Stop in the name of imperfection: Edit what you tell yourself before helping others.

May 11, 2019

​“Perfect lets you stall, ask more questions, do more reviews, dumb it down, safe it up and generally avoid doing anything that might fail (or anything important). You’re not in the perfect business. Stop pretending that’s what the world wants from you. Truly perfect is becoming friendly with your imperfections on the way to doing something remarkable.” - Seth Godin

 

This traveled through my senses, past my analytical mind, and into my gut as an invaluable piece of writing advice.  I hope it will reach you, along whatever project or purpose you've been traveling, with just as much force.

 

Mostly, I agree with Godin. When I aim for perfection, I am essentially "doing" something that cannot be done. Perfection is a fairytale someone told me once, and that I now sometimes tell myself, to delay or deny the un-special reality that I will always be flawed, incomplete, in-search. More, when I am "perfecting" (a sentence, a lesson-plan, my hair, a paleo recipe) I am acting not for my dear readers, students, friends, community. I am acting for myself, out of a fear of not being enough. It's a scary thought: driven by a desire to prove one's perfection, even acts of altruism can isolate me in my one-person race to an impossible finish line, rather than open me up and connect me to a larger purpose.

 

While his message is resonant, Godin's "snap out of it" tone doesn't acknowledge the complicated and often painful reasons that people enter, and get lost in, ideologies of perfection. In his somewhat condescending commandment "Stop pretending that’s what the world wants from you" Godin suggests that perfection is a fantasy-game we voluntarily play, which we could quickly pack up and put away, if only we got honest with ourselves. And maybe, with the right wakeup call, we can.

 

But life is not a board game played and won by rational strategies alone. Sometimes it's more like a Ouija board, in which our hand is moved by  ghosts of our pasts, lost and won by the unpredictable and invisible forces of our emotional lives. Pursuing perfection may appear a hopeless and naive strategy, but maybe it's our heart's earnest attempt to get the attention of someone who is long gone; an auto-corrective response to something that gave us the idea we were not and would never be good enough. The pursuit of perfection, from an outsider's perspective, is futilely trying to perform miracles on oneself. But, from a more sympathetic point of view, it might also be the heart's earnest effort to make miracles happen elsewhere--miracles that, if life were fair, would've been birthrights.

 

Of course, striving to improve is not a bad thing in itself. Having vision, and imagining a version of ourselves or our lives that is yet unrealized is what makes us creative and striving human beings. But, ideally, this overreaching should be motivated by something other than the self-involved, tortured pursuit of self-perfection. I want to overreach not because I see in the mirror an imperfect reflection; I want to overreach because I have my eyes fixed on something bigger than my self, something that reaches beyond me. And reaching these goals requires precisely that I am NOT too focused on myself. It demands that we let ourselves take bold steps towards our goal, even if our shoes aren't the most stylish, or a lace is loose. It demands that we let ourselves go, at least a  little. As Mary Oliver said in one of her poems. "Love yourself. Then forget it. Then love the world."  

 

Exorcising the impulse to self-perfect and cultivating a more expansive, realistic approach to success is not easy. Sharing these thoughts with you is only a tiny step that signals action, but isn't the change itself. In a way, knowing that perfectionism isn’t serving you any longer is like seeing the exit sign in bright orange but still needing to travel the labyrinth of the lies, desires and fears of your soul before you can pass through.

 

Thankfully, I began this journey a while ago, and am now walking at a brisk pace. I've already had glimpses of how, when I let go of the fear-fastened fantasy of being and doing everything, success becomes more possible and more frequent in everyday ways (in the classroom, at my writing desk, alone in myself, in my relationships). Released from its all-consuming spell, I also become exponentially more available to the world; available to enjoy what it has in store for me, without judgment. Most importantly, I begin to try.

 

 

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