Photograph By Ricardo Viana
You guys, I hate perfectionism so much.
I have done battle with perfectionism all my life. I’m not going to get into the specifics of my battle right now, but suffice it to say, it has come darn close to ruining my life a time or two. (Or, more like a decade or two. No joke.)
And the thing that kills me most about this way of thinking, this attitude, this thing is…we like it.
We pride ourselves on being perfectionists! We think it somehow lifts us above the common rabble, as if we have an eye for detail and set of standards that no one else can possibly understand. Alternatively, if we do know on some level that it’s not such a great thing, we still kind of hold on to the belief in the back of our mind that of all the faults to have, surely it’s the best fault, right?
Spoiler alert: it’s not. It’s the worst. I’m here to tell you why you need to avoid perfectionism at all costs. This is a difficult thing to do when Pinterest and Instagram are showing you nothing but perfection. But if you’re trying to do any creative work, or if you’re just trying to live a half-way decent, happy life, you NEED to grasp this concept. Perfectionism is your enemy.
Reason #1: It keeps us from trying.
You see, perfectionism is such a thief. It whispers doubts in our ears that we are simply not creative enough, or “together” enough, or wealthy enough, or have enough time to meet our vision. So often we don’t even bother trying. If the novel I write isn’t going to be the masterpiece I imagine in my day dreams, why try? If I try to cook this elaborate meal and there’s no way it’s going to look as beautiful as the magazine picture, why try? let’s just order pizza and call it a day.
Reason #2: It steals our joy when we do try.
Or, perfectionism may wait around and lurk. It may hold off just long enough for you to attempt something, but once you’re deep into your project, it pounces! Are you really going to do it that way? You can’t say that, what are people going to think? It nags at you and you spend far too long on details that no one is really going to notice anyway, and you end up fatigued and eventually all the joy you felt at beginning a creative project is destroyed. You feel discouraged and foolish for even trying.
Or, perhaps perfectionism holds out even longer. It stays back complacently until you’ve finished your project, and you sit back and admire your work proudly. Until you see an error you did not notice before. And then another one. And suddenly, this work you spent hours laboring over suddenly feels very silly.
Here’s the deal. Even famous artists, the ones we think are “great”, are unsatisfied with their work. But we think of their work as “perfect”. They know differently. You will never reach perfection, in any medium.
Henri Matisse, an artist I greatly admire for his undying playfulness and experimentation, said “I do not repudiate any of my paintings, but there is not one of them that I would not redo differently.”
This is a realistic attitude towards your work and life. Of course, as you continue to improve, you’re going to look back and be dissatisfied with earlier efforts. Or perhaps you are dissatisfied with your current efforts. Either way, do not reject your work, no matter how short it falls of your vision. The imperfect today is necessary to push you onward toward tomorrow.
Photograph by Josh calabrese
Reason #3: It makes us set our standards way too high.
Look, I’m all for having high standards. I believe there is a certain integrity that comes from doing the best work you can achieve in a given situation, no matter what the task. However, I believe it is important to realize that “your best” will look different from day-to-day, in different seasons in life.
Holding ourselves accountable to some harsh, unchangeable standard of perfection, no matter what unique challenges you might be facing, is dangerous. It is dangerous because it strips us of our authenticity and denies us the pleasure of enjoying where we’re at, right now.
Of course, setting our standards too high also leads to creative paralysis. We take the phrase “if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” too literally. For too many of us, we think “if I can’t do it perfectly, why do it at all?”. This attitude keeps too many people from contributing real value to the world. Know what I say? “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing pretty well.”
Reason #4: Ironically, it can make us set our standards way too low.
Because if it doesn’t look like I’m trying, no one can judge me if I fail.
This is one of the sneakiest ways perfectionism steals joy, because on the outside, it doesn’t look like perfectionism. It might even appear to be laziness. But if I’m dragging my feet to do something (and it’s not because I truly don’t have time, or it’s not something very important to me in the first place), it’s usually because I have such an unrealistic standard for how something ought to be done, that it’s easier to just not attempt it, or if I do attempt it, to purposely not put a lot of effort into it.
The classic example of this is with style and beauty. Younger readers may not understand this, but as you get older and life becomes more work, it is scary how easy it is to fall into frumpsville. I’ve found myself skirting dangerously close to the edge, though I’d always vowed not to! It’s because your days are full of very unglamorous activities, and there is this standard set before us of movie-star beauty, that seems very far removed from real life. Even TV and film portrayals of “real life” are so beautifully stylized, you think “I could never achieve that”. So it’s “easier” to stop washing your hair and live in workout gear and pajamas. Because if it doesn’t look like you’re trying to “compete” with a standard, you will never feel like you’ve failed.
We do that in many areas of life, and of course with our creative work. The answer of course, is to not compare yourself with your concept of “perfection”, whatever it is, and instead strive for “excellence”, or heck, “good enough”. Decide what your standard is for your work or your lifestyle and work towards that.
Ultimately, battling perfectionism is about having grace towards yourself.
Photograph by Ilya Ilyukhin
Next week, we will discuss some practical strategies for avoiding perfectionism in your life and work.
For now, let me leave you with an excellent poem by Julia Caroline Ripley Dorr. It reminds us that life and work are both journeys. Neither will ever be perfect. This does not mean that neither will ever be beautiful.
The joy is in the doing,
Not the deed that’s done;
The swift and glad pursuing,
Not the goal that’s won.
The joy is in the seeing,
Not in what we see;
The ecstasy of vision,
Far and clear and free!
The joy is in the singing,
Whether heard or no;
The poet’s wild, sweet rapture,
And song’s divinest flow!
The joy is in the being—
Joy of life and breath;
Joy of a soul triumphant,
Conqueror of death!
Is there a flaw in the marble?
Sculptor, do your best;
The joy is in the endeavor.
Leave to God the rest!