The Antidote to Perfectionism (Audio Available)

Reflection by Danielle Webber, 18 February 2018


Part 1

Has there ever been a time when you were free from making mistakes? Perhaps a school paper that you were able to receive 100 percent on? Or a project at work were you were able to execute everything perfectly… Where everything aligned itself just so … that when all was said and done, and you looked back at the process, there was nothing that you would have changed? Have you ever been so satisfied with the results of your efforts that you believed there was no room for improvement?

Yeah, me neither.

And yet there is this concept of perfectionism in our society that constantly calls us to be better, calls us to strive for more, and urges us on to the point of breaking.

Why do we have this need for perfection?

And how will we ever give ourselves a break from this constant seeking?

I believe I have already told the congregation that I am working on a second Masters degree. After completing my Masters of Divinity, I had the opportunity to write a thesis for a Masters in Leadership Studies.

The professor I had in the first semester of this thesis asked me to read a short essay by Anne Lamott called Shitty First Drafts.

In it Lamott states “People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their neck a few times to get all the crinks out, and dive in, typing fully forms passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.” Lamott goes on to say “For me, and for most of the writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

How do we give ourselves permission to have shitty first drafts? Is there room in our world of striving for perfection to be okay with, and to actually enjoy the process of first steps, first drafts, bumbling around without understanding how things work and how to manage everything? How do we get over this idea of perfection, from the onset of our to-do list, at the onset of our careers, our goals, our achievements? How do we get over this idea of perfectionism in its entirety.

Another concept that has been made popular in modern culture comes from the book Outliers: The Story of Success. In this book author Malcolm Gladwell claims that the 10,000-hour rule is the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill. If only we were able to practice our skill for 10,000 hours than perhaps we can achieve this notion of perfection. Much like The Beatles, becoming one of the most well known, and most successful rock groups in the world or Bill Gates becoming one of the riches people in the world.

It seems pretty manageable, and anyways practice makes perfect right? 10,000 hours works out to be 20 hours per week for 10 years. Even if you couldn’t commit 20 hours per week. I am certain that I knit for a total of 7 or 8 hours a week, maybe even 10 hours. And I started knitting 13 years ago, so I am already halfway to perfection, halfway to achieving world-class expertise.

The problem with this concept, as has been pointed out by many of Malcolm’s critics, is that so often when we are learning our skill things will shift, rules will change, and concepts will develop. In other words, if I had spent the last 13 years only knitting dishcloths, which was the first thing I learned, then I would become world class at knitting them. But I started knitting scarves and socks, and sweaters, cables and lace and adding in different colours and trying different techniques, all to the point where I am hardly never practicing, but I am in a constant state of learning and and discovering, not really in a state of practicing. Who knows, maybe one day I will even start designing knitted pieces instead of using patterns. Where as the rules around chess never change, and could likely be learned and mastered in a significantly shorter period of time. Or perhaps how to ride a bike or to solve a Rubik’s cube. All things that you can become really proficient, perhaps even a world class expert, but this is because the rules or the situation is stable, there needn’t be any entrepreneurial skills involved.

It is much harder to become an expert at things when the rules change, or when the situation in which you must perform is new.  Perhaps somebody could be the best hockey player in the National League, but put them into a new situation, like street hockey, or change things up for them and put them into a different hockey team, and then suddenly they are no longer the best hockey player.

Perhaps it is not that we practice alone, and achieve perfection, but when we practice with others we can together create something better than perfection.

I would like to ask Louise Haleprin forward to show us an example of learning together in community.

Music and Movie Clip

I want to share with you now a video clip – some people will probably recognize this clip, and others might not, but it is a dance scene from a 1980s dance movie, called Flash Dance, where a young woman, named Alex, is encouraged to audition for a spot in a prestigious dance school. This is the last scene of the movie, her audition.

Part 2:

In the 1980s this movie was at the pinnacle. Everyone wanted to be Alex, what you didn’t see in this clip was that Alex worked as a wielder during the day times, and worked as a dancer by night. She badly wants to become a professional dancer, but she does not have any formal training, and ends up spending the duration of the movie practicing night and day for the audition. And she aced it. A prime example of practice makes perfect. After all of her trials and tribulations, her stumbles and her nerves, Alex is able to perfect her audition.

But does she really?

It was revealed after the release of the film that it took 4 different actors in order to perform this dance. Jessica Beale the actress who we all see, had a dance double, a ballerina who did all of the dancing scenes in the movie. But this scene also required a gymnast to perform the leap and then a fourth actor who was a street performer that did the break dancing back spin at the very end. So through the magic of television, or in this case a movie, we are able to see the spectacular feats of perfection.

To go back to Anne Lamott’s essay Shitty First Drafts she states “Perfection is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think that perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a while lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

If we go back to the story that Katherine shared with us earlier this morning, we can see that perfection is something that will hold us back from attempting new things, where we will feel frozen in a space and time where risks are not being taken, for fear of failure. We can attempt to walk down this path, spending all of our time practicing the one or two things that we want to get perfect, and ignoring the rest. Or we could recognize that things can get better when we join in the crowd, and challenge ourselves with others, find a way to engage our interdependence, and rely on others to help us make it through the tough parts.

All through out this morning we have been reaching towards our interdependence to create something that is more than perfection. We have sung together, we have witnessed one another during times of strife and joy, we have come together as a community, with the opportunity to break bread together shortly, because we know that being in a community and participating in the collective gatherings allows us reprieve from the struggles of the work week, the struggles of everyday life, the struggles of holding it all together. Being part of this community allows us to let go of the need for perfection, and allows us to find peace in being together, and creating something more. This morning, I hope that you are able to take that sense of peace, back into the world, remembering that your interdependence to this community follows you and supports you no-matter where you go. I hope that it will allow you to let go of some of the needs with in you, to be perfect.

Download The Antidote to Perfectionism