Perfectionism is a futile endeavor. As a perfectionist, I speak from experience. And this 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. And even if we could win at this 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.
Airing Out Flaws
Everyone is subject to public scrutiny at some level. Once your thoughts exit your mouth, people will judge you. Once a creation—a new book, a work project, a term paper—is released to the world, even its most subtle flaws are glaring.
But we can’t hide every thought, hold back every word, restrain every impulse.
And the fact that we can’t mask all our imperfections is actually a good thing. That’s because our faults improve us; they help us grow. Once we put our individual problems out in the open, they are far more noticeable, and thus we feel compelled to address those problems.
For example, I’ve noticed this phenomena within myself and this website. By writing about my life, my transformations, and my continued pursuit of personal refinement, I’ve “put myself out there,” as it were. Many of you know more about me than certain members of my family do. Ergo, my public display of self forces me to grow in ways I wouldn’t otherwise grow, allowing me to learn important new lessons about life.
The truth is that we are all human. Thus, we are all imperfect. And if I waited for everything to “be perfect,” I’d be waiting in perpetuity, and my writings would never exist. So instead, I write and then release it to the world, warts and all.
Consequently, I’ve learned a valuable lesson by exposing my blemishes to the world: I’ve learned to be happy with my efforts and my growth, not with perfection.
Truth be told, I work incredibly hard on everything I do and I’m proud of that fact. It is exciting and gratifying to write these words for you—to create something from nothing. Everything I do is inherently imperfect. And but I’m happy when I can look myself in the mirror and know it’s the absolute best I can do.
Similarly, it’s just as gratifying to share what I’ve learned about writing with the students in my online writing class, opening myself up in yet another way, airing out my flaws in front of an intimate audience, finding new ways to learn and prosper.
Irrespective of the arena, whenever I air out my flaws, I grow.
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, you can focus on having a better body, you can focus on having a healthier body while enjoying the process of exercising and strengthening your 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 focusing on the faults, you can focus on making your relationships better and on establishing new, empowering relationships.
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, moments of doubt. But that’s OK. Instead of those moments, you can focus on the joy experienced by pursuing your passions, you can focus on the fulfillment you get from improving everything you do in tiny little ways each day.
Every area of life is filled with imperfection, but we needn’t neurose over every blemish.
Far from Mediocrity
I am not, however, advocating being average. The average person is not happy with his life. 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 that there will be shortcomings and mistakes along the way. I’m advocating learning from those failings—even appreciating them—because they allow you to grow. And that’s what life is about.
Taking Feedback for What It Is
And I’ve learned to take feedback for what it is. Sure, there are some cynics and hypocritical assholes out there, and I’ve learned to pay them no mind (although that’s not always easy). But most people who provide advice are simply attempting to help; they are contributing to the greater good. This feedback allows us to evolve, it allows us to expand and live more meaningful lives.
That doesn’t mean that I apply every bit of feedback I receive, but I do consider the meaningful, value-adding observations and take action accordingly.
Dealing with Imperfection by Letting Go of the Negative
I’ve also learned how to better deal with imperfection. I’ve learned to do three simple things to change my state when I feel overwhelmed or bothered by my foibles.
Breathe. When Stress 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.
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 to what we focus on.
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 nicest people. But 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.
Note: A longer version of this essay, Imperfect Is the New Perfect, was published in 2011. That version addressed some of the imperfections in the best thing I’d ever written, my story collection, Falling While Sitting Down. I thought it’d be helpful to attenuate and edit that essay to make it applicable to all areas of life.