Welcome to another instalment of my (hopefully) weekly posts on the things that came through my inbox that resonated with me this week. (Week 1’s introduction post is here.)
First up this week is an old post that I had saved from Ali Stegart’s blog Alphabet Soup and somehow stumbled on again this week. It’s in my extensive email library*, which as we learned last week, is something I never look at so I’m not sure how I found it again.
Ali’s post complements what I was reading about perfectionism last week and echoes the direction my own thoughts have been going. Ali refers to “toxic perfectionism” and says
. . . perfectionism, like most traits, has pros and cons, a light side and a dark side. It can be helpful and harmful.
Perfectionism may well be the superpower that got you where you are. Be proud of your commitment to excellence. The world needs your people of your calibre and standards. However, high achievers and perfectionists are not the same. The former strives for real excellence, as in a personal best, or the best on the day; the latter pushes for an ideal, unattainable perfection. To the perfectionist, ‘almost perfect’ is the same as failure.
Ali says we should “strive for excellence, but make GROWTH [our] aim”.
I agree and think there is a whole world of difference between excellence and perfection, which is unattainable. Photographer David duChemin refers to perfection as
the bastard love child of a protestant work ethic and the fact that we celebrate the work of artistic genius but never acknowledge the process responsible for that work. We are told, if not by others then frequently by ourselves, “Unless we can create that brilliant thing, and unless we can make it perfect, don’t bother.” And we forget that any good thing is almost always a result of a long, slow refinement of something that almost always starts ugly.
I think some of my quest from perfectionism comes from comparing my work to that work of the artistic genius David refers to. I will compare my beginner level work to that of someone who has been working for many years and feel bad because mine isn’t as good, so I give up instead of striving to make my work better.
However, as David has pointed out, that person’s good thing is “a result of a long, slow refinement of something that almost always starts ugly” but you don’t see that in the finished product and you don’t see everything that the person has done, their years of training and practice and mistake-making they needed to do to be able to create their brilliant thing. David puts it like this
Perfectionism is a childish response, itself imperfect, incomplete. It pouts in the corner when it can’t get something done “right” the first time and so it never learns the lessons of craft and character that come from wrestling the muse to the ground and making something of nothing.
(Speaking of putting in the work, I also enjoyed this article by Charlie Moss on the Digital Photography School website.)
David’s comment reminds me not to compare my ugly starting point with the beautiful end-product of someone who has been around a lot longer than me, knows a lot more than I do and has spent years mastering their craft. It reminds me that my ugly starting point is not my finished product, so the comparison to any finished work, let alone that of someone else, is completely invalid. And it reminds me that if I don’t start at that ugly starting point because I’m overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy that arise from my work not being as good as that of the artistic genius, I will never achieve a beautiful end-product of my own.
As one of my favourite people, Kendra Wright, says “comparison kills creativity”. I love this expression and I try to bring it to mind whenever I start to feel like this.
Other things I read this week reminded me that it’s also important not to feel down on myself when I’m in this state of mind. Talking about comparison, Ali’s post says
If you find yourself struggling with feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, and bitterness, it’s time to pause. Remember, these aren’t “sins” or character flaws; they are common human feelings that simply indicate how strongly you want something you don’t yet have.
Acknowledge the feelings without judgement. “Hmm. Interesting…” Then move on! Ruminating on it or shaming yourself or poking yourself in the eye do no good.
Acknowledging negative feelings without beating ourselves up about having the feelings was also a theme in an email from Cassandra Massey, who says
Feeling the bad emotions is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a healthy thing to do. But most of us believe that when we feel bad, we should do something to make ourselves feel better.
But feeling the negative emotions, along with the positive emotions, is what creates a deep and fulfilling human experience.
- When someone dies, it’s normal to feel sad and to experience grief.
- When you don’t get the promotion or the house, it’s okay to feel disappointment.
- When someone betrays you, it’s okay to feel resentment (at least initially).
The problem arises when we try to resist or avoid the emotion by doing something to make us feel better. Trying to get rid of the emotion with food, wine, or even by trying to stay positive, is very disempowering.
And often times, the emotion grows. Emotions don’t like to be ignored. We have them for a reason.
When you call allow yourself to process the emotion fully, you become empowered.
My takeaway from her post is to use these negative feelings to motivate you to take the actions that will get you to the point you want to be rather than doing things to numb the feelings with self-destructive behaviours.
That’s a lot to think about!
*Actually my Evernote files, which I refer to just as infrequently as I do to my extensive email library.