The Nightmares of a Perfectionist
Perfectionism is a futile endeavor. As a perfectionist, I speak from experience. And this essay is my confessionary hymn.
At times my perfectionism haunts me: all the pleasure of “getting it right” can be immediately wiped out by small, debilitating imperfections: the sharp, stabbing pain of a negative criticism; the disappointment of a brightly-illuminated flaw; the vitriolic feeling brought forth by a set of rolled eyes.
Our culture reinforces certain standards we cannot live up to: the women with their half-a-serving hips adorning the covers of magazines; the expensively-dressed celebutantes wearing an average-person’s annual salary on her wrist; the modern-day rock stars and Fonzarellis plastered all over billboards and TV screens.
Attempting to keep up with these false standards is tantamount to playing a rigged game—the game of Perfectionism is designed for failure. Plus, even if we could win that game, it wouldn’t make us happy—contentment comes from within, not from the entrapment of protruding hipbones or the bling-bling of consumer purchases. And yet we continue to play this game with religious devotion—myself included.
The Build-Up Before the Let Down
For example, I published my first fiction book this week. It quickly climbed to #1 on Amazon. Going into the week, I didn’t have any expectations or sales goals, so watching the book climb into the top 10 was an incredible surprise. (Obviously, this book’s success is because of the wonderful readers we have here, for whom I am eternally grateful.)
I’m not concerned about sales or making money with this book—it is far more important to me that people read it. Writing literary fiction has been my passion since I was 22 (I’m 30 now); so, suffice it to say, this book has been a long time coming. Moreover, writing fiction is 10 times harder than nonfiction for me: one must worry whether or not his characters feel real, whether or not the narrative flows fluidly, whether or not the plot serves a purpose, and a dozen other things. However, writing fiction feels 100 times more rewarding when I “get it right.” That’s because fiction allows me to explain life in ways that non-fiction can’t: it can evince human emotion; it can exhibit what it’s like to live in the complex, modern world; it can explain life in ways that non-fiction can’t. The way I think about it is that non-fiction nourishes my intellectual side (i.e., what I think), while fiction nourishes my emotional side (i.e., what I feel).
Stumbling Over Imperfections
So, publishing my first book of fiction and watching it climb the bestseller list has to feel great, right? No—not at first. My first reaction this week was anything but great. It wasn’t even good or alright. Instead, I felt a pang of panic when I got the first email from a kind, well-meaning reader who informed me that he loved the book but wanted to point out a typo in the first story (an “a” was used where an “an” belonged). This was a horrible dash of cold water. It sounds silly, but my first thought was “Oh no, I thought this book was perfect!” My first reaction was to beat myself up, to freak out a little. I had worked harder on this book than anything else in my life and there was a mistake.
How was this possible? I read these stories dozens of times (there are entire passages I can recite without looking at the page). The stories were line-edited by two incredible editors. And the book was proof-read thoroughly by a test group of 10 people (regular readers of our website). How could there be even a single typo?
I thought about it until I found an answer in my favorite literary writer: David Foster Wallace. I remembered that his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, was line-edited twice by Michael Peitsch (Mr. Peitsch is arguably the best editor in the world). Then it was copyedited by several other professional copyeditors. And yet the first print edition of Infinite Jest had several typos (much more than an “an”). This reminded me of other errors I’ve spotted in my favorite books from my favorite authors (e.g., the works of Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, Denis Johnson, et al.), not to mention the errors, typos, and stupid mistakes I’ve seen in high school and college textbooks. Remember those? And don’t even get me started on the amount of mistakes I see online. Oy vey!
The Lessons of Perfectionism
Once a creation—a book, an album, a movie—is released to the public, even its most subtle flaws are glaring. Perhaps this is a suitable synecdoche for life as well: i.e., once we put our individual problems out in the open, they are far more noticeable, and thus we feel more compelled to address those problems. I’ve noticed this phenomena with myself and this website this year. By writing about my life, my transformations, and my continued pursuit of personal improvement, I’ve “put myself out there,” as it were. Many of you know more about me than certain members of my family. Consequently, my public display of self forces me to grow in ways I wouldn’t otherwise grow.
The truth is, we are all human. Thus, we are all flawed. DFW’s Infinite Jest is a classic novel, even with its few mistakes. Similarly, I’m incredibly pleased with my first book: the stories convey emotion, the characters feel alive to me, and it’s easily the best thing I’ve ever written—even with any scar tissue that keeps it from being perfect.
The initial feedback on Falling While Sitting Down: Stories has been overwhelmingly positive. But, at first, even with the praise and exultation, I couldn’t get past the post-publication imperfectness of the whole thing. Yes, more than 10 people proof-read and edited this book with me, and we fixed dozens of syntactical and grammatical snafus in the first five (yes, five!) drafts; but none of us are perfect, so I’m sure we missed something. Ironically, the stories are about some incredibly flawed people; so, in a strange way, a few flaws feels appropriate.
