The Heavy Responsibility of Perfection

What causes most people to quit a new habit? The same thing that causes most people to abandon their New Year’s resolutions.

This tree got in the habit of leaning on the wall and then made the most of it.

It’s not that the goals are too lofty (unless made in a hurry under the influence of drink or peer pressure), but the mistaken belief that one misstep “ruins it all.” It doesn’t. One misstep, one missed day, one incomplete page is just that–an imperfection. It doesn’t invalidate the intention or the goal. It can reinforce your determination, if you let it.

One missed day, one misstep, does, however, make it easier to add another missed day to the stack. It’s easy to let your determination erode. At that second,   self discipline comes in. If you skip a day of a new habit, be aware of it, be conscious, make it a deliberate choice, not just a shrug and a skip. And the next day, make it a choice to return.

Change doesn’t happen all at once. Change happens when we replace one action with another. And the more often the replacement happens, the more likely we are to repeat, until we have a new habit. In an email I received, someone insisted that if they forgot one day, they would have to “start over,” they added, “with nothing.” I know that’s how AA does the counting, but I don’t think that’s true with journaling, or meditation, or compassion. You have something. You have begun to walk down a path. You are exploring your motives and excuses. That’s not nothing. That’s already part of the journey.

Of course, if you want something positive to happen, you will have to kick yourself occasionally to keep doing it, and you will have to do the work, but you will always do your work imperfectly, because that is the reason we keep learning–every imperfection is a chance to learn something new.

Quinn McDonald is a recovering perfectionist. Most of the time she lets go, but then sometimes, there is the death grip on needing perfection validation. So she has a way to go.

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17 thoughts on “The Heavy Responsibility of Perfection

  1. This is a great post, Quinn, and your readers leave such smart and insightful comments that I usually think I have nothing to add that hasn’t already been said better. But I want to comment on Ruthee’s statement that “perfection is nice if you can pull it off.” I think that when you can pull it off, that is when perfection becomes the cruelest taskmaster. It demands a repeat performance at every opportunity, expecting better than perfect, perfect in more things. Perfection is never satisfied. If I could let it go, I might find the joy in the process again.

    Allowing a slip and just going back to the desired behavior next time might be the key. That is how walking is for me now. I used to walk every day, and if I missed a day I felt like a failure. Now I walk almost every day and enjoy it more. There might be something to that…

  2. This post also reminded me Zen and meditation. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my struggles with meditation is that when my attention wanders I don’t stop, or berate myself, but gently bring my focus back on the meditation and keep going. I try to apply this lesson to my life.

  3. That idea of needing to be perfect, or at least do something well, even when first learning, is what keeps us from trying new things all the time. We don’t want to fail. We don’t want to look foolish. We don’t want to look stupid. A long list of reasons (excuses) why we don’t try and why we don’t follow through. If we slip or make a mistake along the way, we just stop! We can’t bear the thought of messing up. I do say ‘we’ as I have certainly been known to think this way in the past. It is only in the last year or two that I have started thinking in a new way. Started understanding that the mistakes made along the way are just as important as the accomplishments made. I have started embracing the journey, not just the destination.

  4. This is just the post I needed to read at this point in my life. I haven’t been working on artistic endeavours with the same enthusiasm lately. I look at the results and feel that I’m not progressing the way that I would like to or I’m not seeing the artistic results that I demand. I’m a tyrant when it comes to my work – it’s all or nothing. Consequently, I’ve been spinning my wheels for the past while and getting nothing done. I want what I make to be “perfect.” Realistically, I need to focus on what I feel as I work on various pieces, take pleasure and pride in the making of a journal page, painting or what have you. You have just made me realize that I’ve been in competition with myself and feeling that I shouldn’t be trying to make something if I can’t do it perfectly. Well, perfection is nice if you can pull it off. I think and will consciously put up a reminder in my studio that the reason I started painting etc. was just for the joy of it. If I get back to my original journey where joy was the intended result, then I will find myself in a better place mentally and be able to make art that resonates with feeling.

    • What Diane says further up is exactly right–perfection is not nice, even if you can pull it off. Perfection is an unreachable goal that’s destructive. It’s the enemy of “great.” I like to go right to the heart–making meaning. Unless you are dedicated to making meaning, nothing else will make sense.

  5. Once again, your post is “spot on”, Quinn. As Dan Eldon wrote, “the journey is the destination.” I think we are way too hard on ourselves sometimes. We need to give ourselves some grace. I read something once that I think about often. Paraphrased it was something like: “Woulda and shoulda were planted and nothing grew.” Instead of focusing on what we don’t accomplish — at the end of the year for instance (as in what resolutions we did not follow through with) — we should focus on what we did get done and be encouraged.

    • So true. I never criticize in class. The student won’t hear anything for the rest of the day. But if I praise, they will repeat what they do well. Which is what I call “improving.”

  6. Quinn:
    I love this post. It is hard to “re-wire” ourselves to form a new habit, but when you do accomplish it, there is such an amazing reward at the end. I think that the days we “slip” are part of the journey and they help remind us that it was worth all of the effort.

  7. Are you familiar with Zen Habits? A blog of sorts that addresses this very topic-regularly and eloquently. Yesterday the topic was the ritual of making tea….just reading it was a relaxing moment in the midst of a crazy day! Check it out. I am confident you will find something of interest and/or merit.

  8. Just yesterday I was looking through a book about art journaling by Gwen Diehn. An illustration of a page from one of Ann Turkle’s journals caught my eye because it had two scratched out words. It was impresssive enough to me that not only had she “ruined” (my word) the page, but she was even willing to have it published in a book!

    And as I look across my room, I can see a small pile of blank books purchased or made specifically for journaling, some of which I’ve had for more than 25 years. They have nary a mark on any of the pages.

    Sigh. Is your new inner critic book almost ready for publication, Quinn? No? Please write fast, very very fast!

    • I’ve seen that page, Anne, and yes, scratching out words is a bold move, but also a powerful way to combine words and design for effect. I’m working as fas as i can, Anne, but I’m doing a bit of wrestling with my own inner critic, too.

  9. I’m reminded of W H Auden’s “Epitath on a tyrant”
    “Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
    And the poetry he invented was easy to understand
    He knew human folly like the back of his hand
    And was greatly impressed with armies and fleets.
    When he laughed, great senators roared with laughter,
    And when he cried, little children died in the streets ”

    I hear echoes of my own inner tyrant striving for perfection in these lines

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