Here Goes

Alternate titles for this post: Less Hang Ups and More Finishing or I Probably Owe You a Thank You Note or A Long Post on Perfectionism

I’m a perfectionist.

I know, I know that sounds sexy, doesn’t it? The word “perfect” is right there at the front of it. But much like being a super taster isn’t super (there’s no cape involved), being a perfectionist is not about actually being perfect. It’s more about the fear that nothing you do is ever going to be good enough. What “good enough” really means is unclear but that doesn’t keep you from obsessing over being it. Symptoms include stress, procrastination, stress over the procrastination, sense of worthlessness, sense of guilt, extreme sense of guilt over the sense of worthlessness, denial, zoning out, moodiness, hyper-distractability (wait, I think I see something shiny over there that has the potential to be be perfect), a special kind of passive agressivity that is only acceptable when directed at people who love you most, and stress.

My perfectionism means that if something I’m working on can’t be really super amazing, then I often end up deciding I’d rather just give up. Though “deciding” isn’t the right word. You don’t really “decide” not to finish a term paper. You just write and rewrite and start over again until you miss the deadline and then the extended deadline and end up with an “I” for incomplete. Sometimes I give up on things in the middle, and sometimes I give up before I even start. Are you thinking that it makes more sense to finish something and have it be average rather than not finish at all? I’d have to agree, but being a perfectionist is not about being rational. It’s about having a voice in my head; it’s a mean voice and it berates me for not being better. Oh you nasty, nasty Voice. That voice has almost kept this post from happening at least four separate times over the course of five days. Sometimes the Voice comes with its own series of chastising images…

Whenever I think of a thank you note that’s due but I haven’t written, my mind conjures an image of Martha Stewart giving a disapproving nod. Then when I resolve that I shouldn’t really care what Martha thinks of me, she morphs into Danzico and the nod shifts to an expression of raised eyebrows.** It’s an expression only my imaginary version of Liz’s eyebrows are capable of conveying: one of sadness, almost pity, and confusion over my not being able to complete this most rudimentary yet critical of human exchanges. Then the aforementioned Voice kicks in with something like, “You can’t even muster the courtesy to pick up a pen and simply write <insert name here> a note? A simple yet heartwarming note that conveys exactly how special <name> is to you and how much <name> means to your life and how beautiful you think it is that <name> is even alive on the planet? Can’t you distill it all into a couple of sentences illustrating both the specificity and universal nature of your gratitude along the spectrum of all human emotion? No? Hmm, you are a loser.” Yes, I’m completely aware how selfish the nature of perfectionism is. A mountain of birthday, wedding and holiday gifts have gone unthanked. Favors untold, including the procurement of a rainbow-birthday-appropriate marching band, lie unacknowledged anywhere except inside my head. I’m not sure how I sleep at night. I’ve even had people who I owe thank you notes write me a thank you, and then I just feel like I have to avoid them all together. Just in case you forgot, perfectionism in no way resembles rationalism.

Real World Example: Last December I was in a bind. I’d taken on organizing AIGA/NY’s holiday party, and I’d covered decorations, interactive entertainment, a signature cocktail and costumes for the photo booth, but I’d yet to secure an actual speaker. I went to our board president Jennifer Kinon because she is on good terms with pretty much everyone (and, perhaps not coincidentally, she’s a thank you note role model), and she suggested we ask James Victore. I agreed he would be an ideal fit for the cut-loose kind of the event we had in mind, but would he agree on such short notice? He did. He came. He rawked it. And then he followed that by kicking off the karaoke portion of the evening with an inspired version of Sweet Caroline even though he admitted the idea of singing on stage scared him. James was a gracious and great cowboy-boot-wearin’ sport the entire evening. It was perfection. (Aha, so sometimes it is sort of possible.) I struggled for a few days with various ideas for thank yous, and then I got this email from James: “I wanted to drop you a line to say that the world is a better place because you and your rainbows are in it.” Jaw: floor.***  Crap. Now I not only had to thank James for all he did for the event, but also make known how much his sweet, simple comment meant to me. I made plans; I drew thumbnails; I shopped for supplies at the flea. Meanwhile days turned into weeks, which turned into months. And what is the status of this master thesis art project of a thank you? Supplies sitting in a pile, nothing completed, no one thanked. I wasn’t able to find enough time to do something amazing, so I did nothing at all. That means James has no idea how much I appreciate him, and worse, I’m pretty sure he rightfully thinks I’m rude.

I have to stop this perfectionism from holding me back, pushing me down, paralyzing me. I’ve got to internalize that it’s better to finish and fail than to fail by giving up. Posting this is one painful, baby first step.

The Voice tells me I’m wasting my time; I’m silly; I’m wrong; I’m boring. Maybe the Internet echos the Voice’s sentiment. So be it. For the record, that’s not going to stop me. Here I go.

GO.

* This is my new, one-word manifesto. I hope it will usher a new era on Lucky So And So. Less hang ups = more posts.

