You ever have those conversations with people where you realize that they have a completely delusional idea of who you are? For example, I tell people that I finished a manuscript and they get the impression that I am one of Those People Who Do Everything Right.
Whereas in reality I am one of Those People Who Get Some Things Right and Many Things Horribly Wrong.
When I was in college I took a class on children’s literature. One of my favorite books was about Paul Revere and it was one of my favorites because he was portrayed as a bit of a screwup. He was a chronic oversleeper, he was often tardy, he was disorganized and scatterbrained.
At that time in my life, I was under immense self-imposed pressure to do everything perfectly. The story was a revelation. If an American hero could be so accomplished and at the same time so flawed, maybe it would be OK for me to forgive myself once in a while instead of flagellating myself for every shortcoming.
I would like to say that I read the book and enjoyed an immediate transformation from exhausted overachiever to happy person. Unfortunately it wasn’t that speedy. But when I learned that Paul freaking Revere made mistakes, I saw a glimmer of relief from the hair shirt I put on every morning, and eventually I came to realize that in some things it’s OK to be “good enough.”
Not in everything mind you – I want my airline pilots and surgeons to embrace perfectionism as they practice their professions. This isn’t an ode to mediocrity.
Rather it’s a recognition: given enough time and effort, one can achieve near-perfection in almost any endeavor. But in reality our lives are constrained by space and time and limited resources, all locked together in web of dependencies. Every time you choose one thing it means that something else had to get left behind. Each thing that you spend time on causes the neglect of something else.
Is it better to insist on doing every single thing perfectly, or is it better to choose the endeavors that you’ll polish up like jewels and let the rest fill out the framework, maybe a little dull and a little scuffed, but still functional and all the more beautiful for it?
And is it better to just throw up your hands and give up even trying to polish because the period of imperfection is so threatening, or is it better to accept that even the jewels will take some time to perfect, and might look more like lumps of coal in the interim?
I spent too many years paralyzed with the fear of being and appearing imperfect. From what I can tell, writing a novel involves the production of a lot that’s ugly and messy, and many trips to Imperfect Town, but if you can move through all that, you just might find a jewel on the other side.
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