How I Let Go of Perfection and Began to Do My Best Work

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This article first appeared on Happify

Here’s the wonderful irony: As a leadership coach, I spend a lot of time helping people let go of perfection. But when something important is at stake, I myself become entangled in its sticky tentacles.

And so it was a couple of weeks ago. I began writing an article on society’s obsession with health and wellness, a topic I’m deeply passionate about. I poured my heart out onto a Word document without even having a publication in mind. Soon enough, a substantive piece began to emerg, and, eager to take it to a wide audience, I became excited about submitting it to The New York Times.

That’s when the downward spiral began. With the Times came the pressure for the article to attain the highest standards of excellence. It had to be novel in thought and thorough in research. It had to be written impeccably and beautifully. It had to be perfect.

I wish I’d known at the time that I’d signed up for an endless and tormenting pursuit.

The next 10 days turned into a nightmare. My passion for the topic shifted into self-doubt and frustration, with intermittent moments of disgust, as I compared my writing to that of other Times writers. I toiled over each word by day and fretted over the final piece by night. I wanted it to be just right, but in my eagerness, began to suck the life out of it.

Perfection Kills

It had happened to me before. A few years ago, the instructor of my art class had arranged for us to paint a live model. Given my love for drawing faces and figures, I reveled in my class that morning. I was in a state of flow, capturing the fierceness of the model’s eyes, the skeletal defiance of her frame, the sharp contrasts in her rugged skin. At critique time, my classmates marveled at the choice of colors, the uncanny resemblance and the movement on the canvas. They shared their eagerness to see the finished piece after I’d finalized it at home.

With the pressure to meet their expectations, I became subservient to the Draconian rule of perfection. I worked and reworked every brush stroke, attended to every minor detail, and honed each lash and thread. I felt none of the joy I’d experienced in class, but the group’s approval at the next one numbed me to my physical and emotional drain. On the Monday of our class, I proudly carried my masterpiece up the long set of stairs, my heart pumping loudly with anticipation. There was stunned silence as I set my canvas on the easel. And it spoke louder than their unanimous verdict: I’d killed the model.

And like any death, there was no way I could bring it back.

Perfection Wastes

I was flooded with memories of that fateful day as I scrolled through the now 10,347-word document that my writing and rewriting had produced—a mammoth that I’d eventually have to ruthlessly cut down to size. I breathed a sigh of relief as I realized that, thankfully, I hadn’t killed it yet. But there was disappointment in seeing that I hadn’t made it any better, either.

For all the time and energy I’d invested in it over the past 10 days, I’d simply ended up with many different and unfinished versions of the same article. I’d gone round and round in circles to simply come back to the same script and ideas I’d originally written down. Such is the dithering of perfection—an ineffective process that feels more like the circular and unproductive “itch” of rumination than the flow of creation. Even though I hadn’t destroyed my article, I’d spent many dark nights of the soul wondering whether I should simply give up.

Seeing the product of my obsessive tinkering before my very eyes led to a realization—and one that rescued me. At some point in our creative journey (and almost all journeys are creative), we hit a law of diminishing returns. Sometimes, it’s after our first attempt; sometimes, it’s after the fourteenth. The only way we find out is through perspective, as it brings a level of objectivity that’s often lost when we are our own (relentless) critics. Critical analysis helps with editing, but when it takes over, it’s like burning our antique furniture; because, we’ll never get the passion back.

When I was little, my art teacher would urge me to step away from my canvas and look at my painting with half-closed eyes. I’m learning that instead of examining our work under the microscope of perfection, we would all do well to look at it with fresh and dreamy eyes; the freshness of distance and the dreaminess of passion that made us write it in the first place.

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