I don’t write to show-off some sort of portentous cerebration; so “getting it perfect” isn’t the primary intention of my writing. Rather, I write to uncover what it means to be a human being—both intellectually (essays) and emotionally (stories). Consequently, I learned a valuable lesson this week: I learned to be happy with my efforts and my growth, not with perfection. Truth be told, I worked hard on this book and I’m proud of that. It was exciting and gratifying to write. It was also difficult to write. I grew as a writer during its creation. And I’m incredibly pleased with the end result because I put every ounce of effort I could into this project. It is not perfect, but it is a damn good book (it’s the only thing I’ve ever written that I’d said that about).
Other Life Examples
I think the same goes for all other areas of life.
Health: If you want a perfect body, you’ll never have it. Instead, we can focus on having a better body, we can focus on having a healthier body while enjoy the process of exercising and improving our health.
Relationships: If you’re looking for the perfect partner or friend or co-worker, you’ll lose every time. People are, by nature, imperfect—we come equipped with a tackle box of flaws. But instead of the flaws, we can focus on making our relationships better, we can focus on growing as individuals and contributing to other people.
Passions: If you’re looking for the perfect job, it’s not out there. No matter your vocation—even if you land your “dream job” in which you pursue your passions every day—there will be moments of despair, moments of tedium, and moments of doubt. But that’s OK. Instead of those moments, we can focus on the joy experienced by pursuing our passions, we can focus on the fulfillment we get from growing and improving everything we do in tiny little ways every day.
Every area of life is filled with imperfection, but we needn’t neurose over every flaw.
Far From Mediocrity
I’m not, however, advocating mediocrity. I refuse to be run-of-the-mill. I’d rather fail miserably than saunter down the alley of mediocrity. Instead, I’m advocating passionately pursuing what you love and doing so with vigor, knowing there will be flaws and mistakes along the way. I’m advocating learning from those flaws—even appreciating them—because they allow you to grow. That’s what life is about.
Taking Feedback for What it Is
Additionally, this week I learned to take feedback for what it is. Sure, there are some cynics and hypocritical jerks out there—and I’ve learned to pay them no mind (although that’s not always easy). But most people who provide feedback are simply attempting to help—they are contributing to the greater good. This feedback allows us to grow, it allows us to improve and live more meaningful lives.
In fact, that’s the intention of this site: to contribute to people in meaningful ways. Ryan and I do so by writing about our lives and the lessons we’ve learned about our lives—warts and all.
Send Your Feedback
I’m constantly seeking new ways to grow and better myself, new ways to improve my flaws. So if you ever notice a mistake (be it a typo in a book or in an essay on this site), feel free to send me an email. I’ve written nearly half-a-million words this year (that’s more than one word per minute, including when I’m asleep), so I’m sure there’s a typo or two somewhere.
You can always email Ryan and myself at theminimalists[at]theminimalists.com (that email address forwards to both of us) or just email me directly at jfm[at]joshuafieldsmillburn.com if you’d like. The comments below are also a great way to provide public feedback and start discussions with other readers.
That doesn’t mean that I apply every bit of feedback I receive, but I do consider the meaningful, value-adding feedback. Any errors I need to fix, I’ll fix and eventually republish the updated content. Likewise, I’ll to the same with my life: any errors I need to fix, I’ll fix and continue to grow as an individual.
Dealing with Imperfection: Letting Go of the Negative
I also learned how to better deal with imperfection this week. I learned to do three simple things to change my state.
1. Breathe. When something stressful knocks on my door, I’ll take a walk and focus on my breathing. Deep, diaphragmatic breaths change our physiology, calm us, and provide our bodies with the oxygen we need.
2. Focus. If we focus on the negative, we’ll feel fear, loneliness, jealousy, and every other negative emotion we can conjure from within. Conversely, if we focus on the positive, we’ll feel joy, happiness, and contentment. Much of how we feel is directly associated with what we focus on.
3. Beliefs. Similarly, whatever we believe becomes our reality. If we believe people are rotten and hateful, then we’ll find all the flaws in even the kindest people. If we believe people are kind and caring, then we’ll find glimpses of perfection in every miscreant and reprobate. The same is true for any event or situation in which we are involved—it is whatever we believe it is.
Growth & Contribution, Not Perfection
Your life isn’t perfect, my life isn’t perfect, but as we grow we will continue to improve our lives, which allows us to contribute to other people. Life, therefore, is about growth and contribution, not perfection. It’s not always easy—often it takes some gruelingly hard work, immense amounts of effort, and tremendous courage to get outside your comfort zone and grow—but growth is a critical part of life. If you’re not growing, you’re dying.