Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Is Perfectionism Killing Your Career?

I'm a perfectionist. And for most of my life, I saw that as a positive quality. After all, aren't successful people supposed to want their work to be the best it can be? And what can be better than perfect? For a long time, I was proud of my perfectionism. I thought it made me a better editor, writer, and employee.

But now that I'm writing full-time, I've started rethinking my idea of perfectionism as a good thing--and here's why.

Perfectionism isn't realistic. "Perfect" is like the Tooth Fairy. They're both pretty stories, but neither one exists. And no matter how much you try to make your writing perfect, there's always something you could have done better. Once you reach a certain level, some improvements become a matter of taste, not dogma--and then you enter into some very subjective waters. Believing in perfection means believing that there is one absolute perfect way to write something, and that just isn't true. Chasing after perfection is like chasing after a mirage.

Perfectionism wastes time. Now that I write for a living, I have to be careful of how I spend my time. If I'm not making a certain hourly minimum and charging a price that's in line with how long I take to do a job, I can hurt my finances. As a freelancer, it's best to work as efficiently as possible. However, I know I am fully capable of spending hours trying to get a simple how-to content article exactly right--even though the amount I charge is based on an hour-long completion estimate. I'm not advocating sending a client something that's not good--but sometimes chasing after perfection just isn't financially worth it.

Perfectionism can keep you from taking risks. The biggest risk I ever took was in leaving my full-time job before conventional wisdom would have said I was ready. I didn't have a year's worth of savings in the bank. I didn't have a bunch of lucrative leads for freelance writing. All I had was the belief in my own writing ability, a copy of Peter Bowerman's The Well Fed Writer, and a lot of impatience. It was the first time in my life I went against my own perfectionistic tendencies--and if I hadn't, I might still be working for The Man today.

I was lucky, I think--what I did may not be the right choice for everyone. When you're taking a big risk, it's definitely important to be prepared. But if you wait until conditions are perfect, you might never get started at all--because conditions never will be exactly perfect for anything. Life just isn't like that.

Perfectionism can keep you from finishing tasks. I struggle with perfectionism every time I sit down to write a novel--which I do when I don't have client work or marketing work to do. I want my novel to be absolutely perfect, so I obsess over each line and paragraph. The problem is, when you're trying to write a 100,000 word document, you can't afford to be that picky about each word. Maybe that's why I've been working on novels since I was in grade school--but I've never finished one. I know that if I ever really want to be a novelist, I have to learn to turn the nit-picking off while I bang out the first draft.

Perfectionism can inhibit your creativity. The problem with perfectionism is that it makes you judge your own work quite harshly. And nothing kills creativity like over-harsh criticism. I face this sometimes when I'm doing more creative work for clients. I sometimes find myself thinking of ten different ideas and discarding each one as not good enough before even writing them down. If I'm not careful, I could find my harsh inner critic shooting down every idea i have before I get a chance to explore it.

Creativity requires freedom. I have to force myself sometimes to write down every idea I have when I'm brainstorming, even if my initial reaction is "that's dumb." Once I have all my ideas down on paper, I can judge which ones are worth pursuing.

Perfectionism can be extremely useful during the editing stage. But if you let it take over all facets of your writing life, it can harm your career by keeping you from finishing projects, working efficiently, taking risks, and exploring new ideas. Someone once told me that perfectionists make great critics, but lousy writers--and I really believe that's true.


Anonymous said...

This reminds me of when I began learning to play guitar. I came from years of classical piano training. Bach, Mozart... the works.

Then my guitar teacher gets all upset because I'm actually trying to *read* the music (how dare I!), keep perfect tempo, and I'm not playing by ear.

"Play by ear?" I was stunned. Playing by ear got my proverbial knuckles rapped sharply by my ex-piano teacher. Often. Because I have a very good ear and it was faster than reading music, which was boring. Anything I heard, I tried to memorize the sound... which meant I couldn't read the instructions if they changed. "READ!" she'd order. "Play what you read!"

Now here's a guy with just as much musical training as my piano teacher telling me to FEEL the music and go with the flow. "It's about passion! Not perfectionism! Don't try to get it perfect. Try to HEAR what you want to play."

Lucky for me that fit my natural talent better than following rules - otherwise I'd be talking to my therapist about the cruelty of artistic teachers with conflicting methodology.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the perceptive essay. As important as it is for a writer to develop an inner editor, it's also important for him or her to learn how to stick a sock in the mouth of said inner editor.

It's OK to be a perfectionist in terms of grammar and spelling, though. When it comes to typos in final drafts, close enough isn't good enough.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@James--that's actually a good side point--"perfect" grammar can get in the way of really excellent naturalistic dialogue, and even the rhythm of a conversational sales piece. Sentence fragments and such aren't perfect grammar, but they're still useful. Sometimes you just have to "feel" what you're writing.

@Two-fisted: Yeah, I couldn't agree more about grammar or spelling--but that's the easy part. I never spend much time agonizing over correct spelling or syntax. What I agonize more over is structure, word choice, and other stylistic issues. When there's an easy right or wrong, perfectionism is good--because "perfect" is achievable. It's when you get into the more subjective issues that it can hold you up.

Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

Oh, man, can I ever relate. I think there's an unwritten rule that all writers/editors are perfectionists at heart. It makes sense, of course, when you think about it.

Anonymous said...

Perfection is something to aspire to, but impossible to achieve. I find that if I agonize over a piece of writing for too long I lose all perception of whether it's any good or not. The good thing about deadlines is they let you know when to stop. Otherwise nothing would ever be finished.

Unknown said...

I heard a great quote recently: Perfection isn't good enough because it leaves no room to be human.

Really, perfection is a concept not a reality.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Kathy--it's tough too because as a writer, perfectionism is needed at the end stage for editing. But it can definitely be taken too far, and for me at least I've found it trips me up when I'm in the drafting process. I think it's a matter of learning how to turn it on and off rather than losing the habit altogether.

@Matt--that's really true. I've written things I've thought were awful, then coming back to them later and being struck by how much better they really are than I'd remembered. Sometimes a little distance can help you see the good in something as much as the bad.

@FreeRange: That's a great quote. I'm putting it up on a sticky note by my desk.