The Price of Perfection

“Perfectionists fear that people will see us as we really are.” Oh? So who am I? And what am I trying to hide?
Publish date:
December 2, 2013
Clutch, perfection

I had finally formed an answer to the tell-me-your-weaknesses interview question. It was a trait that wouldn’t mark me as lazy but also double as a strength. Or at least I thought.

“I’m a perfectionist,” I’d reply.

Nothing close to “I don’t function well after lunch” or “I can’t get to work before 10 a.m.” Those are my true professional flaws if you really want to know. Sorry, I only have a three-hour window for productivity. But instead I tell prospective employers I triple-check my work before submitting it when two times would probably suffice. The third time is for good measure. Just to be sure.

Indeed I was meticulous. But my need for perfection seemed to shift into overdrive with personal endeavors.

Last fall, I wrote and self-published an e-book, rather a short story, a few months after my creative writing class ended. Soon, yes, but an “A” and positive peer reviews inflated my ego.

The novelette only remained on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble markets for less than two weeks before I removed it. The more I read the story, the more I questioned my readiness and the quality despite the five-star review and much to the dismay of supporters who hadn’t purchased it yet. Were some scenes too descriptive? Did the dialogue revolve too much around food? Did I give too much back story at once? Or is the story really cliché and corny?

I convinced myself it sucked.

Un-publish. Revert to draft.

The internal critiques continued as I launched a freelance writing career and tried to publish at least one essay weekly. My creativity was stifled or essentially non-existent. I struggled with opening sentences and transitions even though stringing together words was as much as a strength for me as crunching numbers. Perfection ultimately introduced me to procrastination when writing became a chore. If I didn’t feel it was going to be up-to-par, I wasn’t doing it. Months passed before I penned another journal entry, drafted another blog post or even published another essay.

I began to wonder if my preoccupation with perfection was normal, if it approached the extreme end of the spectrum or if it was indicative of a much bigger issue. Perhaps perfection wasn’t an undercover strength after all and instead bordered on the line of obsession.

On an earlier episode of Super Soul Sunday, TED Talks speaker and author Dr. Brene Brown said, “Perfectionists fear that people will see us as we really are.”

Oh? So who am I? And what am I trying to hide?

On the surface, I’m a finance professional turned emerging writer. With the comfort of a finance degree, I pursued perfection in the corporate world for the recognition and the reward. Look what I accomplished! Hire me! Who here can do it better than I can? Where’s my promotion? Give me more money!

But perfection served a different role post-finance. I downplayed my writing because I lacked the education and experience of many established writers. I don’t hold the Bachelor of Arts in journalism or English or the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing or nonfiction. Could I still rightfully assume the writer role? Perhaps if I worked twice as hard to prove myself, I’d be legit. Underneath I subconsciously feared failure and rejection from the community I desperately wanted to represent.

Acceptance isn’t automatically conditional upon credentials and perfection; however, it is contingent on performance, consistency and persistence. I was overthinking it and was close to becoming a lifetime member of the ex-finance club with no other prospective memberships. But I had given up way too much to quit.

It took months to drop “emerging.” Now I simply claim the title of writer. I allow the words to flow without turning into the editor on steroids before I finish a single paragraph and I don’t read my pieces 2,471 times before and after submitting them. (Okay, I’m lying. I’m still working on that part but I manage to submit work more often than I have in the past few months.

The lesson is to embrace mistakes, just without becoming careless in the process. I still approach my work with a certain level of attention to detail because it should be the standard to want to succeed and do everything right. But I’ll never learn and grow without trying or taking risks. Or mucking something up once in awhile.

Reprinted with permission from Clutch.