You’ve surely seen the motivational posters before. Possibly you’ve also seen the “demotivators” from Despair.com. This one has always been my favorite, mostly because of the contempt I’ve always felt for people who practiced mediocrity. Ha! What’s that saying about how you are what you hate?
Being that it’s New Year resolution time again, I thought I’d share one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in my life: that “good enough” really can be good enough. This blog post is therefore part confession, part pep talk.
If you’re a perfectionist, you can no doubt identify. All my life I was a person who tried my best. I didn’t necessarily care about the outcome, especially if it was something outside of my control, like a teacher awarding me an A on a school assignment. Grades, for example. One professor on my dissertation committee expressed skeptical disbelief regarding my statement in the text that I had never paid much attention to grades. External feedback was not what drove me. And thank goodness for that! What a mess I’d have been if I not only pushed myself to perform perfectly but then held myself accountable for outcomes I had no ability to influence.
No, what pushed me to succeed, always, was my need to know inside that I had given something my “all.” Anything less was unconscionable. Immoral.
Not until I had children did I hit the wall. Suddenly it was impossible to give everything my best. My kids needed me to be the best mother I could. My husband needed me to be the best wife I could. My job needed me to perform all tasks to their utmost. Yet there remained only 24 hours in a day.
Doing my “best” became . . . doing the best I could.
It tore me up inside.
Seriously. I can hardly type these words with a straight face because it sounds so stupid. You know the expression “ASAP” (As Soon As Possible)? To some people that means drop everything and respond immediately. To others it means to respond whenever it’s convenient to get around to it. Obviously when two people with different understandings use the term with each other, there’s going to be some friction.
That’s the kind of personal “friction” I faced when my children were young. (Who am I kidding—I still face this dissonance pretty much every day of my life 🙂 ) For someone used to doing her “best,” it was excruciating to be reduced to doing the best possible given the circumstances.
While I’m sure there are many carefree slackers who have never faced this kind of identity crisis—i.e., struggling with who they are if not someone who always does her best—I’m guessing that they are not the type of people who would be reading my blog. So here comes the pep talk part of today’s post: Perfectionism is a curse.
Yes, a curse. Just as nearly every other character flaw is the dark underbelly of a positive attribute, so too is “perfectionism” the evil twin of “conscientiousness.” Perfectionism robs you of satisfaction. It robs those around you of feeling joy in your presence. It keeps you from doing things that are important, things that matter to you.
Have you heard the expression “D is for done”? (Maybe not. I just Googled the expression and found it only in Sue Grafton/picture book types of lists, like A is for “alibi” or “apple.” So FYI, “D” refers to the very poor academic grade of D, and “done” means that even though the grade was bad, at least the assignment is completed and over with.) Sometimes “good enough” is good enough.
Steve Jobs, iconic co-founder and longtime CEO of Apple, was famously such a perfectionist that he slept on a mattress on the floor rather than buy a bed that was not the ONE. This behavior did not change once he was married, as this 2011 New Yorker profile by Malcolm Gladwell makes clear:
“We spoke about furniture in theory for eight years,” his wife, Laurene Powell, tells Walter Isaacson, in “Steve Jobs,” Isaacson’s enthralling new biography of the Apple founder. “We spent a lot of time asking ourselves, ‘What is the purpose of a sofa?’ ”
It was the choice of a washing machine, however, that proved most vexing. European washing machines, Jobs discovered, used less detergent and less water than their American counterparts, and were easier on the clothes. But they took twice as long to complete a washing cycle. What should the family do? As Jobs explained, “We spent some time in our family talking about what’s the trade-off we want to make. We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family. Did we care most about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half? Or did we care most about our clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer? Did we care about using a quarter of the water? We spent about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table.”
Blogging has been really good for me in letting go of the perfectionism. I publish, despite the possibility of a typo. Or, as Steve Jobs might have put it, I “ship,” like a real artist.
