I am a perfectionist in every area of my life, except apostrophes, as people continually feel the need to point out to me. (Yes Squirrel, you are not alone). Perhaps it’s the designer in me or the storyteller, or both, but I conceive everything, that might be, that soon will be, that I’d like to be, in vivid, precise detail and it drives me insane that life – me – continually ignores my blueprints. And when things go outside the lines, their intrinsic value doesn’t matter, because all you see – all I see – is where they missed the mark.
The irony is, the blueprint most often was wrong in the first place. Because it was simply an idea, a plan, no matter how vivid, based on suppositions, unknown variables and impossible realities.
We throw perfectionism around the same way we throw Nazi around, without really acknowledging the reality behind the word. I suppose if you aren’t truly a perfectionist, you don’t understand the reality. It’s paralysing.
Psychologists have recently distinguished two types of perfectionism. One: they define as the positive side and call optimalism. It’s still about having high standards, liking things done well, but it’s not obsessed with some unreachable notion of perfect. Essentially, this is the kind that you can boast about. I’m not entirely sure as such it can qualify as perfectionism. They’re just high achievers and you don’t have feel sorry for them, go right on muttering hexes under your breath.
True perfectionism really is about perfect, which means there is no satisfaction. There’s no place you can reach, take a deep breath and think, yes, done it. Much less fucking nailed it, ya beauty..
There are moments, when I catch my breath and for just that inhale I’m thinking, I’m there, but..
If you are wondering whether you fall in the optamlist or perfectionist camp, there is a handy test you can take although for my money, they summed it up here..
‘If you’re wondering whether or not you’re a perfectionist, there is a good chance you are one..’
But as a perfectionist, good chance, aint good enough. So you’ll probably take the test, then find the questions generic and no answer quite right, so will continue to question whether you truly are a perfectionist, or just not very good.
There are a lot of established definitions, some interesting re-spins, which kind of amount to the same thing – the stressed, over-worked, negative nelly who is never pleased.
I’m not sure I entirely get on board with this. For one I don’t think of myself as a negative person. Yes, I can be critical of others as much as myself, but while I can see the flaws, even in things I love, I don’t necessarily hold them to account for those. I can still see that within context it’s good enough.
I recently saw the sterling advice that for the perfectionist paralysed by never feeling good enough, the key was to get to 90% perfect and then ignore your obsessive nit-picking tendencies and just get it out there. But while there is wisdom in there, it kind of begs the question, how do I know when it is 90% perfect? For the perfectionist, there really are no degrees; there is not good enough and there is perfect.
So how do you get to 90%? How do you stop it from paralysing?
I’ve recently been feeling all Tony Robbins (not physically..) Mostly because I have recently discovered Tony Robbins. If you aren’t American and don’t have a clue, much like me a week ago, he’s of the Giganticus Americanus Awesomnus family and has left me with an overwhelming desire to heal the world. Being as I can barely solve my own problems, if you aren’t dealing with my peculiar strain of perfectionism I’m going to be of no use to you what so ever, but if you are.. everybody say Aye! I mean.. you might find this interesting..
First you have to accept – I have to accept, that I can’t shut the gene off. All artists are driven by visions. Bad artists, good artists, good enough artists. I’ve tried giving up; I did actually stop writing for nearly three years. Perfectionists cannot accept failure, but perfectionists cannot succeed, on account of perfection being impossible. Therefore, like most, I’ve flirted a lot with just not trying. Until the visions drive you crazy begging to be realised.
After three years of not writing I had a backlog of visions needing tending to: three screenplays, a play, five novels and counting. I also stopped smoking, moved to another country and lost four stone, after first gaining three. You stop smoking and see how many cream eggs you eat.
None of the above was achieved, it was just done. Of course some might see that as an achievement in itself. Guess what they are not?
Yet, I am happier for them having been done than not done. And in many ways I am happier the more I do. It’s not merely the truism that it’s easier to edit a page of poor writing, than it is to edit a blank page. It’s much more straightforward than that.
In Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland tell the parable of an art teacher who divided up his class into two. The first half he set the task of making as many clay pots as they could. They more they could make the higher they would be graded. It didn’t matter how good they were, how broken, misshapen, holey bottomed they were, as long as they were recognisable as a pot he’d just dump them all on the scale and the higher the needle went, their grade would surely follow.
The second group were told they would be graded on quality. They were tasked with making just one pot, but the most perfect, most beautiful, most uniquely conceived, most skilfully crafted pot they could manage.
When grading time arrived a curious fact emerged: The best pots were actually produced by those in the quantity group.
The message is an old one: practice makes perfect. Although the fact it’s been receiving a lot of attention lately, from the idea of 10,000 hours made popular in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers to inspirational videos on you-tube narrated by Sylvester Stallone, suggests that its one that our culture just doesn’t really accept.
Many view our desire to cling to the notion that talent is inborn as troubling, I think the problem might actually be a little to the left of that. We’re confusing talent with achievement. As if true talent is a mysterious force that magically creates without the talented individual ever having to expend any thought or energy. For the talented individual the game is already won, the masterpiece already written. I can believe in genius, I’m not so sure I can extend it to magic. Mozart wrote so much his hand became deformed in his twenties. Talent I’d never take from him, but neither would I deprive him of being a hard worker. A bloody hard worker.
