A Letter to a Perfectionist from a Recovering Perfectionist

First of all, I would like you to know that I am a recovering perfectionist myself.

What I am about to say to you, I say with sympathy. I understand. At the same time, you may be wondering why I am writing this letter. Let me explain.

  • I was the one who had to measure out the perfect distance between my rows of radishes. Four inches to be exact. Then 1 to 2 inches between each seed.
  • I was the one who would spend an hour trying to find the correct color of Lego brick. A blue 2×4 block was not going to cut it. I needed a gray 2×4.
  • I was the one who color coded my entire Lego collection. And I have a lot of Legos. A laundry-basket-full of Legos.
  • I was the one who would stress out about my sister’s bedroom. In fact, I would organize her room it bothered me so much.
  • I was the one who could only draw something if it was right there in front of me. My drawing needed to look exactly like the picture. Imagination? Forget it.

Sometimes, I think I have been getting better. I am not a perfectionist anymore. At least, not as bad. Then I remember.

  • I am the one who does a photo shoot for my food blog and gets excited about the pictures. Then I see the latest posts from some of my favorite food blogs. Then I start comparing…
  • I am the one who spends three hours on a photo shoot for my blog, takes 146 pictures, and ends up using…wait for it. Eight. A solid 8 pictures.
  • I am the one who belabors exactly what size font to use for heading 2 versus heading 3. Ugh. 30 pixels or 28 pixels?

I think you get the point. This is why I call myself a “recovering” perfectionist.

I already know what you are thinking — “Why are you painting perfectionism in a bad light? People should be trying harder to produce better quality.” There is a big difference between producing better quality versus being a chronic perfectionist. That is why I am writing to you.

When I started pursuing creative projects this year, I came across a quote by Ira Glass. I do not know who Ira Glass is or what he did. I could research it, but I do not want to take the time. What is more important is what he said:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.” -Ira Glass

Because I was so impressed with this quote, it is hanging on my board in my room. I am glad I did. So many times, I have thought of quitting. To do something easier. I think I have good tastes (and even that might be a stretch), but I also realize what I create is not always that good. It is not exactly what I want. It is not…well, perfect. The temptation is to just give up.

Don’t get me wrong, hard work is good. Doing your best is good. Chronic perfectionism is not.

The problem is that we live in an imperfect world. Perfectionism is unattainable. Despite this, entire industries are based off selling the mirage of perfectionism to us. Perfect bodies. Perfect yards. Perfect relationships. By the time it comes to what we are creating and making, we assume it must be perfect. Flawless.

Perfectionism is unattainable. Despite this, entire industries are based off selling the mirage of perfectionism to us.

Dear perfectionist, the deeper question you must answer is this. Why are you striving so hard for perfectionism? While you think about that question, here are three specifics to overcome chronic perfectionism.

Quality Over Quantity

Our work should have purpose. It should solve a need and add value to the world. As perfectionists, we are attempting to accomplish this. We overanalyze our work, wondering if it is good enough. Worthy enough. Purposeful enough.

Quality over quantity is not your problem. You are trying to create quality. You refuse to rest till it is perfect, but what happens is that you never share your work. Yes, put your best foot forward. Give it all you have. Take the time to make it right. But then share it.

Quantity Over Quality

To combat this perfectionism, many trending “life-experts” will say, “Quantity over quality.” No matter how bad it is, just put what you are creating out there. You poor perfectionist soul. I can tell you are already shuddering. To think of what others will think of your “creative” garbage. To think of how you are contributing to the empty nonsense of the internet. To think of what others might think of you.

The problem is if you only share what you think is quality, you may never share your work at all. Think about it this way.

  1. Consistency is where you develop your craft. You don’t have quality. Yet. What you are creating is not the best of the best. Yet. You want it to be the best, but you just do not have the skills or experience. Until you begin consistently producing some quantity of work, you are stuck in dreaming mode. Someone asked me why I put schedules on myself. Friday for the blog. Every day on my book. Shouldn’t I just work on my projects when creativity hits? If I did that, there would be no posts on this blog. I know myself too well. Be consistent.
  2. Failure is paralyzing. We worry too much about what others think, but we need to remind ourselves — it is okay to look foolish. Are you okay with looking foolish over and over until you succeed? Are you willing to fail until you don’t think you can fail one more time?

Quantity + Quality

Which is it? Quality over quantity? Quantity over quality?

The answer is that both are correct. Consistently produce as much as you can, as close to the standard of quality you know you should have. But there is only so much you can do. Once you get there, once you put everything in that you possibly can, release it. Publish it. Share it. And move on. Do it again. And again, and again, and again.

If you are honestly putting in much as you can, aiming for the best in whatever you do, people will notice. People will pay attention.

But remember: stop trying so hard. Start creating. Start sharing. Move on, and do it again.

Yours truly,

A recovering perfectionist