I once didn’t send a sympathy card to a friend whose husband had died because the only stamps I had said “Happy Birthday!” in large lettering upon a festive background of fireworks. I kept thinking I’d get to the Post Office to purchase a more suitable stamp, but I never made it there. By then we’d added two dogs to our family and I was a program director in my department at work—although the particulars of my time shortage don’t really matter. Caught up in my compulsive perfectionism, I was paralyzed at the thought of amplifying my friend’s grief with a celebratory postage stamp.
How messed up is that? Today I would mail the card immediately and apologize for the inappropriate stamp in a postscript. (Because I guess I’m not so “reformed” of perfectionism that I could let that pass unacknowledged, as though I hadn’t even realized the cruel irony of affixing a “Happy Birthday!” stamp to a card marking a death.)
So although I still despise mediocrity, I do try very hard to cut others—and myself—some slack. There are times when deadlines do matter and compromises should not be made, but I pick my battles, as it were. All of us mere mortals down here on earth are just trying our best to make it through this life. We’re largely imperfect, and while human perfection is a glorious thing (and, oh, how uplifting to see when it happens!), the price an individual pays to achieve it is quite high in terms of personal sacrifice.
If you read Greek/Roman mythology, it’s interesting to note that often heroes would “retire” to their farms to live a quiet life following the herculean (couldn’t resist 🙂 ) efforts required for their accomplishments and victories over various monsters and tyrants. The gods never liked this, a hero resting on his laurels, as it were. They’d afflict the poor guy with some sort of trouble to get things moving again.
And then there’s the parable of the talents, in which a master who is embarking on a journey entrusts three of his servants with “talents,” a unit of money, for safekeeping. When he returns, the master finds that the first two servants have put their talents to work and increased the worth of the original investment. Those servants are rewarded for their initiative and industry. The third servant, however, buried his talent in the ground to keep anything from happening to it, and he is punished for his sloth. From the Wikipedia entry linked to above, quoting Matthew 25: 24-30:
For to everyone who has will be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who doesn’t have, even that which he has will be taken away. Throw out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The unacceptability of resting on one’s laurels or wasting one’s talents runs deep in our culture. And I can’t bring myself to valorize mediocrity. Absolutely not, even in a post about letting go of perfectionism.
In Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning drama Wit (originally spelled W;t, which makes sense once you see or read the play), the main character, Vivian, is a brilliant and demanding university professor whose academic specialty is logical exegesis of 16th-century English poetry, especially the poetry of John Donne. Vivian doesn’t mess around with the emotional response one might have to a poem; she is more enamored of the “wit” and intellectual acrobatics that the text might prompt. When she is diagnosed with cancer, she commits to a painful experimental treatment in order to add to the medical community’s body of knowledge. In the end, though, she realizes that her rigorous scholarship, her uncompromising teaching standards, and her unyielding, almost brutal treatment of students—all of that had been a mistake. As she nears death, Vivian has an epiphany: intellect is not as important as simple human kindness.
One of my friends saw that play in New York, with Judith Light in the main role. The play’s ending is very cathartic and wrenching, to say the least. Vivian is standing naked, bathed in a bright light. During the performance attended by my friend, when the lights went out abruptly at the moment of Vivian’s death, my friend said that people were sobbing all around her in the darkness of the theater. I’ve read the play and have tears in my eyes as I type this. And I read that play way, way back in 1999 or 2000. I think this emotional response signifies something very deep and important and true—beyond just an ordinary, mawkish reaction wrung out by a sentimentally overwrought production.
At least that was my takeaway from the text of the play and my friend’s experience. And my New Year’s resolution is to continue my tightrope focus on balancing perfection with the kindness I believe is more important.
Be kind, both to others and to yourself. Banish the words “slacker” and “underachiever” from your everyday lexicon. People who aren’t living up to their “potential” may still be doing the best they can under the circumstances.
Sometimes “good enough” really is good enough.