On job interviews, I think that interviewers wish the applicant will turn out to be perfect for the position, and the applicant wants to appear a perfect match for the company. My daughter is looking for a summer job before she starts college and interviews came up in conversation. After advising she focus on leading with her strengths, I warned her to be prepared for the perennial trick question, “What is your greatest weakness?”
I wish they’d make up their minds…
My daughter asked me how I might answer, and I said with a laugh, “I care too much.”
Obviously, nobody is perfect. It made me realize that caring too much about doing a good job is a rationalization for perfectionism, and it actually is a weakness. Trying to get reports perfect has led to excessive rewrites, over-complication, taking long routes to shortcuts, not to mention procrastination.
They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.
Nobody is perfect
Perfectionists do not believe that nobody is perfect. They believe that nobody is perfect except themselves! When I am in perfectionism mode, I will edit and edit and edit to get something just right. I might totally rewrite from scratch because my mind buzzes with too many ideas. Rather than saying to myself, “here is one way to approach this, and it is good enough,” I try to include all the approaches at once, which means that the writing becomes unfocused. Projects languish because they are too ambitious. I pride myself on using technical know-how to streamline tasks, but too often forget that for small projects, the preparation for the elegant solution takes longer than doing it the “long way.”
“Caring too much” perfectionism is the leading cause of my procrastination. I have studied the reasons for my procrastination: I know there are “benefits” which are immature remnants of attention-getting strategies. It makes no sense in a rational way, but starting a project late means that I have an excuse if it turns out badly–I can always say I would have done better if I had not done it last minute as a rush job. Telling myself that I “care too much” is a sorry rationalization.
Practice makes perfect
I am trying to teach my teenage children (and my wife is trying to teach me) the lesson I cannot master in many areas of my life: how to take a project and schedule small amounts of time over a long period to get it done. To start right away doing something, anything. To apply project management techniques of breaking the project into doable pieces. To assign time, resources–people and money, to the project. To uncover dependencies, to delegate. These are things my parents and teachers never succeeded in passing on to me.
My kids are trying so hard to please me and are demonstrating that they can be more organized than I was at that age. My son just boasted to me how he had begun his latest social studies paper as soon as he got home, and that it helped him complete it two days early so he could enjoy Easter Sunday.
The old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” springs to mind when thinking about how practice makes perfect. At the music conservatory, I was trained to practice my cello until something was perfect. And at various times I was able to achieve getting parts of pieces perfect at particular moments. Achieving perfection throughout an entire performance of a composition took more devotion than I had. The elite performers demonstrate their gifts and their devotion to practice when they give impeccable performances. But they can immediately tell you which parts were not perfect.
In the conservatory, practice was something that was done to deadline. You had a performance, you had a piece, you wanted it to be perfect for the performance.
Yoga has opened up a new way for me of looking at practice and perfection.
Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations.
Perfecting ourselves is different. Time is measured in lifetimes. I have always thought that there were too many things that I needed to perfect. With our critical eye we see our flaws, and we dwell on our weaknesses. “I will never be able to change all these things,” we think. We decide to cut our losses and proclaim, “This is the way I am. Don’t even try to change me.”
In yoga, we adopt a practice and we do it everyday whether we feel like it or not. We don’t always improve and some days are better than others. We do not strive for perfection, but with regular practice we do perfect ourselves in subtle ways over a long period of time.
When we look back over our lives we realize that little by little, old habits have disappeared, we take things more in stride, we are kinder to others and ourselves, we find more grace and happiness each day. When a crisis occurs, we handle it with equanimity. We are able to shoulder our lives and responsibilities with more ease.
There is no rule book or guide book that can teach this. Our practice is our teacher. We learn by listening to our bodies and to our feelings.
I am learning to bring my life into balance through my practice. I have finally made up my mind. I am releasing myself from an impossible standard of perfection. Like the dressmaker of my life, I continue to make small alterations every day, knowing I may never finish the dress.
Rather than trying to be perfect by practicing, I am allowing myself to be perfected by my practice.
Instead of “caring too much” I practice “caring enough.”