Let’s discuss perfectionism. I thought we could continue walking within the world building of John Wick (if you haven’t seen the series, give it a watch or quick Google to understand how I am framing this). In my last blog post, Inner Critic v. Inner Champion, you (the reader) and I walked into the bar of The Continental and sat down with our frenemy The Critic. I also introduced you to The Champion, a far better companion and someone in our life who roots for us even as we falter under the Critic’s cruelty. The Critic may cut away at our dreams, but our Champion sews the seams back together to ensure we don’t fall apart.
In this blog post, I would like to introduce you to the ballerina from John Wick 3.
You may recall her falling over and over as John Wick walked up to The Director to cash in his “ticket.” This scene was striking! The Director demands the ballerina onstage pirouette over and over even though she is clearly exhausted, in pain, and beyond performing. A thought immediately came to mind: “well, perfection is the standard.” Did I internalize this when I trained in dance growing up? How many ways did this get reinforced as I served in the military? In what ways over my lifetime did I receive this message from authority figures around me (like The Director) or from society at large (like the Ruska Roma)? Most importantly… how does internalized perfectionism prevent us from pursuing our innermost dreams?
// Let’s explore this with some creative writing in a scene from the ballerina’s point of view //
Unity Phelan as a Ruska Roma ballerina. Stahelski, Director. John Wick 3. Lionsgate, 2019.
My sister and I are sitting at the bar of the Rome Continental. We walked through shattered glass in the lobby, indicating someone made the mistake of conducting business on Continental grounds. I vaguely wonder who they were. Based on how things went the last time business was conducted on company grounds in New York… my mouth tightens. An Adjudicator usually arrives shortly after this kind of mistake.
We order two limoncellos, gracefully poured in vintage glassware etched with florals. I am admiring the way the daisy yellow flickers across the delicate lines when she turns to me and asks: “how was work tonight?”
I scowl, not taking my eyes off the glass. “Not good.”
My sister and I are not in the same line of… “work.” She was, and still is, a favorite of The Director. When we arrived at the Ruska Roma and began our training, she immediately took to ballet. For her, the grueling training regimen was more a mode of self-expression than punishment. She channeled unholy agony into every graceful arc and extension and was always center stage as a result. If art is pain, as The Director always told us, then my sister’s performances were of the highest form of suffering the Ruska Roma had to offer. I envy her position as Principal in the Director’s ballet. I am untalented trash by comparison. Always failing.
I remember watching from the stage when Mr. Wick arrived to use his ticket… I could never pirouette to the standard required and kept falling. The humiliation and pain rising with every fall… even worse to be failing in front of HIM. The man we are told even the shadows fear. While he knelt before The Director, I slumped, knowing I was never going to be good enough… I couldn’t even be as good as my sister. Even if good wasn’t a measure of performance… I was not enough. Worse yet… I never would be. They would not keep me here. The Director demanded nothing short of perfection from all of us. I was incapable of reaching it.
My sister places her slender hand on my wrist, the slight pressure bringing me out of my thought spiral. I look up at her.
She stares back for a moment, searching for something. “You will find your place. This is only your first job, let us see how it pans out before we receive her judgement.”
Something in my chest releases slightly. She is right. This is only my first night on the job. Some jobs take months or even years.
We sit in companionable silence as the bartender slides a small silver tray toward me. My eyes widen as I see the elegant envelope sealed with wax, the pale shade of cream contrasting with the deep cherry seal. My chest clenches. I know the insignia pressed into the wax. Somehow, they already knew how this job went. I know who this is from. I don’t know why I bothered to even try.
I quickly glance around the room, noting a few other patrons sitting in the chaise lounges and chesterfield sofas. The bartender moves on to continue wiping the crystal at the end of the bar. No one else has noticed… my sister gently puts her hand on my wrist again – “don’t, I am sure it is fine. We are on Continental grounds, finish your drink, then we will deal with it.”
I grip my glass of limoncello so tightly it shatters.
In this scene we see several things:
- Perfectionism is the attempt to hold yourself to an unreasonable metric of self-measurement.
“I envy her position as a Principal in the Director’s ballet. I am untalented trash by comparison. Always failing.”
- That self-measurement is often informed by external authorities (The Director, the Ruska Roma) and voices other than your own.
“The Director demanded nothing short of perfection from all of us. I was incapable of reaching it.”
- You internalize those metrics of worth as true about yourself.
“Even if good wasn’t a measure of performance… I was not enough. Worse yet… I never would be.”
