As a culture, we are being suffocated by a swelling intolerance for imperfection.
We celebrate genius and perfection to a fault. We stifle exploration in our children and ourselves, fearing failure. We set ambitious goals for ourselves on a myriad of fronts, and stress as we swim upstream to meet them.
I like to think I’m not talking about myself here.
I mean – clearly – I’m not prone to perfectionism. I flat out refused to stress over the tidiness of my house, the pedigree of my vehicles, or whether I am meeting the expectations of others or not.
But if I’m more honest with myself, I must admit I’m a perfectionist in other spheres.
In some cases my (delusional!) expectations of my own abilities make me take on more than I can handle. In others, fear of imperfection keeps me from starting a project I’m excited about.
Of course, on a good day I would deny the fear and call myself prudent and practical.
But it’s fear. I’ll admit it.
Perfectionism isn’t a virtue.
It makes us afraid.
Perfectionism keeps us small.
It limits us to safer paths and narrow, well-worn ruts. The vast, tangled woods beyond look too much lake a doomed trap.
I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of amazing people speak about perfection in the last few weeks. Rocker-poet Patty Smith, Buddhist teacher Jack Cornfield, my favorite wisdom-seeker Parker Palmer, Suzuki, and even Maria Papova‘s interpretation of Ursula le Guin.
The truth is clear, from all of these thinkers: chasing perfection as a goal in itself – whether in our personal life, professional goals, or hobbies – dooms us.
We are not inspiring, lovable, capable people because we have overcome our flaws and made ourselves perfect.
We are inspiring, lovable, capable, whole people in spite of our flaws and because we’ve explored our imperfections. We’ve found their overgrown edges and been inspired by them. We’ve turned off the known path for the tangled woods and found infinite satisfaction in the trails we’ve carved, though they may not be as fast or straight or wide as the paths of others.
By ignoring the possibility of imperfection or – gasp – failure, our personal world grows larger. We expand to achieve something new, imperfect or slightly off target as that something might be.
So when I’m feeling intimidated and stuck and overwhelmed by a goal that feels unattainable, what do I do? Continuing the theme from my last post, I think the trick is to keep asking questions.
What am I avoiding?
When I’m stuck on a writing project or avoiding a task, perfectionism is part of the problem. How can I bring animals into our new barn if I don’t make myself an expert first? When I don’t have a business plan? What’s the point of editing that short story yet another time when it surely won’t be accepted? The trick is to lower the bar just enough to make the task less intimidating. It’s the old trick of setting smaller goals and looking only a step ahead. The small steps are easier to perfect.
Can I overthrow my ego?
I find it challenging to face down my own insignificance. I’m not the only one struggling with this. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke tells Kappus, you may be a drop in the bucket, but the contents of the bucket would be different without your drop. (I’m paraphrasing here).
Some days it feels as if everything interesting has been done. What contribution could I possibly make in any sphere? If I love to write, but if I will never be a David Mitchell (and seriously, who will) why do I persist. The same is true for nearly any endeavor. I’m not the first, the most unique.
What a trap ego is, what a false motivation. If I enjoy something enough to devote free time to it, my status shouldn’t plague me.
When should I just let it go?
Because letting go – as Elsa taught us – is honorable. Some aspirations are fun for a time. When you find they don’t fit you anymore, it’s time to overthrow their burden. Have you seen this gorgeous video about regret? It says it all.
When do you know it’s worth it, and strive for near-perfection?
Some aspirations shadow us for a time, and fade away under closer examination. Those are the ones we let go. Others are our companions for a lifetime, bending and bowing under strong winds, branching and twisting in new directions, but rooted to our very souls. On these, aiming high is not irrational, as long as I can check my ego enough to experiment, and adjust my expectations enough to get started. Even then, self-doubt will persist. For that, I’ll take Rilke’s advice:
Your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers – perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.
-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
I’m really enjoying exploring a question each week or so. I’ve got a pile of Bertrand Russel books to explore next, including my favorite title In Praise of Idelness!