This is the post I was going to make on Friday, but was put off due to a migraine. Thank you all for your patience with me.
On Wednesday, I had a delightful time making cookies with a very good freind of mine. I was teaching her how to bake cookies. Actually, as she’s a woman with children grown and left home, what I was really doing was giving her permission to not be perfect.
We started off the day with her telling me that her fear of not being perfect usually paralyzes her in learning new things (like making cookies). So, most of the day was spent with me giving her permission to not be perfect. It’s baking, not nuclear science, if the sugar isn’t exactly one cup, it’s not really going to make a difference. Yes, you want to be accurate in your measuring, but a tablespoon extra flour when the recipe calls for two and a quarter cups isn’t going to hurt. Nor will an extra teaspoon of milk.
It’s taken me a long time to get over being a perfectionist. At some point, I realized that the ideal of perfection had actually become the tyranny of perfection, and it was doing more to hinder me than to help me.
Like my friend, I used to be afraid to try anything new. Learning a new art or craft was fraught with anxiety for me, because I knew I wouldn’t be “good enough”. I expected perfection, the first time, every time. When I didn’t get perfection the first time, it would only prove my belief that I was a failure. Because, obviously, I couldn’t do this thing perfectly, so I was a failure.
I know that parents think they are helping their children to strive better when they say things like, “It’s only worth doing if it’s worth doing right!” or “Do it right the first time, then you don’t have to redo it.” But something they don’t take into consideration is that there is a time when people are learning things where their best efforts are going to be mediocre. Or even bad.
To say the above can cause a person (child or adult) to internalize the mistakes as them being a mistake. If you hear over and over that what you do isn’t good enough (especially for a child), you start to internalize the message. It’s no longer that thing you made is a failure, but you are a failure for not making that thing perfect.
It took me a long time to realize my perfectionism had crippled me. I’d take up a new craft, and when I didn’t get it right the first time, I’d get frustrated, with myself, with the craft. I’d beat myself up, telling myself I obviously wasn’t creative, wasn’t an artist, wasn’t good enough because I couldn’t do anything right. Never mind that I’m accomplished at so many things (things I had to learn to do that included mistakes when I was learning).
This is the really sad thing about the tyranny of perfectionism. Because you aren’t perfect the first time in whatever, you use it to beat yourself up, to confirm to yourself what you knew (sometimes always knew) about what a failure you are. But the fact is, even if you fail at this thing, you succeed in many other areas. Do you have a job? The fact that you obtained the job is a success (yes, even if the job is “just” retail or “just” fast food or “just” whatever). Most likely, you were not the only one interviewed for the position, and they chose you. Do you know how to cook? The fact that you can do so is a success (even if it’s “only” home cooking and not gourmet or “only” four things or “only” whatever).
My friend is an accomplished seamstress. She can make clothes with no patterns. She can make full Elizebethan costumes with no patterns (that includes the corset, the two under skirts, the over skirt, the partlet — a kind of old fashioned dicky — and the bodice/coat on top of it all). And yet, she feels like a failure because she can’t roll a dough ball perfectly round. It boggles the mind, although I’ve done it too. I am very good at cooking (I’ve even had professional chefs eat my food, which is a high compliment), and yet, because I have poor sewing skills, I’ve called myself a failure.
When I was in my twenties, I heard something that has had a profound affect on me regarding perfection. It was regarding baseball players averages. They have their averages in hits looking like .346. That means that they hit the ball 346 time out of 1000. That’s not perfect. That’s not even average (if you look at average as being halfway), yet the guys who hit in the .300’s+ are the ones that make the big baseball salaries. They are the ones that are considered a major success. They are the ones who are bid on hot and heavy when it comes time to bid on players at the beginning of the season.
Yet they fail 600+ times out of 1000 attempts to hit the ball. Think about that for a while.
Failure isn’t necessarily bad. Perfection isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.
My friend went home with some awesome cookies that she helped make, and hopefully, permission to not have to make the dough balls perfectly round every time she makes this specific type of cookie. And by giving her permission to not be perfect, I also reminded myself that I don’t have to be perfect.
It really is okay to not be perfect, to not do it right the first time, every time. The cookies come out tasting great even if they are a little lopsided. And, as another saying goes, the proof of the pudding (or cookie) is in the eating.
Color outside the lines. Make lopsided cookie balls. Learn to love the process of learning. Give yourself permission to screw up once in a while. And most importantly, remember that just because you make mistakes doing something (whether it’s something new or something old to you), that does not mean you are a failure.