** Please BE CERTAIN Liz would never actually raise her eyebrows at me this way as she is the one of the sweetest, kindest, most empathetic people in the world. It’s because I look up to her that the thought of letting her down is so reprehensible. Liz excels in the very area where I am a flop: intentional organization. I currently owe her 3 thank you notes. That is not an exaggeration. Just to reiterate: I both LOVE and ADMIRE Liz Danzico.

*** There’s a super cool reason this comment was a really big deal to me, outside of the fact that James is a brilliant designer. I’ll tell that story in a subsequent post.

Comments

  1. Courtney Martin

    Just remember what Cornel West says: “Of course it’s a failure, but how good a failure is it?” Maybe instead of thinking of perfect things you could think of really awesome failures?

  2. Amanda Hayden

    Well that was inspiring. Thanks so much for posting. So nice to see what goes on in my head being echoed by another person, makes me feel less like a terrible human being for all the “failures” littering my path to perfection. Also Courtney- I love what you posted.

  3. Jessi Arrington

    Thanks, Courtney! You are so wise. That’s why we’re in a band together. I shall now make it my goal to have at least one GLORIOUS failure this year.

    Thank you Amanda for letting me know that I’m not alone. I was thinking I surely couldn’t be, but was also scared I might. Let’s get over it together!

  4. Kora Korzec

    I used to be a perfectionist too. It didn’t really hold me up from doing stuff, but it was taking all possible positive emotions related to the job (well?) done. But! I’ve met one inspiring manager who was happy to reassure me about two important things.
    It’s OK to LEARN (we don’t use the ‘f’ word - it can help - try it).
    Secondly, even if lesson happens it’s unlikely to kill anyone (it’s worth adding that we are not working in health care services).
    After two years of consistent reassuring, life is now better, work is easier and even in my relationships I’m less demanding of people, which largely helped!
    I am able to define what ‘good enough’ is now.

  5. B

    i am like this about my dissertation, but not about creative things (like hand made thank you notes, etc), probably because my identity is not tied up in being creative (and hence, perfect in that arena). But for my dissertation? after procrastinating and feeling ashamed at how little i’ve done, i don’t want to show my amazing advisor how little i’ve done (and how low quality it is). thank you for sharing the thought process. it helped me see what’s going on inside me.

  6. Emily

    You are so not alone! (But may I add that I would have never guessed you were like this because of the very little I know about you, you seem to have accomplished a great deal and accomplished it very well.)

    You may have described me perfectly. The good thing for me is that I have now realized that it wasn’t that I was lazy or didn’t have any ambition that kept me from doing just about everything I love, it was that I’m a perfectionist and a highly sensitive person that overwhelmed me to inaction. Now I don’t feel so down on myself and it’s helped me get some long awaited projects going.

    Thank you for the inspired post.

  7. Debbie

    I just listened to you on Ted Talks…you’re very inspiring!

    I have been stuck my whole life, feeling like a loser, worrying “am I lazy?”, “do others think I’m lazy?”  I’ve known for a while now that it is actually perfectionism.

    Sometimes I succeed in doing something in spite of myself, but there is so much I’d like to do that just sits there.  Like living my life.

    Sorry I sound so down.  It really was great to read your post and listen to your Ted Talk.

  8. Claire

    Thank you for “go"ing and posting this!  That paralyzing perfectionism is something I’ve been experiencing a lot of lately (new jobs create new doubts) and it’s great to know it’s not just me!

    Case and point:  I read your blog at 6:30 tonight and began an attempt at a witty post.  I had to leave for a meeting before I could finish it—so it didn’t get posted!  And then I realized I’d spend so long trying to perfect a post that I almost didn’t even post!  How ironic.

    But slowly learning that a) Failure is one of life’s best teachers and b) My value as a person does not come from the quality of my work, has freed me to “go”!

  9. Debbie

    It’s funny when one sees people like you…happy and more importantly successful, they think that you don’t have the same issues as they do.  Everyone has one issue or another, some people just manage to work past them.  That is part of why you are an inspiration!

    It’s interesting that perfectionists tie their self-worth to their quality of work, yet it keeps us from doing or GOing,  which is worse than doing something that may be less than perfect!!

  10. ellen

    Thank you for your post.  You know how sometimes you hear, or read, or see, or get exactly the right thing at the right moment in time?  Reading your blog post tonight is one of those perfect thing-timing match-up experiences for me.

  11. sharon

    I really enjoyed this post (and your recent TED talk) ... your writing is incredibly witty and so accurate.  I “... abandoned perfectionism” (to quote my facebook post of January 20, 2011 but it only lasted 36 hours ... still, I’ll continue to try.  Here are a couple of quotes that also inspire me in this quest:

    β€œAll my successes have been built on my failures.” – Benjamin Disraeli

    β€Ž“it’s not a mistake, it’s a design feature” - Tony Bennett (machine knitter from Perth, WA)

  12. Anu

    I found your TED talk and thought it really packs to lovely aspects into one - thoughts of live and clothes. So was impressed!
    After reading this I actually got a tear in my eyes, I got really touched by your post, because today has been the low of the lowest “I don’t what to do and how to do it, so I just procrastinate and feel super guilty” day.
    I “work” on myself through love, because if I’m harsh with myself, I feel even worse. So positive affirmations usually get me out of this hole and today, I think, this post was my inspiration needed to smile (the tears are now gone) and saying: “Heh, life is beautiful, there is NO time to feel crappy about yourself, there is only time to be and feel awesome!”
    Love and hugs!

