Being a perfectionist sucks (Day #17)
There. I said it. Being a perfectionist is a curse. There is nothing good about it, despite what many people think.
I was raised by a perfectionist father. I remember sitting down with him to work on my school assignments. Whenever I said it was done, he would come around and scorn at me.
“It’s not done. It’s sloppy. You need to make it better” he would tell me.
He wasn’t trying to be mean. He was just pushing me to make it even better. I learned a lot with him. His sense of quality, of drive, of design, always stuck with me.
Everything I did, had to be perfect.
But with all these qualities, I also inherited a need for perfection. Everything I did, had to be perfect. I wouldn’t publish anything until it had been polished to the ideal state. I wouldn’t do any presentation or project that wouldn’t reach my quality standards.
With time, such behavior brought me many problems. The need to control things. The need to micromanage people. The obsession over everything. It was overwhelming. It would make me anxious and frustrated with others. I would even avoid certain peers because they were “sloppy.”
Worst of all was that I was taking in my workload, plus that of several others. It was crushing me. After I had left my company, I decided it was time to work on that perfectionism of mine.
I started actively practicing Agile methodologies. I will always thank my good friend Angel for pushing me to walk the talk. I began living by the Agile values. Not only working but breathing, sleeping, eating the core Agile values.
The combination of both become the power that drove my new philosophy.
Through that experience, I started working and practicing with the principle of “Good enough.” Things could be done with quality, but you should do it one step at a time. There is such thing as “good enough.”
It wasn’t about making it perfect on one try. It was about creating perfection, one “good enough” moment after the other, ad infinitum.
The other key concept for me was the notion of Kaizen or continuous improvement. The combination of both become the power that drove my new philosophy.
It wasn’t about making it perfect on one try. It was about creating perfection, one “good enough” moment after the other, ad infinitum. Enter the Do.
The second philosophy I undertook was Aikido. My friend Angel pushed me to try it. I fell in love. First with the technical aspect of it, then with the concepts, principles and life lessons it taught me.
Aikido has shown me so much about life that I will never be able to repay my friend for introducing me to the art.
One of the things that were obliterated during my first Aikido months was the idea of perfection. I, of course, strove to become the best martial artist I could. I wanted to run. No, I wanted to sprint. I focused all my energies on getting to the top. I disregarded the bad students and I would only practice with the top ones. I was greedy and selfish.
Perfection didn’t exist
My sensei showed me better. He gracefully taught me how far I was from perfection, how I was chasing a ghost, a mirage. Perfection didn’t exist. It was the accumulation of years, decades, centuries of practice. Disregarding your peers, your partners because of a selfish lust for “better,” was not only wrong, it went against the path, the Do.
Aikido taught me, patient. It taught me humility. It taught me friendship. I would lie if I said it doesn’t teach me something important every day.
While I devoted part of my time practicing Aikido, I also started learning Japanese calligraphy, also known as Shodo. As you might imagine, it’s also a Do, a way.
In my early years of Shodo, I would get chastised by my sensei time and again. “Don’t rush it,” “Try again,” “You’re not visualizing,” “You are thinking it too much,” “You want it to be perfect; it won’t be.”
I’m still in my early days of Shodo. I still get frustrated sometimes, but it taught me, once again, the virtue of patient, the virtue of taking it slow.
Your “mistake,” your “sloppiness,” will forgive you.
Maybe the most important part of my Shodo experience is how permanent the lessons can be. In Aikido, if you rush a technique you’ll get hurt. The pain will remain with you for some days, but it will eventually fade away. Your “mistake,” your “sloppiness,” will forgive you.
In Shodo, your “mistakes,” your “imperfections” will stare you in the face for years. You’ll draw a calligraphy that will be hanging in your living room, at the dojo, at your office. Every day you walk by it, you will be reminded of who you were when you draw it. All the traces, all the imperfections, all the sloppiness, will laugh at you.
I still strive for Quality every time I can, but I’ve also learned to let go of my perfectionism.
I’ve come a long way from my old perfectionism. I still strive for Quality every time I can, but I’ve also learned to let go of my perfectionism. I love the fact that some of me stories, articles, calligraphies aren’t perfect. I draw them, I post them, I print them and share them with the world, fear abated.
Letting go of the notion that you must be perfect is one of the ways to freedom. Letting go of the idea that you will get it right, that you’ll do it perfect is liberating.
Don’t try to be perfect, be constant.
Don’t confuse your brain, walk the path, keep walking, die walking. Only then you’ll be happy and also, you’ll be a fraction closer to perfection.
A young but earnest Zen student approached his teacher, and asked the Zen Master:
“If I work very hard and diligent how long will it take for me to find Zen.”
The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years.”
The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then ?”
Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.”
“But, if I really, really work at it. How long then ?” asked the student.
“Thirty years,” replied the Master.
“But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that ?”
Replied the Master,” When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”