14 July 2010, Birmingham, England.
It’s getting dark outside, and I’m sitting in front of a screen in a computer cluster for PhD students. Tomorrow I have to hand in my thesis, and this is my last chance to spot any typos or mistakes.
And suddenly I find one. It sends me to panic. I call my partner, and sob on the phone.
‘I found a mistake. If I overlooked this one, what else have I missed?’
‘Good enough is good enough,’ I lost count of how many times he said this to me in the past 4 months. ‘It’ll be fine.’ But it has to be perfect! I must pass my viva without any corrections. I’d been obsessed with this particular outcome from the outset. Looking back at that experience, I realise that I felt it’d prove how worthy I am of praise, of respect, of love.
Not only did I want to pass without any corrections, but I also chose the toughest examiner possible. When a fellow PhD student suggested that I should aim lower, and that perhaps a ‘God’ of EU law at Oxford University may not be the right fit, I fell out with her. Never mind that this man wrote his first textbook on EU law when I was one year old and whose books have been used across the world as the highest authority in this area of law. I had to wow him, dead or alive, and therefore, I had to create a perfect thesis.
My right shoulder protested in response. I had developed a repetitive strain injury six months before then, pushing myself to craft something beyond any criticism. It left me in pain and also stopped my progress for a while.
Here’s the thing. I did it. I passed my viva without a single correction. That day seemed the happiest day of my life. Until the morning after… when I woke up empty. I didn’t feel any more worthy, respected or loved than the night before.
What’s more, a month later, I didn’t get a job I’d hoped for. Someone else in the department who, by the way, hadn’t even finished her PhD yet, got it instead. By then I had about ten publications; she had one. Didn’t make any difference.
So, if you think that creating something perfect will get you the love and recognition you crave, think again. It’s your mind’s way of tricking you.
Your mind will push you to create a masterpiece, which, in principle, is not a bad thing. But it does so because it’s scared. It probably can’t tolerate much criticism, so if you create something perfect, chances are people won’t blame or hate you. If you create something perfect, people you love won’t be disappointed in you. If you create something perfect, you might finally be loved the way you need. But it’s a moving target. Because creating one perfect piece is not likely to get you want you want. You achieve one thing, and your mind will use its whip to keep you in the game.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you should send out a half-cooked manuscript to an agent. It’s not about lowering your standards. Rather, it’s being self-aware and not letting your insecurities run the show.
Because at the end of the day, all you will get is stress, health problems, and a wounded ego. Perfectionism is all about getting a specific outcome, that will make you feel better about yourself. It stops you from enjoying the journey. What if it could be a different way around? You could feel content with yourself, and create the very best work you can, which you’d be proud to share with the world. What if you could enjoy the process? What if you could lift off the pressure that perfectionism places on you, and create from a place of joy and peace?
I’m running a free call on Overcoming Perfectionism on 26 October at 2:00pm UK time. Would you like to join me on this exploration? If so, please, register at this link and please, fill in this short survey
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