Monday, January 17, 2011

On Perfectionism and Failure

Last week, I read something that was so applicable to my personality that I was like, "Whoa."

From Get Rich Slowly:
If I can't do it perfectly, I won't do it at all. That was my attitude, and it stopped me from getting back on the proverbial horse too many times to count ...
The all-or-nothing mindset is one of five characteristics of perfectionists that contribute to underachievement, according to research published by Gifted Child Today. (The other four are procrastination, fear of failure, paralyzed perfectionism, and workaholism.)
Sometimes perfectionism is cast in a positive light ... But I think perfectionism is harmful, and it sucks the fun out of life. The all-or-nothing mentality paralyzes you.
I am all too familiar with that paralyzed feeling. I've written about how I've let fear and self-doubt keep me from having great adventures in the past, and about how I'm working on becoming more of a doer. I didn't realize that those feelings had a lot to do with perfectionism. See: all-or-nothing mindset; fear of failure; paralyzed perfectionism. Whoa.

A great example of this happens to be a fun story about how I almost didn't graduate high school. Yeah, you read that right.

My entire academic career leading up to senior year, I had never gotten any final grade lower than a B. Then I got a D-minus in ceramics the very last semester of high school. CERAMICS, people.

We were supposed to complete eight ceramics projects. By the time the school year was nearly over, I had only completed four because I worked on each one with painstaking care, trying to craft them into museum-worthy pieces. Four out of eight = 50% = a failing grade. Luckily, the teacher let me stay after school to complete one last project, thus earning my D-minus, thus earning the right to walk at graduation.

My perfectionism almost prevented me from graduating high school. Little-known fact. The ironic part was that even though I put so much effort into each project, that was the exact reason why I nearly failed the class. Rather than striving for perfect work (in a medium I knew nothing about), I could have settled for good work and finished high school in a less traumatizing manner.

J.D. Roth likes to say, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." So true. I'm still intimidated by photography because I still don't understand how all the camera settings work or how to take photos as well as Aaron can. (He's been shooting for years, has owned something like 20 cameras, studied in college, worked with a wedding photographer, won photography contests, etc. I've held a digital SLR camera for two afternoons of my life.)

It's irrational, but I still feel self-conscious because I'm not great at it yet. Any shots I come up with were blindly taken without any thought put into the camera settings. But I have to remember that I'm out there doing it, great or not, and I'll eventually get to where I want to be if I put the work in.

The same is true with running... eating well... saving money... and other things I put on my list of goals for 2011. I won't be perfect at training, eating or budgeting all of the time. Some days (or weeks), not even most of the time. I'm a terrible procrastinator (one of the characteristics of perfectionism listed above — who knew?), and that hinders my drive to do things.

But if I let one bad, fearful, self-conscious moment get me down and make me quit trying to achieve something, I'll have failed much worse than if I had given it my all and failed anyway.

I like the philosophy of Ben's brother, Jed, who is a high-school football coach: "Win today." If you had a crappy day yesterday, fine. Win today. You'll never get anywhere if you use any failure as an excuse to give up completely. Take whatever goal you're working on one day at a time, and try to win each day. That's it.

I also like Chris Guillebeau's take on what it means to be brave:
My belief about fear and courage is that all of us are scared of all kinds of things, so the wrong approach is to pretend to be fearless. Instead, acknowledge your fears, but proceed anyway.
I also think there is a link between what we are afraid of and what we really want to do. The choice to bridge this gap is where bravery comes from.
I am afraid of failing. (I'm also afraid of spiders and clowns, but I have no desire to bridge those gaps.)

However, I've found that the more I try, the less I fail. The big, scary idea of "failure" is becoming less of something that I'll experience if I try something and am not good at it, and more of what I'll experience if I don't try my best to push through the things that will keep me from succeeding.

I'll fail if I dream of running a marathon, but procrastinate so much that I don't train for it. I'll fail if I let my all-or-nothing attitude give up on my budget because I didn't manage my money perfectly this month. I'll fail if I let myself be paralyzed by self-consciousness and quit taking photos.

I'll leave these reminders here for when I feel like I'm losing my grip on the things I really want to achieve:

Stop thinking about what you want to do and start doing it. 
Take it one day at a time. 
Forget about yesterday. 
Forgive yourself for whatever you did or didn't do.
Then go for the run.
Save the money.
Take the photo.
It's OK if it's not perfect.
Just win today. 
Then win again tomorrow.


1 comment:

  1. This is an awesome post. I just discovered your blog two days ago and have been perusing your favorites. This post spoke so much to me. Thanks.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...