Perfection is its Own Worst Enemy

Perfection is its Own Worst Enemy

We tend to see planning ahead as the one true path to success, but like all concepts we use to guide us, it often turns into the trap we step into by starting out in search of perfection, instead of as a way to get through tomorrow while still in the midst of today. Looking back, I can now see after many years of struggle that my mother’s demands that I never quit until I had the perfect solution to any problem has often left me in a strait jacket of impossible expectations, together with a perpetual sense of frustration and futility rather than success.

No matter what I did, I always felt that I was missing something or should (that disastrous word SHOULD) be able to produce, but expectations stood in the way of achievement. I managed to combine high achievement with low self-esteem and have spent more time second-guessing myself than I did celebrating a lot of stuff I did fairly well. Many of my bagels have been buttered where needed, but all over as well, to where it could slip out of my hand when I picked it up to eat, and slide onto my lap or the rug under the table, covering it with lint. Lint is not the answer.

My sister’s secret nickname for me was The Robot, which I learned only after she passed away and I read her diaries. If I didn’t think I had the perfect answer, I’d keep tweaking my solution to the point of not recognizing my own work by the time the deadline arrived. That didn’t mean I’d failed, it just meant I’d spent three times as much time on the problem as it deserved. The wheel already exists, so we don’t need another one. Tried and true can be true blue or a long walk off a short pier. But don’t try to get there in one giant step, because no one’s legs are that long, which is hard to grasp since we have, due to the location of our heads, a very poor sense of how our legs actually work as a practical matter.

After years of arm-wrestling with myself, I’ve found that one of the keys to sanity and success comes out of what I’ve learned from writing thousands of words that never made it into print. Don’t fall in love with your own ideas. Try to see them just as ideas, without any sense of ownership. All writing teachers tell you early on to “Kill Your Darlings,” which is to say the parts of your product you love because they appear so clever and cute, but generally more so to you than to the rest of the world. I learned to win poetry prizes by writing the whole thing, then flushing the first stanza in its entirety, since that was all throat-clearing and limbering up, but nothing of substance. So it was only when you got that phlegm out of the way that you reached your actual subject. Just because you thought it up doesn’t mean it’s the greatest thing since your favorite Teddy Bear. It’s just that you had to start somewhere. It’s also hard to type when you’re busy patting yourself on the back over your own brilliance.

So consider this. Plan A is as likely to be throat-clearing as it is prize-worthy. We tend to see abandonment of a course of action as some kind of failure, and cling to that thought way too fiercely. Plan B is not a failure — it can just as easily be a Fresh Start! Why be stubborn? A dead horse wins no races, no matter how hard you ride it, so open your eyes and see the future, instead of shaping and reshaping the past. Practicing your three-point shot at the wastebasket will bring you more satisfaction and success than hugging Plan A to the point where it suffocates, because your arms are wrapped so tightly around it that its breath becomes exhausted. It may look alive, but you’ve put so many somersaults and back flips into it — trying to make it look perfect-- that even you know who you’re fooling, and it’s the person sitting at your desk chair wishing you’d never taken on this particular project, not your audience.

Mike Parish is an Alameda resident.