Perfectionists: Take That Risk!

Every time you make a decision, you close the door to other choices. It’s a fact of life. If you are a perfectionist, this causes a problem. Did you make the best decision? If it is the best decision for now, how about tomorrow?

For those of us who are recovering perfectionists, I can cheerfully say, “Make a decision. Every one of them comes with a consequence. You can’t control your whole future. Risk!”

TucsonsunsetPerfectionists are excellent procrastinators. Putting off a decision means not making a wrong decision. Yes, that’s true, but it also means you are not moving forward. And not moving forward isn’t an act of perfection. The difference between a rut and a groove is the length of time you’ve spent there.

Here’s something I learned over the years: if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t taking enough of a creative risk. If you are doing everything right, you are doing the same thing over and over. That isn’t perfection, that’s the shortcut to insanity. Unless you are assembling a kit, perfection is not the goal.

Come on out in the open and try making a decision whose outcome isn’t practiced, isn’t certain. If you make a mistake, you’ve learned something. And learning something is a milestone to getting better. Perfection, on the other hand, is an impossible state that hates “better.” So it remains immobile.

Image: I took the photo without looking as I drove from Tucson to Phoenix. The phone slipped and I took the photo. A happy accident–I like it better than a planned photo.

Quinn McDonald is spending the weekend taking risks with her new book. The Inner Critic is frantic and her Inner Heroes are gathering.


26 thoughts on “Perfectionists: Take That Risk!

  1. Thanks for sharing such a great and timely post! I so needed to read that! My inner perfectionista has me immobilized or sluggishly moving toward my goals more often than is helpful of her; of course, she’s just trying to protect me, I understand. I love what you wrote, “And not moving forward isn’t an act of perfection. The difference between a rut and a groove is the length of time you’ve spent there.” So now, I will ask myself this wise question on a daily basis, and my inner perfectionista will be able to relax a little more, since we both understand that where we want to be is in the groove! The way you have expressed this also reminds me of a feng shui concept, that in our homes, optimally the energy flows at just the right pace, meandering, lingering, but still moving. Not too fast or too slow, not stuck or trapped anywhere, but encouraged to pass through every part. I’m enjoying your inspirations and wisdom so much–thanks again!

    • Ah, that perfectionista–sometimes it’s not the harsh words of the inner critic, sometimes it’s the siren song of perfection that can seem so reasonable. It sounds like you really have her number, which is a big part of moving ahead!

  2. Ah! There is something here but I can’t quite get a hold of it. I am trying to learn to play a musical instrument well…….all right perfectly! It definitely requires mastery and to obtain that it requires a lot of repetition……BUT not mindless repetition……What? Perfection and mastery and mindless repetition collide and I am confused!

    • There is something about practice that isn’t mindless repetition. There is always some nuance, some part that needs to be gotten smooth. For me, that needs paying attention to, sliding through, and never mindless. Mastery is not perfection, mastery is being agile and knowing how to make the most of what you have (which perfection is different). For me, mindless repetition is vacuuming.

  3. I love those two opening lines. Although I’ve tried to make friends with my perfectionist side for a few years now (or flipped her the bird when she turns up unannounced), I had never thought of it quite like that. And it makes perfect sense. I had never seen my procrastination/ indecisiveness as a part of my perfectionism, she had been that clever at disguising it. Love the fun that comes from experimenting and making mistakes though.

  4. As one who challenges that perfectionist persona when that face emerges from within, I appreciate your words today. Yes, that rut dug by the perfectionist persona process sees no growth in me nor my work and with intention I ask it to kindly take a vacation.
    Now then after reading, absorbing and appreciating your words about the perfectionist I am captivated by the most delicious colors and form in your randomly shot photo. It is simply wonderful and captures the essence of the truth that freedom from perfection may allow us to experience. Thank you so much for this.

  5. My son has been watching marathons of Magic School Bus lately. This post automatically reminded me of Ms. Frizzle’s saying: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” Clearly perfectionism isn’t an ingredient in the recipe for discovery, neither does it play a role in helping you to unleash your creativity.

  6. To me “perfection” is not a particularly meaningful word, but “mastery” is. For some reason, slightly inscrutable eastern practices are often associated with “mastery”, so let’s talk about making sushi. There’s a documentary film about Jiro Ono: Jiro Dreams of Sushi. He’s 85, spent his entire adult life making sushi, and is now considered the best sushi chef there might ever have been. He’s a master, or maybe *the* master of this one particular art. His little restaurant — no tables, just a bar, and I think there are only ten seats — takes apprentices. One of the first tasks an apprentice gets is folding napkins. Near the bottom is cooking eggs. To be allowed anywhere near an egg, you have to become able to fold napkins the right way, and this might take a year or more. Cooking the rice, even getting near a knife or a piece of fish, is probably not in the current decade for any apprentice.

    This approach is discussed, a bit, in Zen and the Art of Archery, which inspired the title of, but is not anything like, the book about motorcycle maintenance. There’s an approach to repetition that can lead to mastery. It’s a very long and very slow process, and every time it’s discussed, in books, in fables, in adages, there’s a subtle, implicit emphasis on suspension of judgment. The master — there must be a master — tells the apprentice what to do and the apprentice does it. Doesn’t know why, must try not to figure it out, improve it, second-guess it, or change it in any way; must simply do it, over and over and over (and over and over…).

    There’s a meme floating around that it takes about ten thousand hours to really master something. That’s roughly five years of eight hours a day. The apprentice stories generally suggest that estimate might be conservative, but agree that yeah, it’s going to take a long time and serious commitment. And there must be a master.

    What’s up with that? There aren’t apprenticeships with inscrutable (and generally cantankerous) masters waiting around for people to sign up to. And what if you want to learn something that doesn’t have a master?

    I think to achieve mastery you do have to suspend any idea of judgment and just repeat, repeat, repeat. There must be a master to supply the judgment you abandon. But it does not have to be some person. It might not be a person at all — when you learn how to program computers, the judge supplying the view you abandon is another program, one called the compiler. It might be a whole community — when you learn how to do science, the critical view is supplied by the peer review process.

    Mastery requires judgment, and also requires that judgment not come from within. It also really does require repetition, and one of the things the apprentice learns is to become the repetition; make it another sense and use it to begin to develop judgment of an other kind.

    • This is very much like the way the French used to teach cooking in the apprentice system. First, you sweep the floor for a year, then you fold napkins, then you peel onions. Julia Child learned that way, although she started with the onions. I love mastery, but the perfection I”m talking about is the idea that unless we can copy that X (card, box, book) exactly and make it look exactly like the sample, we are “wrong.” Or, in my case, draw and write decent journal pages that others would approve of. It’s a defeating idea, as it works on lack, not source. I’ve read the archery book, “become the arrow” and now, I finally understand it. Doesn’t mean I practice it, but I get it.

      • Hmm…maybe all that’s missing is letting those others approve (or not) of the journal page by themselves. The rudiments of this are coming together in the web — today you’re able to “like” things in a primitive way. It’ll get better.

  7. Letting go of perfection is hard to do, but you can do it. I have way more fun and actually get way more art done now that I don’t care so much about what I am doing each step of the way.

    • That’s great wisdom right there–and I know the truth. This week, I showed my journals to a class–my messy, will-this-work? journals, and was surprised at how many people were relieved that I didn’t have a bunch of perfect journals.

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