For the perfectionist, this is crucial. The perfectionist is always in the second group:
‘It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work and learning from their mistakes the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.’
You’ll never convince a perfectionist that perfect doesn’t exist – they’ve seen the visions in their head and they shone so bright – but you can appeal to the more practical and logical side of their nature. We can’t defy the laws of nature yet we often seem to expect to. We’ve barely written the line, dipped the brush in the paint before we’ve judged the whole as a failure, yet I’m sure I’m not the only one to find that some of my very best ideas (probably 90% of them) came when I was in the middle of writing and not while sitting trying to come up with genius. Put the emphasis on doing, not judging, focus on the process and moving forward and you will inevitably reap the very real rewards and see visible improvement. This in turn will not only keep you on the path of optimism, believing that you might just have what it takes to get there, but it’ll make the whole thing a lot more fun.
This story is particularly interesting to me because it suggests that achievement or at least the measure of achievement lies in the judgement of others. What drove the students was the need to achieve an ‘A’ by meeting the standards outlined by their teacher. And perhaps what paralysed the second group was that they had no real idea what would be perfect in his eyes.
Perfectionism has at its heart, doubt. In truth I believe perfect can be achieved. For some. It’s only for the perfectionist that it can’t. Because for them the ‘A’ isn’t good enough. Some people set concrete goals and once they sell to a big publisher, get a Booker, get on New York Times Bestseller list, they’ve met their goal perfectly. It’s never as simple as that for the perfectionist. They’re driven by internal standards, standards both extremely precise and incredibly nebulous. Perhaps why we seem to focus on the flaws is that they are often the easier part to identify when you are creating something never before seen except in your head, which to clarify, conceives in a confusing hodge-podge of emotions, images, words and ideas.
Of course we’re not immune to outside opinion. We’re human. Everyone wants to be validated. Van Gogh might be the best known example of this. While the story is often exaggerated its clear he was carving his own path and the world wasn’t receptive. Another example is James Joyce, a critically acclaimed success after Dubliners he then proceeded to write Ulysees, which was so unique that despite his previous success no publisher would touch it. Even then backed by a few he managed to maintain his status as a genius, one teetering on the precipice of madness or hubris, but still respected and then he wrote Finnegans Wake…
Sometimes I think it is this inherent juxtaposition that tortures me most. Is it my own eyes I am judging with or my perception of the worlds? You cannot create by following someone else’s vision. Even if you aren’t an artist, though I’m curious why you would be reading this if not, art is not limited to paint and pen, it can be as much about crafting ourselves, our values, our lives, as anything else. Are you striving to be a lawyer when you want to raise goats on a welsh hillside and make your own cheese? Is there something you need to stand up and declare regardless of judgement?
Perfect sits where we’re satisfied and no one will ever be satisfied living someone else’s life. Or telling someone else’s story. Find a way to listen to that internal voice; don’t let the world bury your gut instinct. At work, my colleagues have gotten a little attuned to my obsessive tendencies and in an attempt to be kind, they often strive to assure me, its fine, you’re done, don’t do another thing to it. But I know it’s not and listening to them means sleepless nights haunted by what I didn’t do.
I really do want to emphasize this point because many will try, like my kind colleagues, to imply, or the message will be inferred, that the perfectionist’s judgement is at fault. That they cannot be trusted to ever know good, that everything will always be flawed beyond salvaging in their damaged perspective, and this only creates more doubt, undermines their esteem and breaks trust with the self. If you are anything like me, you’re probably already afraid of your own obsessive tendencies.
It is not your vision that is at fault, nor your judgement, but the fracture between the demands and voices of the outside world and the internal demands only you can hear. Healthy confident people trust themselves. It can be hard – ask Van Gogh – but acceding to others ideas will not lead to happiness: getting in touch with your own instincts, listening, hey staying up all night if necessary pursuing them, will..
And that leads me on to: Embrace your imperfections. Anyone who has ever felt the shackles of being a people pleaser will be able to tell you in intimate detail where they don’t quite fit. I reckon most perfectionists would call these flaws. When you let go of being what you think everyone else wants you to be, you might start to see them as something else: The true lines of your vision. And embracing them rather than taking you further away from its realisation, as your fractured judgement might have made you fear, might actually clarify it. Its been speculated widely that Van Gogh had severe eye problems. Some attribute his obsession with the colour yellow as a side effect of taking a digitalis prescription which can cause yellow spots or discolouration. Its also been suggested that he may have suffered lead poisoning from the paint he used. This can cause the retina’s to swell and halo’s of light to appear around objects. He literally saw the world differently. But if he had tried to sand himself down to fit, we wouldn’t have this.
It might seem as if I am telling you to embrace perfection. To pursue it when pretty much everything else you will read on the subject matter is about curing, or least defusing, the tendency. And yeah, I am. No one seems to care for the obsessive reality of creativity.
If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery it would not seem so wonderful at all
But I’m not able to give up on achieving my visions any more than I was able to quit writing. There is no point in pretending, in pursuing that perceived normality. Tried that remember. Three years.
I’m just looking to make the process more enjoyable and the answer to that isn’t less work. It’s in the way we look at that work. It’s about being kind to ourselves, trusting ourselves and believing that what we see – what no one else can see – is worth pursuing.