Do Your Worst

December 8, 2007 § 6 Comments

As I was bearing down on the last few pages of my dissertation proposal, the New York Times published an article about perfectionism, which, in true social scientific fashion, listed three identifiable types of sufferers:

Self-oriented strivers who struggle to live up to their high standards and appear to be at risk of self-critical depression; outwardly focused zealots who expect perfection from others, often ruining relationships; and those desperate to live up to an ideal they’re convinced others expect of them, a risk factor for suicidal thinking and eating disorders.

Um, I’ll take self-oriented strivers for 100, Alex.  Of course I will: I’m a Virgo, after all, and therefore astrologically predisposed to this particular condition.  As for the others, I’ve known them too.  I have a close friend who is the utter personification of type three, and I briefly dated a type two before I caught a whiff of it and ran for the hills.  (Shudders.)     

In any case, I’ve thought a lot about the article since happening across it, and also about something Jake wrote en route to his triumphant completion of NaBloPoMo:

I had started on another novel last year which began with a quick flourish and then had stalled. After about eleven months of thinking and writing I was stuck at about fifty pages of a novel that was in danger of never being completed. I was happy with the quality of the writing within that first novel but that’s the problem. I only allowed myself to write what I considered to be quality writing.

You know, if he’d just take up smoking we could play doubles.  Go on…

During this month’s NaNoWriMo the approach was to write whatever comes to mind, never look back and never second guess. The result is that I have now written over a hundred pages of a novel that may turn out in the end to be even better than the first one. I’ve found that you need to jump in, let yourself go and allow yourself to make mistakes.

Of course it’s true, even if it feels like being water-boarded at the time.  Which, I promise you, it does.  I suppose imperfection is something that some of us have to learn, and although I won’t presume to speak for Jake, I myself have been an agonizingly slow study.  Ultimately, perfectionism is a habit of mind, and those only break with time.     

The Times piece concludes with some sage advice:

The British have a saying that encourages people to show their skills while mocking the universal fear of failure: Do your worst. If you can’t tolerate your worst, at least once in a while, how true to yourself can you be?

So, finally, I’ve done my worst, and from what I can tell it ain’t half-bad.  Next stop: ABD.

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§ 6 Responses to Do Your Worst

  • Frank says:

    I’d have to say I’m a #1, though I can be a #2 sometimes with certain people (why can’t everyone else follow the rules of the road like I do?). Though I can say that over time each has been slowly balanced out with reality. As I think about it, it seems that deadlines and my effort to avoid the stress that come with them has really toned down my urge for perfectionism. At times it may even come across that I’m lazy or I don’t care. “That looks good enough. We only have an hour to finish this and any changes would take two, so we’ll leave it as is.” I guess it’s also been the realization that often times after perfecting something, it ends up getting scrapped in the end. So you do what you can with the time alloted and let it fly.

  • Alston says:

    I wonder sometimes if I’m the type you shudder about, #2. But I definitely agree about the creative process requiring you to jump in. I just wish I had something to say that I could put in a book.

  • Jake Jakob says:

    Yes, definitely type #1. Thanks for noticing.

    Congrats on the completion. ABD and beyond!

    PS – No, I don’t smoke… cigarettes and I’ve also been known to have other oral fixations.

  • rada says:

    i’ve sort of made peace with the notion that a large portion of my work might not live-up to the sources i have read regarding my field of interest. however, the fact that i am writing in order to add to something that greatly entices me and that completely dumbfounds me, i can be happy.

    at least that what i keep telling myself ;)

  • Vila H. says:

    Frank: You’ve hit the nail on the head: one must reach a compromise with reality. In fact, I think this is why solitary work such as writing acts as a hothouse for perfectionism–there aren’t enough external reference points, whether people or structures, to keep the perfectionist in check. It’s good to know, however, that it can be overcome, or at least channeled in more productive ways. Photography, say…

    Alston: Sorry about the unintentional diss. I suspect type ones have a particularly hard time with type twos, for obvious reasons. I mean, the last thing you need is someone adding fuel to the self-critical fire, which already burns more or less continuously. That, and let’s face it: criticism is the least sexy thing to hear in bed, irrespective of one’s own issues. As for the creative process, it seems to me that you have plenty to say. Three blogs, is it? Maybe if you just smooshed them together… :)

    Jake: Thanks. If you click on the link provided above, you’ll notice that noticing is also a distinctly Virgo trait. Besides, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to map out the writer/insomniac/perfectionist relationship. As for where the oral fixation fits in, well, that would require more research, and a rather different proposal. (Grins.)

    Rada: Lovely. You should absolutely keep telling yourself that. And me.

  • mare says:

    I sometimes am a type 1 (in my work where I always fail to reach my own standards, even though my clients are usually happy), sometimes a type 2 (ask Alison), and sometimes a type 3.

    Of course you can’t be all three types so I do something wrong. I do everything wrong. I’m a total failure.

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