I struggle with perfection. I don’t think I’m the only one.
I’ve discussed before how my pursuit of perfection paralyzes me. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering why, exactly, I’m holding on so tightly to things. I’ve been self-psychoanalyzing this white-knuckle approach to life, and, as always happens, the universe has been giving me what I need to make sense of my thoughts and find new paths to follow. I’ve had some interesting epiphanies lately.
I’d already decided I wasn’t going to have a birthday, because I refused to get a year older.
What I didn’t say aloud was I didn’t want to turn another year older and still feel like I don’t have my shit together.
I mean really, I’m an adult. I have a job I love, a husband I adore, a fantastic life with wonderful friends, adorable kittens, and a house that (ten years of renovations later) finally seems to be in pretty good shape.
But the edges of my life still feel frayed and unkempt.
There are still so many things I want to do, so many ways I want to be more intentional.
So I revolted at the idea of a birthday, proper. Instead, because I’ve learned to trust my subconscious, I did something utterly unique on my special day. I scheduled some me time. Time I could be alone, and do some thinking. Time to process a bunch of really cool insights I’ve had recently.
Have you seen the movie Burnt, starring Bradley Cooper as a tyrannical bad-boy chef? If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. I love stories about food, and this doesn’t disappoint. But more important is the theme of the story. It is clear, and it is hard.
As the protagonist, Adam Jones says, “If it's not perfect, you throw it away…”
A double-Michelin-starred chef, Adam has a fabulous redemptive journey through the story. He is a perfectionist. He holds himself, and everyone around him, to such completely unattainable heights he is constantly disappointed.
There is a moment, late in the movie, when he’s talking with the therapist tasked with keeping him drug-free and in line so he can get his third Michelin star, that is so powerful I had to stop the movie, sit for a few minutes, and try to process what he’d said. He’s being completely sarcastic in tone, but he means every word. This is the heart of his character, his driving force.
Dr. Rosshilde: Tell me what frightens you.
Adam: Spiders. Death.
Dr. Rosshilde: [chuckles] Well, or maybe the imperfection of human relationships, the imperfection of others, of yourself.
Dr. Rosshilde: What happens if you get this third star?
Adam: Oh no, not “if.” “When.”
Dr. Rosshilde: Alright, when you get it.
Adam: Celebration. Fireworks. Sainthood. Immortality.
Dr. Rosshilde: Perfection.
Adam: Mmhmm, sure.
Dr. Rosshilde: What happens if you fail?
Adam: Plague. Pestilence. The seas rise, locusts devour. The four horsemen ride, and darkness descends.
Dr. Rosshilde: Death.
I don’t know if this is how everyone feels, but it’s certainly right in line with my feelings on the subject.
There’s perfection, or there is the yawning abyss. There is nothing in between.
That’s a pretty rough place to live.
When I heard it, out loud, and realized this is where I’ve been dangling myself, I knew I needed to make some changes.
So I decided to listen to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic podcast. I love Liz’s voice: She has a certain timbre in her tone that resonates with me—it’s sheer joy. She always sounds like she’s on the verge of bursting out into happy, crazy laughter, which in turn makes me happy and primes me to listen.
I pulled a ton of nuggets from the shows, but the biggest, most mind-blowing one came from the very last installment, during a conversation she’s had with Brené Brown.
Liz said a therapist once told her that what she was terrified of—essentially the worst thing that could ever happen to your art—has already happened.
I had to pull the car over.
I played it back. I felt the same frisson.
It started me thinking. What’s the very worst thing that can happen to me as an artist?
Someone hates my work. My book gets terrible reviews. My book doesn’t sell. I lose my editor. I lose my gig. My story inspires someone to hurt someone else. My creative muse deserts me and I can’t write.
Yeah. Well. You can see how the negativity that lurks disguises itself as a driving need for perfection. If the art is perfect, none of these things will happen. Right?
Well guess what. Liz is right. All of these horrible things already have happened. Over the past decade, every one of them (except someone hurting someone else, that I know of).
NO ONE KNOWS is a great example of this.
When I wrote the book, I KNEW there were people who weren’t going to like it. I knew some wouldn’t care for the writing, the change in genre, the story, or (especially) the ending. Whether they missed the twist, or they didn’t buy into the concept, or they simply hated discovering the narrator is truly unreliable, I KNEW I was going to get dinged. It was truly the first thing I’d ever created that I understood and accepted would piss people off.
I put it out there anyway.
I got a bunch of great trade reviews (PHEW!) and then the the rest started to come in. The good far outweigh the bad, but there are some BAD reviews. (I particularly enjoyed the one who suggested a lobotomy would be necessary to enjoy the book.)
So when I heard Liz say the worst thing that could happen already has… I realized a number of things, including the realization that yes, the worst already has happened to me, in various ways.
If I was brave enough to let NO ONE KNOWS out into the world, knowing full well it was going to garner mixed reviews, what in the HELL am I holding back on anymore?
I have been using the goal of perfection to limit myself. Nay, to punish myself. All the while not even realizing that the worst has already happened, and I’ve lived through it virtually unscathed.
Yes, there’s been a lot of negative self-talk in my brain lately. It’s not because NO ONE KNOWS got some bad reviews—surprisingly, that’s not a big deal to me. People are entitled to their opinions, and not everybody likes everything. It’s something deeper.
The nasty four letter world we all hate.
Resistance is fear. Trying to attain perfection is fear.
So yes, the worst thing that could happen to my art already has—there are people who don’t like it and won’t ever buy another book.
And… the sun is still rising in the mornings. I am still creating. And by God, I am going to trust my gut from here on out, and stop letting this relentless pursuit of perfection get in my way.
Next blog, I’m going to look at some ways I’m reframing all this talk into something productive. Because I’m tired of trying to be perfect. I need to trust myself, trust my art, and trust the process. If I write the words, I will create a book. All the rest is out of my control.
What do you think is the worst thing that can happen to your art?