Why do we believe that perfection works for us when it doesn’t?
Listening to a radio programme recently, a caller was talking about how they had been preparing to have children for a few years and that now they were ‘ready’. It was all part of their plan. Another caller followed saying that they just had children without a plan and had felt incredibly unprepared, but that everything had worked out fantastically well.
It got me thinking about whether we are in fact ever ‘ready’ to do anything? For example, to start the business we’ve always wanted? Change jobs? Emigrate? Travel round the world? Or have children?
It doesn’t matter if you are being creative by writing a book, recording an album or painting or perhaps doing something more ‘practical’ in your ‘regular job’, doing anything requires the discipline to not only start it, but also to know when to finish. Theory is good. And reflection and analysis can be helpful. But after a time, isn’t that just procrastination? When will you actually be ready to put your creation out into the world? We can all prepare, save and plan but how will we know we are ‘ready’?
If you wanted to travel the world, would it simply be about how much money you had to pay for it? When do you know you are ready to change jobs? When you go to work and your day is so bad that you come home in tears? What will need to have happened for you make that decision?
What’s stopping you starting whatever it is now and perhaps learning and getting better on the way, instead of waiting for that ‘one day’ or ‘perfect moment’ to arrive?
For example, I write songs and every few years I release an album. When I recorded my first album in 2000, I found the jump to recording in the studio from writing and playing live on an acoustic guitar to be an incredibly liberating experience. I no longer needed a band and had access to any instrument and sound I wanted. I could do it all myself exactly how I wanted without the hassle of band politics. The problem I had, though, was that I didn’t know when to stop. Each time I added a new part to a song, it wasn’t quite right. There was still something missing or there was too much on there.
Of course, I wanted the album to be perfect — as clearly it was going to be the most important album made in the history of music — but what I didn’t know then, was that this state of ‘perfect’ didn’t exist. Fortunately, I had an emotionally aware producer and now long-time friend who already knew this. He very gently steered me towards the direction of ‘less is more’ and showed me that the road to perfectionism is fraught with procrastination and ultimately, not getting anything done.
How do you know when you’ve finished? When what you’re doing is the best it can be? The truth is you don’t.
You need to somehow have faith in you and your decisions. It’s possible it could be better. But it’s equally possible that it’s already the best that it can be. It might even be a masterpiece that will change the world! The point is that at some point you have to grab the bull by the horns and say ‘I’m done. Let’s enjoy finishing this. And then we can move on to the next project’.
Another example is a lovely story I recall reading about in Alain De Botton’s book ‘The Art Of Travel’ where a 17th-century Dutch nobleman had a room in his house dedicated to England. It was full of memorabilia, paintings, and books. His ‘England room’ and he loved it.
After a few years and as he was a gentleman of means, he thought he would visit the England he loved, so very soon he was on his way, looking forward to seeing the England of his dreams.
However, en route and as he got closer, he started thinking that the reality may not be like the England in his room. Maybe it wouldn’t be as beautiful as his paintings, nor as interesting as his books and so, he turned ’round and went back home. Back to his home. And his England room.
He was happy with the country he had created in his mind and wasn’t interested in ‘spoiling’ this with the reality. The perfect England continued to exist for our 17th century friend. That’s what he was looking for.
My point here is that there can be a lot of social pressure to make our dreams happen and that if we don’t, we have somehow failed. However, what’s important is to clarify what you want to happen and what you are prepared to do to make it happen.
Some people are simply happy with the idea of something. A dream. An idea of perfection. And that is a lovely thing. If it works for you as it did for our 17th-century nobleman, but what do you do if you want to make this dream real? Will you take the risk of it not being ‘perfect’?
Of course there are many things for which we can prepare. For example, driving lessons for a driving test, but sometimes we use not being ‘ready’ as an excuse to not only not do something now, but not ever.
Surely, if we really wanted to make something happen, we would do whatever we could to make it happen. Yes, procrastination can be an issue at times, sometimes things don’t go our way and not everything is possible (for example, I’d love to be 6’2″ tall, but that’s not happening anytime soon), but we can take steps towards something, however small they may seem at first.
People often wait for the ‘perfect’ moment, but it doesn’t exist. It’s a reason or even an excuse for some people to choose not to do something until it’s supposedly perfect. I often hear people say ‘I’m such a perfectionist’ about themselves with the subtext being that it is a good thing, because they have such high standards that others couldn’t possibly understand and now I think about it, it is in fact quite patronising.
Perfectionism isn’t good. In fact, it’s the opposite. Perfectionism stops you from doing things that you want to do.
It is often the case that perfectionists are too afraid to commit and take responsibility for their project and put it out there for risk of being judged negatively as that is when people who will see who they really are. And that is perhaps what they are really afraid of.
If you don’t take a risk and do something, nothing will get done and so you can’t lose anything as nobody will have the opportunity to find fault with you or what you have done. That is the procrastinator’s infamous path of least resistance.
“Imperfect progress today or perfect progress tomorrow?” Dan Rockwell
Don’t succumb to the myth of perfectionism. You can learn on the way, improve and even, become more ‘perfect’ on the way. Whether you are ready or not and whether you want to enjoy dreaming your dream or actually realising it, what’s important is to do something for you that works for you and you alone, regardless of external pressure. It can be difficult, but surely it’s the only forward, isn’t it?
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