You know what I hate, with the fire of a thousand suns?
Most televised talent competitions. American Idol, and its many imitators. I don’t hate them for their often smarmy, manipulative story lines – although zzzz. I reluctantly applaud their ability to employ people in film, and even showcase a few select performers’ work. That’s all fine.
What I hate – HATE – is the tendency of these shows to highlight product over process, focusing exclusively on end results and shaming those who fail. It’s an exaggerated example of a trend that’s all too prevalent in today’s world: the endless pursuit of perfection.
It’d be one thing if this relentless quest was limited to bad reality TV. But I’ve seen far too many people – ESPECIALLY freelancers, who tend to be hyper-driven to begin with – burn out on a fruitless mission to be “perfect.” They kill themselves working long hours. They blame themselves for every client miscommunication.
They’re merciless in self-assessment. They work under tremendous, almost unbelievable pressure, and beat themselves up every time they stumble. They end up having panic attacks and endlessly popping Tums while putting off doctors’ appointments so they can rework that project one! More! Time!
I know this process so well because I, myself, am a gradually-recovering Former Perfectionist. I, too, have cried and cursed and made melodramatic declarations over flaws in my work that seemed mammoth, mortifying, and unforgivable.
If I had been able to calm down and get perspective, these flaws were often fixable (or more importantly, an inevitable part of a learning process). But I could never calm down, never stop freaking out – because I was so desperate to do everything perfectly, every time, on the first try.
But I am working hard to reform my ways – to emphasize process over product, and allow room for missteps and growth. And if you would describe yourself as a perfectionist, I’d argue that you should join me.
When you start allowing for imperfection in your own work – when you stop relentlessly pushing for an abstract, unreachable ideal – you open up room to experiment and play. You relax a bit, and creativity becomes easier to access.
What’s more, when you stop holding yourself up to some impossible standard, you get your head out of the sand and start being able to see the “flaws” in other people’s work, too – the little quirky slip-ups that enhance their work, that let you see through the product to the craftspeople underneath.
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Think of your favorite creators, inventors, leaders, or innovators: odds are you can name one of their unsuccessful projects, or pinpoint an aspect of their work that you dislike. Even archetypal geniuses like Michelangelo made slip-ups every now and then, and had to improvise.
And yet you still admire your heroes, despite their imperfection! That’s not because you’re settling for lame-o role models – that’s because NOBODY IS PERFECT.
PERFECTION IS NOT A NECESSARY PREREQUISITE FOR SUCCESS.
If you suspect that you, like me, are a would-be perfectionist, take a deep breath. Close your eyes (okay, you can squint at this screen out of one of ‘em – this exercise doesn’t need to be perfect, either) and repeat after me:
Perfection. Is. The. Enemy.
Work towards improvement and growth, not some unattainable ideal. You may be surprised just how much you can achieve… in a decidedly imperfect fashion.
Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.