“Your past isn’t your past if it’s still affecting your present.”
-Pete Wilson, best-selling author

My wife and I read very different books. I’m into non-fiction books of the leadership, business, self-help and spirituality variety. She reads science-fiction fantasy sagas.

While we were dating, I tried to get her to read books I enjoyed but without much success. Eventually, I got her to read a book about the connection between sexuality and spirituality. One concept in the book sparked a long conversation between us and gave us a term which we still use today.

The term is “this is about that.” The author explored the idea that often an issue of contention or point of conflict is actually about something deeper. In other words, there’s an issue behind the issue. “This” thing we’re fighting over – our fight is actually about “that.”

When Preparation Is Something Else

One venue where “this is about that” applies is our approach to preparation. Each of us approaches preparation differently. Some of us become hyper-focused on preparation to a fault. Others of us only think about it seasonally. Certain seasons of the year elicit talk of preparation (end of December, beginning of January, the start of the school year, etc.) and each of us have our own feelings about it (“I’m more of a planner” or “I’m more impulsive.”)

During this season, we’re exploring the theme of preparation at Thin Difference. I’ve written previously about how undervalued preparation is (especially to my generation) and why it’s a great investment.

As we approach a new year, we often get excited about new opportunities. Sometimes, we begin preparing to seize those opportunities. I’ve identified three common approaches to preparation. We may not even be aware of these approaches, but I think many of us live in these descriptions on a daily basis.

Preparation as Procrastination

Some of us practice preparation as procrastination. We’re doing all we can to avoid the work, which may scare, intimidate or overwhelm us. We focus on getting ready, and we have incredible plans. Our plans are beautifully constructed, gorgeously laid out in our planners, Excel spreadsheets and slide decks. We forget, though, that our plans will be quickly adjusted or even discarded once we actually begin the work. I love what Mike Tyson said about boxing (and life), “Everyone has a great plan until they get punched.”

Too often, our preparation is simply a beautiful cover for fear. We’ve all struggled with insecurity at one time or another. Showing up, doing work, sharing it with others, getting feedback – these things can be terrifying. It’s much safer and less exposed to prepare privately than it is to lead publicly. Preparation has value when it sets the table for something bigger. When it becomes a way to put off the real work, it’s more harmful than helpful.

Preparation as Perfectionism

Others of us practice preparation as perfectionism. We want everything to be perfect before we leap. We’re way beyond the cliche, “Don’t let great get in the way of good.” For us, anything less than perfect is unacceptable. We overlook great opportunities because something is missing. We wait until our preparation is perfect, only to find the lifetime of the opportunity expired. If you’re a writer like me, this means you look for the perfect playlist, find a great cup of coffee, deliberate on the right seat, tidy up your desktop and waver on the best app for writing. By the time we’re ready, we’ve run out of time to write.

This is a form of procrastination, but it’s different. Where procrastination is rooted in fear, perfectionism is rooted in control. Perfectionism produces many half-baked projects, ideas and products because we’re unable to bring ourselves to a point where we “ship” (as Seth Godin says). We keep preparing and delaying because it’s “just not right yet.” We hover our finger over the publish but pull away so that we can keep tweaking.

Perfectionism seeks to maintain control and minimize vulnerability. But we cannot make a difference without risking failure, hurt or disappointment. If these aren’t on the table, neither are success, love or fulfillment.

Preparation as Patience

At its best, preparation is active waiting. We prepare by doing what we can now, while patiently waiting for future opportunities. In his talk at the Catalyst One Day Conference in 2010, Craig Groeschel challenged leaders to embrace the following mantra. “I will do today what I can do to enable me to do tomorrow what I can’t do today.” The phrasing is a bit cumbersome, but the idea is remarkable. Certain options and opportunities are unavailable to us today. We could rage or shake our fist at this reality. Some of us even give up when we realize what we cannot do today. But when we embrace what we can do today, we often open doors tomorrow.

We all know driven people who are intolerable of the status quo and push, push, push. We also know defeated people who only see obstacles and negatives. Preparation helps us live in the tension between these two. In this tension, we embrace reality and our current limits, while doing all we can today to expand those limits tomorrow. At our best, we can be patient and driven, living in reality but dissatisfied and driven to change it.

Which One Describes You?

On a daily basis, we’re all preparing for something. But much of our preparation is unexamined. As you read through those three categories above, which one do you think describes the preparation you’re doing right now? Is it procrastination, perfectionism or patience? If you’re not sure, ask someone close to you what they think. The people around us often see our actions with more clarity than we do. Once you identify which one describes you, determine if you need to keep preparing or if it’s time for you to launch.

Preparation sets us up for success. However, it has a time and place. Eventually, we must leave preparation behind and step into the act(s) we’ve been preparing for over all this time. John Wooden, former coach of UCLA Men’s Basketball and arguably the best coach of the 20th century, once said, “When opportunity knocks, it’s too late to prepare.”