Perfectionism, the great paralyser!

So I have finally started my blog after a few years of procrastination! And my first thought was what shall I write for my first post? The pressure was on to write something amazing and it reminded me of my younger years and the thought that I should keep a diary of some sort.

I have always had a love of stationary. There is something so appealing about the fresh crisp white page in new note books that calls to be written or drawn upon. So I bought them imagining the pages filled with beautiful handwriting and illustrations, becoming historical documents of interesting thoughts, dreams, insights and ideas. I still think it's a beautiful image but wow, does it make it hard to make a mark! And even if I did start, it was hard to continue writing feeling that every word and sentence had to be of that standard. So inevitably, after a few weeks or even days I stopped.

Since then I have often felt the urge to write but choked before properly starting because I subconsciously thought a perfect sentence or paragraph should arrive on the page fully formed, that I was wasting time or somehow failing by writing anything lesser. This interdiction of error meant there was no room to experiment or play which is where real learning and development take place. So I have scraps of paper with notes of ideas for articles that so far remain unwritten.

I kept forgetting that all masters of their craft in whatever field, make many 'mistakes' along the way. Nobody's first work is a masterpiece. What makes them skilful is regular focused practise and learning as much, if not more, from what doesn't work as from what does. The process of feedback and refinement develops a skill.

This applies not just to mastery of 'exceptional' skills but everyday ones too, which is something often overlooked. It has been such an insight watching my daughter learning to walk. I see how many times she wobbles, stumbles and falters and yet keeps on trying. She doesn't give up because she's not very good at walking! If we all gave up after the first few times we tried and fell, none of us would have learned to walk. And yet we can and usually don't even think twice about it.

So why do we sometimes give up so easily with other skills? The difference I believe is in our expectation and social support - both my daughter and I believe without doubt that she can walk, want her to walk and we practise daily. How we applaud our child's first wobbly steps and pour encouragement and praise on their efforts: "Go on honey you can do it, keep trying, that's amazing! Yes!" Such positive reinforcement is powerful.

And how different often is our internal voice about our own efforts at something new, or even worse to stop us even trying. "That's not very good, I'm rubbish at …, you'll never be able to …, don't embarrass yourself by trying …, you're too old/too young, not talented enough, people like me can't ..." What could we achieve if we were our own internal cheerleaders in the same way we are for children?

I have also been learning the power of 'yet'. I may feel like I'm not a good writer, and that thought could, and has, prevented me from writing. But simply adding 'yet' to the end of the statement makes it a positive one, full of possibility and self-belief.

If there is something you wish to do, if you start with the premise that you can do it and just need to keep practising until you can, then almost anything is possible.

While it’s true that having a goal can be motivational, sometimes looking ahead to where you want to be can be a hindrance as the metaphorical mountaintop can seem an unattainable, impossible dream. The old "I'll never be able to..." can spring up. But as the saying goes, every journey starts with a single step. And then you just keep putting one foot in front of the other. It's worth stopping every now and then to enjoy the view and recognise how far you've come even if the goal is still a way off. Or you may surprise yourself how quickly you travel once you get going.

So my new mantra is 'just do it and keep doing it'. We are all a constant work in progress, we are never a finished product. Mistakes are part of the process and that I have decided is perfection.


Further reading:

  1. Bounce - Matthew Syed
  2. Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway - Susan Jeffers.