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Imperfectionists, Untie! (Uh...“Unite.”)

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You’ll be a lot happier if you stop trying to be perfect all the time.

Posted September 26, 2011



Spell-check doesn’t think “imperfectionists” is a word. It’s okay with “imperfectionist,” but make the world plural and oh no, it’s got a red line under it! That cracked me up. I guess there’s only one imperfectionist in the world and I am it!

The latest in my adventures in imperfectionism: Last week I made curtains for my office. They’re lime green and sky blue; they’re also unevenly hemmed and the seams are crooked. They hang askew in my newly painted office with telltale blue paint spatters on the mostly oak-colored baseboards. It’s a compulsive person’s nightmare in here. But for me, the room is an expression of who I am inside—colorful, wacky, and willing to take on any task, even those I know I am not that good at. I’ll try almost anything, especially things I know I can’t excel at. It’s so freeing knowing you’re going to screw up—the pressure is off and the fun multiplies.

Don’t get me wrong—I believe in doing the best job possible when dealing with things that are really important. Surgeons and bridge builders should always strive for perfection when they’re cutting into people or putting spans across rivers (hopefully, it is the surgeon doing the former and the bridge builder the latter). But we don’t need to strive for perfection all the time, especially not in our personal lives. In fact, our tendency to insist that we and those we love or work with give 110% 24/7 can not only stop us dead in our tracks, it can kill our spirit.

I know a man who would not write anything on a birthday or holiday card other than his name because if he made even the slightest error (including the sentences not being perfectly straight on the page), he’d have to get a new card and start over. I have a friend who has notebooks filled with great ideas for fashion designs, but she is certain she can’t create the designs as perfectly as they appear on paper, so she has never sewn a stitch. As an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon, I get students who have earned an A in my classes begging for an A+ because they feel so much pressure to be perfect and a plain old A doesn’t cut it.

Perfectionism is a curse. Imagine aspiring to be weightless or to grow a foot taller every day. These goals are equally unattainable, but perfectionism is the only one we still believe we can achieve if only we work harder at it (and, often, if imperfect people would just get out of our way!) Perfectionism breeds not only stagnation but impatience and lack of empathy for everyone around us. The only true way to be perfect is to do nothing, say nothing, and risk nothing. That’s no way to live life.

Learning to let go of perfectionism is an imperfect art, but I do have some suggestions: 2) accept that no one is perfect, including you; 1) embrace the idea that your imperfections make you not only human but uniquely yourself (yes, I know I reversed the order on these two suggestions; I’m testing your ability to tolerate imperfection); a) acknowledge that you learn more from failure than from success; b) stop itemizing the imperfections of the people in your life, and 3) try at least one new thing a month that you have a preconceived notion that you will somehow “fail” at.

Last month I recorded my first professional song—a song I co-wrote and produced. As I sang the lead vocals, I was breathy and occasionally flat. I knew that I would be (those two things are on my list of imperfections). But that day in the studio was sublime. I would have missed the fun and the feeling of achieving one of my childhood dreams had I let my fear of not being the world’s best singer or songwriter get in my way. What is fear of imperfection stopping you from doing?

Leigh Anne Jasheway is a motivational speaker and stand-up comic who speaks at 40-60 conferences and workshops and performs at more than 30 shows a year. To date, more than one-quarter million people have seen her presentations. She has a masters degree in public health, is an expert in stress management, and has 15 published books. Leigh Anne has won numerous writing awards, including the 2003 Erma Bombeck Humor Writing Competition. Her website is AccidentalComic.com.

 

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