a strong point of view can give people a sense of direction.

But is there anything more limiting than your entire character being judged on 1 thing you did?

This is the seed of cancel culture: Take 1 thing someone does, blow it out of context, and apply it to their entire identity.

Everyone makes mistakes. We shouldn’t treat one’s actions as their permanent identity. People can and do change. Instead, focus on action over identity.

I hope you find this to be a relief.

How you do one thing is NOT how you do everything.

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