Don’t spend your life trying to live up to your performance expectations

Earl R. Smith II, PhD

(Read More From My Blog)

In the early stages of mentoring – during those first crucial sessions – there are a number of ideas that I introduce. One of the most difficult to comprehend is a suggestion that a person should not spend their life trying to live up to performance expectations. Most of us grow up thinking that, without goals, life would be reduced to a random meandering and the idea of progress would dissolve into meaninglessness.

If the idea behind my comment was that simple, such would certainly be a well-founded criticism. But like most concepts that arise out of Zen Theory, the closer you look the more complex and subtle the argument becomes. Perhaps a bit of poetry might help you understand what I’m getting at. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, The Conundrum of the Workshops, seems a good place to start. And, as with all good writing, the best place to begin is at the beginning.

When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”


Here, at the very beginning, Kipling is describing a “conundrum” that all human beings face once they start thinking abstractly. If you wipe away the metaphors of Eden, the Tree and the Devil, what you are left with is a human being who is dissatisfied with the result of his effort because of some abstract and unreachable standard which Kipling calls “Art”.

This is a much more complicated idea than you might initially think. There is a difference between knowing whether or not you have done your best on the one hand and fretting over the fear that your best does not live up to some abstract standard on the other. You see, Kipling is not talking about some external “Devil” but the devil within all of us that leads us to shame and mourning.

So now, let’s take a look at verse two.

Wherefore he called to his wife, and fled to fashion his work anew —
The first of his race who cared a fig for the first, most dread review;
And he left his lore to the use of his sons — and that was a glorious gain
When the Devil chuckled “Is it Art?” in the ear of the branded Cain.

If we again shear away the metaphors and maintain the understanding that everything Kipling is talking about takes place within a single individual, a very interesting interpretation becomes possible. Having set the table in the first verse, Kipling is now focusing on the implications of an abstract standard. The key phrase in the verse is “And he left his lore to the use of his sons”. This can be interpreted as “And he abandoned his true self for a synthetic image of himself”. In other words, Kipling’s Adam abandoned his true self and sacrificed his “lore” in pursuit of the abstract standard Kipling calls “Art”.

I will leave you to read the rest of the poem. But for our purposes here, I’ll provide the final verse.

Now, if we could win to the Eden Tree where the Four Great Rivers flow,
And the Wreath of Eve is red on the turf as she left it long ago,
And if we could come when the sentry slept and softly scurry through,
By the favour of God we might know as much — as our father Adam knew

Again, if we could shear away the mythology, we approach the insight which Kipling is offering. For what he is suggesting is that, if we could disabuse ourselves of these abstract and inhuman standards, we would return to the authenticity of who we really are.

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