Perfectionism is a curse. It can be loosely defined as “the compulsion to create only the very best, and thus to create nothing at all.”
Look back at your own perfectionist tendencies and tell me it’s not true. You start with a good idea, but you defer implementing it until “just the right time,” “when inspiration strikes,” or “when everything is ready.” Think of how much has been left undone because of this poisonous idea, how much creativity and productivity has been stolen from the world.
The very fact that I’m writing this blog is amazing to me, because I had to pass through a number of thick, gelatinous membranes of perfectionist compulsion to get here. Enjoy that imagery for a moment. Indeed, this is probably the third or fourth incarnation of my blog, with a graveyard of other blogs with even sillier names left in its wake. I had this strange idea that I needed everything to be right before I started in earnest, so I did a lot of faffing about (which is British for “fucking around”) for a few years. In the end, I was only faffing myself.
Perfectionism as Self-Handicapping
I plan to write more on this in the future, but we humans have this curious habit of self-handicapping. This is where we pursue goals only half-heartedly, so that, should we fail, we can say, “eh, I didn’t really try.” How clever of us! It allows us to fail without the sting of defeat, without the threat to our egos that can sometimes come from our best not being good enough. It also greatly increases the chance of failure, but our unconscious reasoning counts that as an acceptable cost.
Self-handicapping comes in many forms (as a teacher, I hear “I didn’t really study” quite a bit; when you don’t study, the F doesn’t count as failure!), and I consider perfectionism to be one of its more insidious incarnations.
Consider this: You’ve got a project in mind, but you keep putting it off because you’re uninspired, or it’s not “flowing,” or “I always work best under pressure.” Maybe you’re going to start hitting the gym, or write the great American novel, or learn a new language/instrument/martial art/kinky sex technique. Somehow, it keeps not happening.
This isn’t procrastination, mind. No, things just aren’t right. It’s the perfect excuse, because it absolves you of any need to move forward. Once you catch yourself using it as a crutch, you might be surprised how much life it’s keeping you from living.
Beauty in Imperfection
There’s something that I’ve had to learn over the past 20 years (I consider my first 12 years on this Earth to be largely ones of inanimateness, where most of my behaviors were incidental byproducts of digestion), and that’s to be at ease with the prospect of failure. An anxious young lad, everything I did had to be the best or it wasn’t worth doing. I had an amazing, almost supernatural ability to be embarrassed, even when alone or completely unobserved. In my mind, I always had an audience, and it was always this close to turning on me.
I was fine doing the things I was naturally good at, but blundering through learning how to dance, or facing the frustration of learning the piano, or coming to terms with my difficulty with math? My perfectionism kept me from even trying.
So, I know it’s a little early, but New Year’s Resolutions: I’ll give myself permission to screw up. I’ll try to reframe “failure” as “learning,” and resolve to learn like crazy. I’ll try to see things from a 3rd-person perspective (would I judge a friend this harshly?), and to see the beauty in imperfection.
Perfection is attainable in some situations, I guess. This drive to be perfect, however, ignores the law of diminishing returns, the idea that doing something really well usually takes way less time and effort than doing something flawlessly. Give yourself permission to do less than your best, and see if it doesn’t help your productivity skyrocket. I’m going to give it a go, and I’ll let you know what I find out. Expect typos.