I used to put a lot of stock in perfectionism—as the mark of someone genuinely good at what they did, and a necessary trait for those in pursuit of greatness. I did recognize that it’s also an incredible burden; holding yourself against an impossible standard is a lot of work and intrinsically without absolute payoff. But until pretty recently, the whole “reach for the stars and maybe you’ll hit the moon” thing just made a lot of sense, particularly in terms of career.
The reasons against were many. There are mountains and years of published wisdom debunking the value of perfectionism, elucidating the importance of mistakes and even failure, about progress-not-perfection, and yet none of that felt personally viable for most of my life. I can’t in good faith say my striving was derivative childhood stuff: sure, my parents had high standards, but they were also flexible and really only half serious. And I do a lot of yoga—subscribe to the philosophy—and perfection has no place in that practice.
So why did I gravitate towards it so? Simple: I thought it was effective. In my mind, being hard on yourself—particularly in the pursuit of a talent, career, self actualization—was a practical, motivational tool. A way to stave off the gravitational pull of Lazy.
Now, kind of suddenly, I’m over it, both in practice and on principle. Instead of an ideal, I now consider perfectionism a personal inhibitor, a tell revealing weakness over strength. Big change.
Getting older has a lot to do with it. 36 is pretty rich in that you’ve got some distance from the insecurities, idealism and identity crises of your 20s and you’ve got a pretty good handle on—if not exactly who you are and what you stand for, because isn’t that always in flux?—at a minimum your likes and needs. In people, environments, hobbies. What you ought gravitate towards and what you’d best avoid. You think, of course, that you know this stuff when you’re much younger, but you don’t. You’re wrong about a lot of it for a long time. And this depth of understanding means you can design a better existence for yourself, even if things aren’t perfect, and they usually aren’t. It’s a gift because it makes Good sustainable where Perfect was always vulnerable.
The bonus is that with activated personal awareness comes the tiniest bit of wisdom. By now, you’ve seen some stuff: what works, what doesn’t, the areas where you have control and where, you come to find, you just don’t. It’s a bit of a reckoning, a taking of stock, and mine has involved acknowledging how few perfect outcomes I’ve conjured regardless of the effort put in. How little craft goes into the best things and how little anyone else actually cares about one’s own failures. I get these things now.
Hopefully, this awakening doesn’t disappoint; for me, it’s been freeing. I’ve learned more, gotten better at my work and my relationships, improved my sense of faith and well-being, by letting go of the driving force telling me I need to do it all supremely well rather than that I just need to do it all, sometimes better than others. It’s become more about the process than the result. Cliched stuff, to be sure. Also true.
Perfectionism also slays creativity. A lot of my job is playing editor, making things a little (or maybe on occasion, a lot) better than they were. Incremental improvements to existing material—other people’s ideas, other writers’ writing, other designers’ designs. This is naturally gratifying, because better, as noted previously, is easy to get to and always feels good.
Another part involves coming up with material myself, and this is where perfectionism tries to wedge its way in, and can really get in the way. Sometimes, when I’m lucky, decent creative comes easily to me, and I’ve written about the epiphany moments, the sparks that fly when I see the answer before I even understand the problem. But just as often—more often, probably—I need to toss out piles of bad ideas before I can get to anything good. The cutting room floor is littered with imperfect. And it’s not like I even immediately know the Not Good upon arrival. Playing it out, working the concepts through, revisiting them in different lights and times of day…this is the only way, and it can be arduous.
A couple of years ago, I stood at the top of a difficult mountain run after a long respite from skiing. Looking ahead at the abyss, almost crippled with fear, I thought: Well. The only way down is down. And that’s how it is with ideation and most creative processes: the only way out is through. By definition, you cannot get through this process in a perfect way, because if you’re worried about perfect, about looking dumb or feeling embarrassed, there can be no process: You won’t put forth any bad ideas. It’s the bad ones that lead to the good, though. The wrong solution helps you crystallize the problem, redefine it over and over until it becomes the one with an actual answer.
In the meantime, whether you’re working in a group or completely alone, it can be really uncomfortable. Fitness coach Jillian Michaels lifted a mantra from the Navy Seals (I think) about getting comfortable being uncomfortable, a physical pushing through that she screams at people crying on treadmills or whimpering through squats. Much the same can be said about productive creativity, and again, a little age really helps here. Being old enough to let go, to get comfortable sounding—or even just feeling—kinda dumb now and then, this is skill! It’s being good at the job. Perfectionism inhibits, thus harms. In applying the imagination, making something great, it’s not a necessary evil. It’s just evil.
Take this blog post: Did I set a goal to do some personal writing for the first time in nearly a year? Yup, hafta sharpen the tools. Am I trying to string together a handful of possibly disparate ideas into something meaningful, at least to myself? Alas, the problem to solve. Is the result, at least at the time of this writing, a rambling, nonsensical stream of shit? Hey, totally possible! Will I hate it tomorrow, consider scrapping it, and then attempt to make it better? Oh, definitely.
Am I better for the process? Better believe it.