Many things in life come with expectations of good performance. Good students receive high grades. Good workers receive raises. Good dogs receive treats.
We are socialized to, and rewarded for, the pursuit of excellence. An unfortunate, and unproductive, byproduct of this system is perfectionism.
I have written about perfectionism so much because it is the top cause of disorganization (and stress) among my productivity coaching clients.
A client fears deleting email because “What if I need it someday???” So, they have tens of thousands of undeleted emails.
A client procrastinates starting a life-changing project because they fear they may not complete it perfectly. They tell me, “If I can’t do it right, I’m not going to do it at all.”
But do you have to be perfect at doing something you love?
Do you have to be great at it before you show it to others?
Do you even have to be (dare I say) good?
I mean, if you love it, do you have to hide it if it’s not polished?
Hollywood has repeatedly entertained us with the notion that you don’t have to be good at doing what you love:
- Forrest Gump was a terrible shrimp boat captain.
- Joey Tribbiani was a cringy actor.
- Michael Scott was NOT the world’s best boss.
- Elaine Benes was an awkward dancer.
- Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor was an incompetent handyman.
- Wile E. Coyote never caught the Road Runner.
- Miss Piggy was a tone-deaf singer.
In his interview on Dr. Brené Brown’s podcast, Brett Goldstein, who plays Roy Kent on Ted Lasso, had this to say about the Muppets:
“The secret of the Muppets is they’re not very good at what they do. Like, Kermit’s not a great host. Fozzie is not a good comedian. Miss Piggy is not a great… None of them are actually good at it, but they [really] love it.
“And they’re like a family, and they like putting on a show, and they have joy, and because of the joy, it doesn’t matter that they’re not good at it.
“And that’s like what we all should be.
The seven people who have read my bio on my website know that I absolutely, totally, love the Muppets. My family understands this quite well without reading my bio.
Christmas is not a holiday until we have watched The Muppet Christmas Carol. A trip to Disney is not complete until we have seen Muppet*Vision 3D. And, I have asked that The Rainbow Connection be sung at my funeral.
So yes, Brett Goldstein, yes! We should all be like Muppets: A joyful, imperfect, family.
But what about money and responsibility? We can’t all be like Joey Tribbiani!
The Venn Diagram above offers us some conventional wisdom: look for areas of your life where talent and passion overlap. Some people would add a third circle for money and seek the convergence of the three.
There is nothing wrong with this approach except that it assumes that there will always be sufficient overlap between Talent and Passion to offer a human being plenty of ways to be happy.
What if my circles only overlap a smidge? What if they don’t overlap at all? Should I abandon my passion projects?
First, there are the Muppets to consider. Even if you never get good at doing what you love, something magical can happen. There may be an alchemical reaction between your badness and your joy that produces something new and wonderful.
Second, a pesky thing about continuing to practice your talentless passion is that, horrors of horrors, you may actually get good at it. Don’t count on this, though, because…
Third, you may continue to stink at doing what you love. Our inner perfectionists don’t want to hear this. The perfectionist finds this option unacceptable and would rather be less happy and operating safely within preexisting (talented) conditions.
Doing something you may be bad at is scary, risky, and hard.
Don’t let the perfectionist win
Pre-pandemic, I was working on two significant creative projects that flopped spectacularly. One project was a TEDx talk submission and the other was a children’s storybook manuscript.
For those of you who have been with me for a while, you may recall that I wrote a children’s storybook called Seraphina Does Everything! that was published in 2019.
Seraphina was written primarily in rhyme and meter, and I wrote a couple of other manuscripts similarly. In other words, I write poetry.
Unfortunately, Seraphina did not meet its revenue expectations – neither mine nor the publishers. And understandably, the publisher opted to not publish any more of my work.
Disappointed but determined, I joined a local writing group, polished one of my new manuscripts, and spent the next 18 months submitting it to dozens of other kid’s book publishers. Nope. Nope. Nope.
Despite the sting of Seraphina’s poor sales and the string of rejections of the second manuscript, I decided to apply to be a TEDx speaker. I wrote a poem about perfectionism that (I felt) tied in beautifully to the theme of the event. I really, really, really wanted to be chosen to present. I wanted my writing to be deemed…acceptable. Nope.
Then, there was the pandemic, a spike in my activity level called Captain Corona and the 19 COVID Warriors, and a resulting depression that was deep and wide.
My inner perfectionist wasn’t any happier with my situation than the rest of me was. For the first time in my life, we decided to start working together.
Therapy, medications, and journaling during the pandemic helped me redefine “success” and how I measured mine. Over time, I started to feel better – much better.
My unpublished manuscript and my defunct TEDx talk/poem were burning a proverbial hole in my pocket. I felt compelled to tie up this self-appointed Poet Laureate time of my life…somehow.
My inner perfectionist softened into a good-enoughist and joined forces with the rest of me to create…
Our first online training course!
Unwrapping Perfectionism is live and ready to go. Anchored by my two unpublished poems, The Gifts of Perfectionism (TEDx talk) and The Golden Ribbon (kid book manuscript), it is designed to be completed by an adult-child learning team.
I am so joyful right now, I could cry. I feel as it I am a child giggling at the Swedish Chef on The Muppet Show. You know – the episode where the squirrel refuses to get in the Squirrel Stew pot and chases the Chef with his own butcher knife?
I am so pleased that my work in this arena is going to see the light of day. I will never be a great poet, and I am certainly not a perfect one, but I am a joyful poet, a passionate poet. And I offer this imperfect, honest work to you.
Is perfectionism your productivity barrier?
Check out my online course, Unwrapping Perfectionism.
Melissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.