How Do You Beat a Perfectionist?
I still find it odd that it took a jumping roundhouse kick to the head to help me realize how terrible my perfectionism is.
Perfectionism is something that affects most writers. Far too many authors have cut their own careers short because of this vile little gnome. Rather than pressing through and recognizing that success only follows hard work, those of us who listen to the imp refuse to even start. After all, if we can’t do something right, what’s the point of doing it at all?
I started practicing Tae Kwon Do in college. I wasn’t the best fighter, but I enjoyed the exercise and camaraderie. Our class was held at my university, and consisted of a group of colored belts and an easily-awed group of white belts who were taking the class for credit. No one but our small group saw our mistakes.
All in all, it was a pretty insular experience…
…Until our master informed us that he wanted every colored belt to fight at a tournament in Princeton University.
Being a green belt at the time, I had no choice but to fight. The thought of going to the tournament terrified me. It wasn’t a fear of fighting that scared me. No. I was terrified of not doing everything right. What would the spectators think if I didn’t do well? How would they see my loss? Would my kicks be well placed? Would my reflexes be up to par?
Everyone but me seemed in good spirits the day of the tournament. I could think of nothing but my fight.
It wasn’t until evening that I was called to the staging area to put on my protective gear. I was totally numb as I was led to the mat to fight. I don’t remember much about my opponent. All I remember is a flurry of kicks performed with more agility than I could ever muster. I did my best to fight back, but I couldn’t keep up.
It was awful. As a final blow, my opponent landed a jumping roundhouse kick to my head. The match was over. He won. When I left the mat, my lip was bleeding and I had some blood on my uniform.
A strange thing happened then.
After failing horribly in front of a packed crowd, I did not die. The earth did not open up to swallow me. My mother had not disowned me in shame. I had gone through with the match…and I lived. All of that worry about not being perfect in my fight was for nothing. Failing was not the end.
I still struggle with perfectionism, particularly in my writing. But I’m learning that in order to get anywhere in this career, we have to be willing to fail–badly.
We get too caught up with comparing ourselves with successful writers that we don’t realize that their work is the result of years of trial and error. In order to get to their level, every single published author out there failed a hundred times before succeeding once.
If you’re battling perfection in your writing–or anywhere else in your life–you have to fight it. Be willing to screw up. Accept the vague descriptions or ghastly metaphors. If the perfect in you continues to scream, don’t stop. Keep on writing, no matter how terrible you think are.
Only in failing do we discover our success.
What about you? Have you ever battled perfectionist tendencies before? If so, how do you stand against it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.