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It Doesn’t Need to be Perfect – Part 1

This article is a two-parter.  The next part is already up!  You can find it here.

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. –Anna Quindlen


Perfectionism in work

Perfectionism is a strange creature to be sure.  For some, perfectionism seems to be somewhat of a friendly giant.  It causes them to really get passionate about what they’re working on– it causes them to completely dedicate their time and energy to a project and it usually ensures that whatever the final product is, it’s a product of quality.

That is, if they ever finish.

The problem with perfectionism (And as a former perfectionist, I can tell you this with authority.) is that in many cases it prevents you from actually completing these projects you work so hard on. I’ll give you some examples from my own life to demonstrate how destructive it can actually be.

Myy first novel was a prime example.  I can’t tell you how many revisions it went through.  I literally can’t.  I lost track.

Had you seen my book in its original form, you never would have recognized it.  The original version of Ersatz had virtually nothing to do with the way it is now.  The similarties in theme are there, but beyond that there is nothing consistent.  I changed all the characters, I changed the setting, I changed what would happen during the course of the book.  I did this kind of complete overhaul at least three times, and I made revision after revision to each version.

And I did it because I wanted my book to be perfect.  I wanted to write the perfect first novel, as I’m sure many aspiring writers do.  The problem was that I had written no more than eight pages for over a year.  I was so busy editing my plot, changing the characters, tweaking, then re-tweaking and then scrapping everything and starting again that I hadn’t actually had the time to write the book.

Finally I started reading advice about how to actually finish writing a book, because whatever I was doing, finishing a book certainly wasn’t it.  The advice was simple:  Stop trying to be perfect.  Stop trying to write the perfect book.  You can’t.  Even if it were somehow able to meet your standards of perfect, they would utterly fail someone elses.  ‘Perfect’ does not exist!

So, taking this advice to heart I started writing again.  I re-wrote the whole plot one last time and from there things just took off.  Once I stopped trying to perfect my story idea and got down to refining it, I went through six revisions in total. During those revisions nothing really major changed.  There were tweaks here and there, chapters shuffled, scenes added and removed, etc. but no major characters removed or added and not one entire reworking of the plot, the ending or the beginning.

But it made me realize that I had done this ‘trying to be perfect’ thing with a lot of projects; big and small.  When I was working out regularly I would do fine for a couple of weeks, but then something would happen that would make it so I had to skip a day.  Inevitably, because I had failed to follow my schedule (Failed to be perfect.) I beat myself up about it.  The next time I was supposed to work out I just wouldn’t, usually because I felt like crap.  This cycled for a long time.

I used to do it with school work too.  That one is probably self-explanatory.  Finishing projects was a rarity when I was in highschool.  I paid for it later.

I was an avid artist when I was young, but I eventually gave it up because I would look at my drawings, then look at the drawings of someone who had been drawing for longer than I had been alive and feel that my pictures weren’t up to snuff.  They weren’t perfect.  And so, I was always hesitant to pick up my pencil again because I felt I wasn’t very good.

This probably goes without saying given the examples above, but perfectionism to that extent is dangerous.  Not because it forces you to objectively evaluate your work (Which I think is always important.) but because it leaves you in that stage of evaluation.  Permanently.  You’re so busy refining and changing things so that they’re just absolutely exactly the way that they should be that you never actually complete anything.

But we’re all human, and the fact is that no matter what you create, it will never be perfect.  You could spend twenty-four years writing the perfect epic poem.  Then two weeks after you completed it and finally published it for the world to see, you would realize that you would have rather used a term other than ‘ravishing monkeys’ during that final stanza.

The irony with perfectionism is that sometimes it’s the imperfections that people love about completed works.  Sometimes those little imperfections are what makes the work shine, no matter what the work is.  It’s what makes it organic and unique.  There are an infinite number of ‘perfect’ definitions and that definition varies from person to person.  What’s perfect for you is not going to be perfect for everyone exposed to your project, no matter what it is you’ve completed.  Worst of all, the enormous amount of time spent on perfecting the one project could have been spent producing and completing something entirely different from your first one.

It’s always important to remember that something completed has a lot more value than something that never gets to see the light of day.  I read some advice somewhere once about writing a book and becoming and author, and it said that three mediocre published booke are worth more than one unfinished potentially spectacular book.  Especially since at the end of the day, you have no idea how ‘spectacular’ that one book you’re working on really is.

Trying to be perfect is a task you will never complete.  It is– quite literally– impossible.  To try and perfect a task is to fail at it.  You can always, always get better; but you will never be perfect.  If you want to improve and produce during your life, it is vitally important to remove that perfectionist drive from your life.  Otherwise you may notice most of your passions falling by the wayside.  I know my passions would have never seen the light of day had I continued on the path I was walking.

Perfectionism in relationships and perfectionsim of the self

If you can believe it, perfectionism in relationships and perfectionism of the self can be a lot more harmful to you than perfectionism in work is.  While there are instances in work where you are forced to release to the world what you would consider to be an unfinished product, in the realm of relationships and the self there is often no one to tell you that you just need to jump instead of endlessly preparing to do so.

The next post is about perfection in relationships, and perfectionism of the self as well as how to recognize it and conquer it.  If you missed the link at the top or just don’t feel like scrolling up, you can find it here.

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  1. [...] your own work and say ‘Good enough,’ and move on.  Don’t let potential issues or perfectionism keep you from submitting, because otherwise you’ll never get anything out [...]

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