Journal Gen X: The Fine Art of Perfectionism
I have never been a particularly patient person. I’ve been known to fast-forward to the end of a movie or read the last page of a book first, just so I will know the ending more quickly. I occasionally find myself wishing someone would ‘cut to the chase’ during a conversation. At the same time, I am also a planner. Planning appeals to me because it allows me to see across the horizon to the end of something and develop interventions for perceived future obstacles. What I practice is planning for the impatient, because I am trying to find a way to get to action more quickly. I love developing a framework for how something will go, and then just making it go. When I first discovered this about myself, I was a bit stumped. Here I like to just get on with it, but I also like to plan?
I studied theater as an undergrad, ultimately earning a fine arts degree. What I loved about theater was the ability to put a plan into action. With theater performance, there is a defined start and end date, and there are defined roles. Everyone and everything has a place. So even when things go awry, and there’s always a chance that they will – someone forgets a line, a prop is missing, a costume is ripped – the structure allows for the show to move forward.
After college, I started a youth theater company. Those were some of the best years of my life, because not only was I putting into practice everything I had learned, I was working around young people and their parents, which, if you’ve ever worked with kids you know is a rewarding experience. After doing it for a couple of years, I became aware of something peculiar: I was most happy at the beginning and at the end of the process. The middle was less exciting for me. Actors were still learning their lines, there was blocking to work out, and designs were still being developed. I thought to myself “how can I be less excited during just this one segment of the production process?” I soon realized that I felt this way because I was a perfectionist.
As a perfectionist, I will share what I know to be true. We don’t demand perfection from others – we demand it from ourselves. And, we can sometimes get caught in the procrastination cycle because we want to find the best, most unflawed outcome. It matters not to us that there is no such thing as perfection. If you’re not a perfectionist, this will sound foreign to you. If left unchecked, this need for an unflawed outcome can lead to a perfectionist never making a definitive decision. It was all coming together: I was a perfectionist. And desired an expedient outcome. An impatient procrastinator. Weird.
Luckily for me, in marketing, deadlines are par for the course. And in leadership, being decisive is necessary. So, my career doesn’t give me the option of allowing perfectionism and procrastination to get in the way. I started to allow the impatient part of myself to take over a bit more. It became, like everything else in life, a balance. I learned how to make procrastination work for me, by starting a project early in any small way – whether that meant simply making an outline or writing a couple of free-form paragraphs. This assuaged the guilt I used to have when not starting something right away. Then I allowed myself to walk away for a bit. I still practice this, and it yields more creative, and higher quality results for me. And since I am in a creative field, this is a plus.
In a 2016 New York Times article, Adam Grant, who is a book author and professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School, wrote about this subject. A self-proclaimed ‘pre-crastinator,’ he was skeptical that procrastination could produce creative ideas. What he found was the opposite. He says that because our first ideas are usually our most conventional, those who start right away and finish as soon as possible risk recycling old ideas. Because, he says, procrastination allows for divergent thinking. When we walk away from a project, then come back to it, we can look at it with fresh eyes, and new ideas can emerge. That is the outcome he experienced when he set out to become more of a procrastinator. He cautions that waiting until the last minute isn’t the best approach either, because rushing can cause one to choose the easiest idea. He named some successful procrastinators, including Steve Jobs and Frank Lloyd Wright. These are two people known for wildly creative outcomes.
So, procrastination is an effective tool for creativity, provided it is used properly.
We all come into this world with unique talents. And over time, we build skills to complement those natural abilities. The joy of life, and work, is learning how to make our talents and skills work for us instead of against us. For me, I allow my perfectionism to demand a high-quality product. Instead of auditing for perfect, I audit for whether the outcome is a match to the goal. I force myself to start a project in some small way, even when I would rather do a thousand other things. This gives a project shape and allows me to procrastinate. This time is not wasted. It’s spent turning over existing theories in my mind, dreaming up new outcomes, and continually refining. Then comes the deadline.
Should I just read it over one more time? Surely there is something, one or two or three things, that can be improved? No, the deadline has arrived. I hit send. And all is well.