What's Tony Thinking

Overcoming Perfectionism


As mentioned here not long ago, I teach occasional writing workshops dubbed “Writing in the Wild” at Discovery Park. A half dozen of us cluster on a beach or in the forest. I serve up a prompt like, “Autumn,” and ask people to write away for a short time.

Then people have a chance to share their work, if they wish.

When we get to that part of it I often say, “This is an apology-free zone.” That because so often we amateurs feel we must preface a sharing of our work with a litany of apology. “This isn’t really very good” or “I think this is pretty bad,” are among the most common.

I arrest apology or try to. I say, “No apology, just read us what you wrote.” Then, after a person has found the courage to read their work, I say to the others in the group, “Tell Sarah (or Bill or whoever) what you liked about it.” It’s amazing how often people do like, every really like, what someone who has written is eager to denounce as “awful,” “not good enough” or “pretty bad.”

Of course it’s not “good enough” — whatever that means. Or it is precisely “good enough.” We’re amateurs. We’re learning. We’re having fun. At least that’s the idea.

I do some sketching, pen and ink with a little watercolor. “Urban sketching,” it’s called. To even begin I have to talk down the stalking chorus of perfectionism. “This won’t be perfect.” “You’ll get an angle wrong,” or “have a line going through something that should be behind it and so not showing.”

Like a lion tamer, I thrust my stool toward the jaws of mockery and self-denunciation. I crack my whip and say, “Back to your cage, you beasts.”

And when I’m done with a sketch I have to work real hard at telling myself what I like about it instead of what’s wrong with it.

I was reminded of all this recently while reading Tim Wu’s fine little essay “In Praise of Mediocrity.” 

Wu says that we’ve turned hobbies and leisure into only another form of work, at which we must pursue excellence or don’t bother.

To be sure, let’s do our best and to improve in whatever the endeavor may be. But for some of us, the real obstacle to enjoyment — which is the point — is an internal voice whispering (sometimes shouting), “You’re not a writer . . . not an artist . . . forget it.”

G. K. Chesterton, the English essayist of the early 20th century, has a attention grabbing line.

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” Exaggeration to make a point. We don’t have to be the best or perfect at something to attempt it or to enjoy it.

Chesterton was a great champion of the amateur and the generalist. An amateur is, by definition, someone who does something for the love of it.

We’ve professionalized so much. Perhaps you’ve noticed: every leisure activity seems to have become a province of specialists, pros and semi-pros, who devote themselves to it with an ardor that intimidates the generalist.

When I was 65 I took up downhill skiing. My motivation was thrift, which makes no sense as skiing is expensive.

But we had bought a car, a Subaru. The dealership gave new car buyers two season’s passes to a nearby ski area, and a free pair of skis. I couldn’t pass that up. So I started skiing.

So now, with autumn upon us, I am laying plans for this year’s ski season. I don’t expect to ever be really, really good at it. But I am better. I keep improving a little here, a little there. And I enjoy it. I enjoy being on a sunny mountaintop when down below we’re wrapped in cloud and mist. I enjoy carving my way down a hillside, leaning into a turn a bit farther than I am comfortable doing.

And here’s the bonus. Now that I’ve turned 70 I get the “senior discount” at ski areas. They’re almost paying me to come. Well, not quite, but you get the idea.

Once on a lift I chatted with a gal who had been skiing just two years. I said, “Your doing great.” She: “I’ve improved a lot.” Me: “How did you do it?” “I wasn’t afraid of falling. Falling didn’t really bother me,” she said with a cheerful defiance.

Perfection can be a tyrant. Talk the tyrant down. Tell the  voices that diminish to shut up. Then go have fun.


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