- You reinforce that lack of self-worth by comparison to others you perceive to “measure up” to those metrics.
“While he knelt before The Director, I slumped, knowing I was never going to be good enough… I couldn’t even be as good as my sister.”
- Your inner voice and self-belief suffer. You get stuck. The cycle repeats. You stay stuck.
“I don’t know why I bothered to even try.”
Why bother talking about perfectionism?
Perfectionism stops us before we start. Perfectionism says, “there is no point in doing that unless you are absolutely sure what you do will be amazing. Don’t bother otherwise.”
This is a death knell for creatives. What we make at first is never amazing. We make bad art for years before we narrow in on that internal visual voice of what “good” looks like. Even in a non-creative career, perfectionism keeps you from reaching out for that opportunity. Keeps you in a holding pattern always wondering what if.
Perfectionism is learned across generations as a coping mechanism rooted in scarcity and fear. Fear of loss. Fear of not belonging. Relational scarcity. Monetary or economic scarcity. When there is no room for error because survival depends on it, perfectionism flourishes.
When we allow perfectionism to be the guiding force in our decisions, we find so many reasons things can go wrong, reasons why WE are not right for this or that opportunity. When our inner judgement is informed by perfectionism, rather than compassion, we are limiting what is possible for ourselves.
The answer to perfectionism: want (insert your dream here) badly enough to do it badly.
How does “not enough” become “good enough”?
I think our work becomes “good enough” when we decide we ourselves are “good enough.”
When we decide at last to look inward for approval, and not outward.
I distinctly remember struggling with this while I worked on my debut picture book The Krewe of Barkus and Meoux. I was so afraid of doing it wrong: writing it wrong, the artwork not being good enough. I was so scared that if I did not do a good enough job the opportunity to pursue my creative career would dissolve and die. But there came a time while creating the story that I decided I wanted this even if it meant I was terrible at it.
I realized I loved illustrating and writing so much that if “terrible” was the price to pay to do it I would go into debt for all eternity just for the joy of the pursuit.
Perfectionism is rooted in the fear of never being enough. It is rooted in the fear that your creative work – your inner world manifested outside of you – will put that deficiency on full display for all to judge.
Perfectionism places fear in the driver’s seat of your decisions, swerving all over the road of your life, throwing your beautiful work out the window to litter the landscape in “could haves.”
You could have pursued that course of study. You could have made that painting. You could have written that book. You could have tried out for that sports team. You could have applied to that college. You could have tried to grow that friendship. You could have explored that thing that once made you happy. You could have tried for that job you dreamed of, or that promotion, or that _________ (you, dear reader, fill in the blank).
It is better to know you tried than to have never tried in the first place.
Here is the choice you have control over:
You either side kick that fear out the door and put the car back in a lane of your choosing, or you lay in the trunk and just let come what may.
Get to work.
A perfectionistic approach does your work a disservice. No creative work exists in isolation. The work that came before and the work that will come after are all in dialogue with the work you make now. It is the body of work that tells the full story, not a single album or song. Not the sole painting on a wall. This is why it is okay your beginning work looks amateur – the glory is in the growth and journey. Not the singular accomplishment of a masterpiece.
We have to switch our approach to making what is good enough and give ourselves permission to iterate. It sounds counterintuitive. Even in this moment, in reflection to the previous sentence, my inner critic yells at how mediocre that sounds (my inner champion then silences her, reference my previous blog post). But you decide what “good enough” translates to. I could approach my work as a perfectionist, making every word choice and brush stroke from a place rooted in fear and scarcity. Or I can be a professional and approach my work with an open heart rooted deeply in self-trust and abundance. Every day I consciously trade perfectionism (which is fatalistic and final) for professionalism (which is iterative and evolving). This can only occur when we set scarcity aside and Get TO WORK.
It is not about opportunities finding you because you were good enough, it is about you finding opportunities because you know they are good enough for YOU.
No one, but you, sets the bar for your work.
Let the effort tip in the direction of progress.
Who told you that you had to be perfect? Perform without mistakes? Create immaculate work? When did you start believing that story? When perfection is the standard, there is no room to explore outward or inward. Instead, you are constricted and caught in an endless cycle of falling short before you even start. The key is to just start. You can either choose to approach yourself and your work with compassion, or you can choose to berate yourself for falling short of some impossible standard (which probably didn’t even come from you) every step of the way. You choose.
Remember, what is for you will find you.