Is your “My-biggest-flaw-is-I’m-a-perfectionist” badge standing in the way of you completing your projects? Possibly, but maybe not the way you think.
No seriously. You don’t have a perfectionist problem. You don’t even have a problem finishing things. What you might have, though, is a problem starting them. Me too. Sigh. <<angst>> Sigh of sighs. So, too, do many of my clients, who are brilliant, creative and high-achieving professionals, much like yourself.
If you believe perfection is possible, then you can forget about hitting that finish line; you probably haven’t even left the gate.
I have had a solid case of writer’s block that’s been edging on 6–8 months now. If you look at my personal blog, it’s getting closer to two years full of tumbleweeds blowing around, just looking to find a post to bump into (and not finding anything at all to impede their lonely tumbling).
I was listening to a podcast a while back with Elizabeth Gilbert (author of various bestsellers like “Eat, Pray, Love,” “The Signature of All Things,” and more recently, “Big Magic” which you should drop everything to go and read now. Or after you finish this post, since I finally bloody wrote something, so it’d be nice if you finished reading it.).
I realized, with a hollow clanging in my soul, that I do not have writer’s block. There’s not really any such thing. I have starter’s block. It’s a much worse condition, due to its rate of occurrence and the fact that it is indeed a real thing.
What makes starter’s block a worse condition than perfectionism (at least for me) is that while I have an innate preference for things to be the best possible version of themselves, my case Starter’s Block is entirely optional. Ew. It’s been my choice to not write. So my lack of writing has not been the result of the wicked whim of a spitefully absent spirit of inspiration, leaving me in the lurch with nary a word to type?
Liz, as I like to call her — because I’m pretty sure we would get along and hang out and finish each other’s sandwiches — made some brilliant points about perfectionism that had not really occurred to me before. Namely, she argued that a perfectionist isn’t necessarily someone who struggles with finishing endeavours, but rather that one afflicted with the need for perfection has a greater tendency to not even start.
You see, since the likelihood of completing the endeavour to the standard expected by the perfectionist is nigh on impossible to achieve, the weight of failing to hit the desired bar is too heavy a consequence to bear (albeit a completely fabricated and immaterial consequence, but that’s neither here nor there for the afflicted perfectionist).
This halts any action towards the goal as effectively as those menacing tire-damage spikes that stop you from going the wrong way in a parking lot. All the air/inspiration is suddenly sucked out of the thing, whatever the thing may be: say, drafting a blog post, painting her office, writing a series of children’s’ books that are crystal clear in the author’s mind, just to name a few that are actually in my to-do list. And all because the pressure to create up to the perfectionist’s adequate (aka most likely impossible) standard is too daunting an endeavour to undertake. The ending is unknown. Now there is risk: “I might not be able to do it right,” translates into “It’s safer to wait until I know for sure I can do it right.”
“Waiting until you can be sure to do it right,” is code for never. Ten days past Someday (not a day of the week in any calendar I’ve ever seen).
So the image of the beleaguered perfectionist, striving away and cursing their inadequate efforts (“Why oh why isn’t this working out the way I imagined it would?”) is replaced by the image of a perfectionist pulling possum: Paralyzed by fears of the ending that get in the way of the beginning, perfectionists just give up, or indefinitely postpone, before they begin (“What if I try my best and can NOT get this to work? I’ll probably die.”).
I’ve got good news (or bad, depending on your views of mortality): You’re gonna die anyway. Go frigging start stuff before it’s too late and the only thing being finished is you.
Go forth and happen to things. Start it, for God’s sake, whatever “it” is.
Being a perfectionist isn’t a reason not to do/be/make stuff. That’s like saying that because I have hazel eyes, I can’t run a half marathon. So you care about the finished product. So what? Most people do. Stop leaning on perfectionism like it’s a disability, and GO START STUFF.