The Sickness of Perfectionism
Updated: Jan 15, 2019
After Hanif Abdurraqib jumped down from the Lawrence, Kan., Liberty Hall stage to stand in the midst of the crowd, we gathered around him with hunger in our eyes, like wayward travelers huddling around a wise sage to discover some new facet of life.
It was there, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow artists and activists, that I recognized the sickness of "perfectionism" plaguing our culture today, as well as my own creative work. The realization came from the Q&A session with the critical essayist and spoken word artist after the show.
"What's your favorite part of the writing process?" a lady in the crowd asked.
"My favorite part is the blank page," said Hanif, "because it begs to challenge the impossibility."
Next, he dove into issues surrounding "productive writing" and pointed out society's flawed resolve to make perfect works of art. Essentially, if we foresee any hint of imperfection in our future endeavors, then we won't even start the process, and the white page stays blank as a result.
While we know we don't have to be perfect in our everyday choices and actions, we still can't stop the voice in our heads from whispering, "Don't do_____ unless it can be done perfectly."
This virus of "do nothing" perfectionism has spread into almost every aspect of life, taking on different shapes and sizes. For example, malicious perfectionism in politics and other social issues is why:
Lawmakers do nothing with regards to gun control, because in their minds any legislative solution won't work perfectly to stop mass shootings.
Anti-Black Lives Matter folks do nothing to address the societal failures of police brutality and militarism, because of fallacious arguments like "black-on-black" violence—ostensibly suggesting that black lives only matter if they live perfect lives worth valuing.
Immigration/DACA solutions are repeatedly halted, sabotaged, and then killed in Congress, or on the president's desk, because the U.S. only wants perfect, model immigrants, apparently "from Norway."
While those might be more virulent forms of perfectionism, on a personal level, perfectionism is why:
A local artist hasn't drawn anything in months because he's afraid to paint an imperfect picture.
An employee at a local nonprofit won't pitch her community engagement concept to her CEO because of the imperfect details of the project proposal.
A councilman won't run for the mayoral seat because he sees himself as an imperfect candidate.
No matter where we look, we can find the worm of "do nothing" perfectionism eating away at the fabric of creativity, effectively diminishing the power to challenge the impossible and to create change. Whether its a Republican/Democrat politician or ourselves, we tend to shortchange our capabilities by removing the critical first step of the creation-change process: allowing our ideas and concepts to fail—or at least, to be imperfect—and course correct along the way.
So how do we resist faulty, perfectionistic standards that are fueled by promises of efficiency and capitalistic gain? Whether you are a writer, a business owner, or a politician, the question becomes: how do we see the "blank page" as a critical moment for advancing hope and change, rather than see it as a hopeless turning-back point, due to our fears of failure? [Tweet this].
At the end of our lives, we won't measure ourselves by the risks we took, but by the risks we refused to take [Tweet this]. Rather than stare at the white canvass of ______ issue and feel overwhelmed by its lack of color and shape, my hope, fellow Fence Traveler, is that we let the first brush stroke fall, no matter how imperfectly. Because doing nothing, I fear, will have far worse consequences for ourselves and the rest of the world.
Be bold enough to be imperfect [Tweet this].