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Get It Done
Sam Bennett : Overcoming Perfectionism

Get It Done

Overcoming Perfectionism

By Sam Bennett

If it can’t be perfect, why would I even begin? — Mark

I start something, but then I tinker with it forever and never finish it. — Lauren

I just get so frustrated because I know it’ll never be as perfect in real life as it is in my mind. — John

Perfectionism is an insidious demon that must be fought with every weapon you’ve got. Here’s what’s so tricky about perfectionism: it (sort of) turns procrastination into a virtue.

Because it’s good to have high standards, right?

And it’s good to expect the best from yourself, right?

We want to make things that are beautiful, unique, extra-ordinary...

And then you crumble under the pressure you’ve put on yourself and never create anything at all. But it’s not your fault — it’s your damned high standards.

Perfectionism also keeps you from noticing the great things that you create effortlessly. By keeping your focus on that which is hard, unattainable, or impossible to execute, you fail to give yourself credit for that which is easy and fun. While you’re busy struggling with the idea that you need to be a great painter (all the while not painting), you might miss out on a brilliant career as a caricaturist. Your frustrated desire to write the perfect novel can prevent you from seeing your potential as a lyricist.

This is the worst kind of snobbery. Disdaining your own gifts is as cruel as disdaining your own children.

My friend and client Patti Frankel once confided to me that she had three unpublished novels sitting in her desk drawer. Three! And they languished there because even though she had gotten good feedback from other writers and even from a literary agent, she felt that the warm, funny, romantic novels that she loved to write weren’t “significant” enough. “I’m really smart,” she told me. “And I thought that smart women were supposed to get their PhDs and help save the world, you know? But I don’t want to save the world that way. I just want to write books that make people feel good.” She had thought that it was more important for her to slog along completing a PhD that, it turned out, she didn’t care very much about. So after our first session she made the radical decision to let it go, two courses and half a dissertation away, and to give her heart and soul to the novel that was so dear to her. She just let me know that she’s finished it and is now working with an editor.

Quick — think of the most extreme, avant-garde artist you can name. Now think of a boring, middle-of-the-road artist. If there’s room in the world for both of them to be famous, there is certainly room for you.

Once you actually begin working, the first thing you will need to surrender is your idea about who you are and what your work is about.

You will also need to quit waiting to feel ready. To quit waiting for it to be perfect. To quit your big ideas about what’s good and what isn’t and what people will pay for and what they won’t.

Don’t Be Afraid to Get a C

Some years ago I was suffering from some fairly extreme anxiety. One of the ways the anxiety manifested was that I felt like I was being constantly graded. During every meal I cooked, every parallel-parking job, every audition, every everything, I felt like someone, somewhere, was monitoring my every move and keeping track in a big notebook about how well or, more often, how poorly I was executing my life.

Exhausting.

So I decided that if I could not disabuse myself of the idea that I was being graded, then I would just try to get a C — which is the grade you get for showing up and doing the work. Not doing the work better than everyone else, not doing extra-credit work — just showing up and doing the work.

I was quite pleased with this idea, and I shared it with my sister during one of our almost-daily phone conversations. She agreed that it sounded like a jim-dandy strategy and wished me luck with it. Then we went on to discuss the real topic of our conversation that day: our father had moved into a new apartment and we wanted to send him a housewarming gift. I said I would take care of it.

A day or two later we were on the phone again and she asked me if I’d sent anything to Dad yet. “Well, no,” I explained, “because I want to get him something nice but still within our budget, and I was thinking about something for his kitchen although he already has quite a bit of kitchen stuff so maybe there’s a better idea if we do some sheets or maybe towels, maybe monogrammed, or —”

“Sam!” my sister interrupted. “Get a C — send a plant.”

Ah, the pure ring of truth! Ten minutes later I had spent less than fifty bucks at an online flower delivery website for a handsome dieffenbachia plant, and the next day my father called both of us to say thank you and to tell us how lucky he felt to have such thoughtful daughters.

Here’s the point: my desire to find the perfect thing for my father was preventing me from finding anything for my father.

My willingness to take the budget-friendly, obvious option (a houseplant) allowed me to do what we really wanted to do to begin with, which was just let our dad know that we loved him and hoped he was happy in his new digs.

There are two more reasons you can afford to get a C. One, your version of a C is probably everybody else’s version of an A. Two, if you get your work out there and then find that it needs to be made more perfect, well, then, you’ll improve it, right? That’s how you roll.

Next: Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist »

Updated 6/21/14