In my last post, I wrote about the joys of being a bad birdwatcher. As I intimated there, bad birdwatching is not just about getting to know our feathered friends. For me, it’s about learning to let go of perfectionism.
Perfectionism has kept me from doing a lot of things in life. For many years it kept me from any form of athletic pursuit. Perfectionism is what led me to flee an aerobics class in tears, rather than simply laughing at how silly I looked when I couldn’t follow the steps. I joined a gym but felt an almost phobia-like anxiety about entering the place. Who was I kidding? I was no athlete. I was a klutz. I didn’t belong there. For years I would enviously watch the rowers on the waterways of Amsterdam, but the thought that I could actually be one of those rowers was as far-fetched as the thought of me becoming an astronaut. And then something snapped. I signed up for lessons at a rowing school and for the first time in my life I gave myself permission to suck at something and still keep at it. And I did suck at it at first (as did everyone else in that beginner’s boat). But I learned from my suckage, and while I’ll never row in the Olympics, I can honestly say I’m not a bad rower now. And most importantly, I love doing it. There’s very little in the world that can compare to that feeling you get when you’re synched with the rest of the crew and it feels like you’re flying over the water. Being in that boat, on the water, watching the grebes and coots do their summer thing, or getting glimpses of the warm and snuggly lives of folks in their canalside houses as you glide by on a cold winter night… these are some of my favorite moments during the week.
Perfectionism also led me to being so crushed by my second reader’s criticism that I had to put my thesis away for a six month (all the time fretting that I wasn’t working on it). As I watched my precious cum laude circling the drain, and sat nursing my wounded pride, I couldn’t accept that he might be right about areas that needed work. I decided that if I couldn’t be perfect at archaeology, I wasn’t interested in it anymore. It was only when I dropped the idea of perfection that I was able to pick up my thesis again, look at what needed to be done, and do it. Not only is it now done, but it’s actually a much better thesis. Making those mistakes and accepting them was the only thing that freed me up to make those improvements. And I’ve even started to remember what got me excited about archaeology in the first place.
Perfectionism has led to hours and hours of procrastination; if you don’t do anything you can’t do anything wrong. Perfectionism has even contributed to a moderate-to-serious clutter problem; I can’t just throw things away, I have to make sure that things get recycled and passed on properly. I’ve had two garbage bags full of sheets and towels sitting on the floor in my office because I decided that they had to go to the animal shelter (which I can’t get to easily) when they could just as easily be donated at a Humana drop box two blocks away (an equally worthy cause). Paperwork needed to be put in the proper order, some perfect imagined system, and until I had the time/energy to do that, it just kept piling up. Recently a friend of mine suggested a system for filing paperwork that I think even I can keep up with. It’s not the perfectly organized system I expected of myself, but it’s one that’s easy, and actually makes sense. In other words, it’s good enough. And good enough is really all you need. Suddenly it occurred to me that bringing those sheets and towels to the Humana box was also good enough. As was actually throwing away some of the plastic bags that I had been planning on reusing (for the sake of the environment) but were overflowing from the shelf where I’d been stuffing them for years, causing a plastic-bag avalanche every time I grabbed one. (The rest are in a large IKEA bag ready to be taken to the Natuurwinkel – the health food store – the next time I go.) Letting go of perfectionism and replacing it with the idea of “good enough” led to a larger-than-expected, relatively pain-free round of decluttering this week.
For much of my life I’ve been paralyzed by perfectionism. If I couldn’t excel at something right of the bat, I didn’t want to do it. Slowly but surely I’ve been letting go of this paralyzing force, and discovering that the world doesn’t end when you make a mistake. That sometimes just doing something, even if you suck at it, is better than not doing anything. Not only that, but allowing for mistakes, allowing for suckage, allowing for imperfection in yourself, can be the first step to actually excelling at something.
Now if y’all will excuse me, I think I’ve edited this post enough. It may not be perfect, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s good enough.