For a long, misguided time, I wore my perfectionism as a badge of honor. Rather than understanding it as something that stopped me from living a happy life, that kept me from “shipping,” and, most saliently for our purposes, formed the chief stumbling block to being the great actor I longed to be, I saw it as the key to people’s hearts—or at least, their grudging admiration. (That alone should have been a clue, but perfectionism has a way of blinding all who worship at its altar.)
These days, while I’m far from my stated goal of 7 1/2 years ago (“release the imperfect in favor of the good“), I find it much easier to put things out there before they are picture-perfect. As a surprise side benefit, I’m also more comfortable in my own skin and happier on a moment-to-moment basis. I create more new work, I take more emotional risks, and I find new (and often surprising) ways to make myself useful in this big, bad world of ours.
If it seems too simple that letting go of an outlook could create such a radical change, it’s not. However, like all meaningful change, it’s also isn’t what I’d call “easy.” How does one go about letting go, anyway? If I had been able to do that reliably onstage or in front of the camera, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to change at all! Experience has taught me that it’s easier to change by replacing an old, unhealthy action with a new, healthier one. Here are some “replacement actions” that have helped me the most along the way.
1. Do more daily
By far, the greatest single action I’ve taken to quit perfectionism is making one thing, every day. I’ve written before about my thing-a-day projects; as I write this, I’m 25 days away from lettering the 365 “signs”—defined as some idea, phrase, or actual sign that jumps out at me during the course of the day—that I pledged to create on my 54th birthday – on September 13, 2015. If you are doing some quick math, you will note that unless I write my columns far, far in advance (and I most definitely do not—more on that, later), I’m going to fail spectacularly at finishing my #signsontheroadto55 by the date I’m actually 55. By the standard I set out with, I failed months ago, the very first time I missed a day. However, the larger goal, which was to GET BETTER AT LETTERING, I can objectively and securely say that I have already achieved. There’s a message in here somewhere akin to the old question of whether you’d rather be right or be happy; I know what I’d rather be.
2. Do less overall
I’m not sure if Eyes-Bigger-Than-Stomach Syndrome™ goes hand-in-hand with perfectionism, or if this is just God’s way of pranking me in particular, but biting off more than you can chew + wanting to chew it all perfectly = disaster. I have a to-do list that’s now officially longer than the amount of time I reasonably can expect to live, and a trail of 90%-finished projects behind me. It’s funny – I made “clarity” my main goal at the start of 2016, and it worked; I’ve learned some painful lessons about saying “yes” to too many things.
My goal for the balance of the year is now to enter 2017 as cleanly as I can. This is going to mean finishing some things to the best of my abilities (i.e. imperfectly) and flat-out discarding others (i.e. admitting FAILURE—is that the opposite of perfectionism?). And moving forward, I’m saying out loud and proud that I will be saying “yes” to far fewer things.
3. Do it with support
Speaking of speaking out loud, there is something magical about making your promises known publicly. There are more support groups and thing-a-day project groups on the Internet than ever; if for some reason you can’t find one you like, feel free to start your own. Or just gather a few likeminded souls together into your own, real-life support group. Set out to accomplish one stated goal each, and then provide whatever check-ins, meetings, and bookending required to get ‘er done. You can even pay a coach for accountability, although be sure to find one with a proven track record of helping people accomplish goals in your stated area.
If you have found other ways of accomplishing goals in a self-humane way, or letting go of perfectionism in general, I’d love to hear about it!