  13. Jenn

    What a fabulous post!  I couldn’t have said it better myself…which makes me a little nutso because I am also a perfectionist/procrastinator.  I never really thought about how much the two of those go hand in hand so thanks for the epiphany :)

    I actually started my personal blog a year and a half ago as my first big step in overcoming my endless procrastination (which I shall now blame on my perfectionist tendencies) and it has done wonders.  It has also pushed me towards my goal of starting my business…which I had always put off because it HAS to be the coolest, most wildly successful company in all the world - and well that’s a lot to live up to.

    So thank you for putting into words what I’ve never been able to.  Knowing that others share the same struggles puts me at ease and makes me feel a little less ‘crazy’.

    Jenn

  14. Titi from Laos

    Just saw your TED talk and visit your blog for the first time. I will repeat what others had said already. You’ve written exactly how I am/feel, minus the guilt and aggressive bits about being a perfectionist.
    Your bubbly self also inspired me to get back to being just that too. So, a big thank you :)

  15. Dijana

    It’s nice to know there are other perfectionist designers out there, going through the same things as me…

    It’s not so much that I think my work is “not good enough”, but I always want to “do better”. Then feel slightly dejected and unmotivated. Even though I know nothing I will ever do will be “Perfect”, that’ll never stop me from getting as close as I can!

    Thanks for the post!!! It made me feel less weird…
    ^_^

  16. dana

    holy crap.  i honestly don’t think i have ever connected to something as much as that post. 

    in fact, i found your blog as i was procrastinating on constructing elaborate thank you notes staring at the pile of craft supplies on the table in front of me.  nuts.

    thanks for putting everything that spins around my head and prohibits me from ever really getting a good night’s sleep down on internet paper.  i feel less alone.  a little less crazy.  and a little more crazy.  at the same time.

    i have officially printed out this post - tacked it to my board - ok ok i’m going. 

    i’m sending out the thank you notes today.

  17. Hypatia

    Jessi,
    Like so many others here, I discovered you and your blog from you ted talk.  First, I really love your nothing new concept, and personally, I think it was kismet that I found you right when my husband and I are trying to implement something similar in our lives. 

    Once upon a time, I was a graduate student in a particularly strenuous program at a midwestern university, and I was a perfectionist.  I got so anxious over perfection that I was living on short nights and lots of caffeine.  Long story short, I perfected my way right out of the program.  But it forced me to get my anxiety under control.  I’m not saying that I think you have an anxiety issue, but many perfectionists do, and getting that under control helps make it easier to just do things and know that they’re perfect within reason, rationally. 

    I’ve always had an issue about thank you notes as well.  Maybe our southern roots gave us both that.  But I realized during my time since grad school that it is really the “thank you” that counts, rather than the pretty note, or the elaborate phrasing, or even the note itself.  I know my grandmother would roll over in her grave if she ever found out that I wasn’t handwriting thank you notes, but a quick, “Thanks - your help really means a lot to me.” email is better than not recognizing the person at all.  And sometimes, even now, that’s the choice that I end up with.  I know that I am never going to come up with the perfect sentiment, so getting something to the person I’m thanking becomes more important than the elaborate plans in my head because I made it so.  And it took me a long time to get to the point I could do just that.

    So let me end with this: Congratulations on committing to tackling your perfectionism!  You’re doing great!  I look forward to reading more about your summer plans and new thrift store finds.
    *grin*

  18. Evren Kiefer

    The self-abuse can get bad indeed and we need to remind ourselves to mitigate it as best we can. Thank you for this post :)

  19. onemadmama

    Thank you so much.  I really needed this today.  I was feeling like a complete failure all week (as a mother, wife, professional, homemaker, cook, <insert anything else here>).  As long as I fail spectacularly I shall enjoy the process!!!

  20. Soccer Mom Style

    Now I know what’s wrong with me!  The symptoms you described are exactly what I usually go through doing any task.  LOL

    btw, I just posted your TED speech on my blog.  Could not agree with you any more on all the points you made.
    I’m new on Lucky So and So.  Several days ago my husband emailed me your TED speech (he knows how much I enjoy thrift-hunting); and now I am a big fan of your blog!  Please check my style blog out if you have a minute…  (it’s personal style with lots of DIY and upcycling projects).
    Thanks!
    maya
    http://byebyesoccermom.blogspot.com/
    p.s.
    I tell myself I need a large Nike poster that says: “JUST DO IT”

  21. BlackIsTheColorOfMyTrueLovesHair

    I almost didn’t write this thank you. I started over four… five… six times.
    One draft was too formal, another one was too personal, another one was too long, this one is too short, one had too many obscure words and sounded presumptuous, one was a little too dark for an introduction.
    I’m working on the “it’s better than nothing” mentality.

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