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There was an article by Benedict Carey in the New York Times a couple of days ago about perfectionism that got me thinking. The article cited a few recent studies that suggest the dangers of extreme perfectionism on your mental health – striving too hard to succeed at everything can lead to stress, depression, and even obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse issues, and eating disorders.
In one awesome-sounding study, participants were asked to “slack off” at work – doing only what was required of them (not staying late, not putting huge amount of time into projects, etc.). To their surprise, their lower amounts of effort didn’t lead to losing their job or any other related unhappiness.
On one hand, I embrace this article. Slacking off at work is one of the things in my life that I am trying to, for the lack of a better word, perfect. I don’t come in early or leave late. I don’t think about work issues outside of the office, I don’t go the extra mile. And it was hard to get to the point in slacking that I have reached – naturally, I want to do a good job and be better at what I do than anyone else. I didn’t realize that it would be a waste of my energy and time to excel at being a office monkey.
But on the other hand, I don’t care about my work. It isn’t essential to my happiness. On the contrary, work is something that it is essential for me not to worry about in order to be happy. I do care about other aspects of my life – let’s say having a strong relationship with my boyfriend, friends and family, taking care of myself, writing. And this is where the difference lies: while it’s vital to not strive to be perfect at everything, I find it just as vital to my self-worth and self-confidence to strive to be perfect at the few passions in my life.
The danger in the article, I think, is that most people think that they are perfectionists. As often as I hear, “I’m such a perfectionist!” I rarely hear, “I’m a half-assed kind of person. I can’t stop myself from doing a shoddy, slap-dash job!” Sure, there is a small minority of people who struggle with the mental side effects of too much perfectionism, but most of us, including me, are displaying normal and healthy amounts of striving. Let’s hope no one is getting the simple message of “I should slack off more” from the article when the answer is more complicated than that.
In graduate school, the writers who struggled most were, ironically, the ones who settled. Writers who were happy with the products they created generally didn’t advance – there was no reason to, since they were content with their current skill level. The best writers were the self-critical ones who hated their own words moments after writing them. The people who improved the most were the ones who kept raising the bar on themselves.
Of course, too much perfectionism can be paralyzing for writing as well. It’s one thing to hate the words you’ve just wrote and quite another to hate the words before you’ve written them and then write nothing at all – it can be self-defeating. I think the last sentence of the article explained the issue best: “If you can’t tolerate your worst, at least every once in a while, how true to yourself can you be?” Tolerence is key.
It’s a matter, perhaps, of striving to be perfect while understanding that being perfect is not always a viable goal. I will try to write as well as Nabokov, and I won’t give up, but I also understand that it won’t happen. As some Roman philosopher whom I can’t recall, a bunch of motivational speakers, and Ziggy like to say, “Shoot for the moon – if you miss, you will land among the stars.”
Like so many things, the middle road looks to be the best. Don’t try to be the best at things you aren’t that passionate about; strive to be the best that you can at the few things in life that matter to you. I know what I’ll be doing over the next weeks and months – trying to get to work exactly 15 minutes late, taking extra bathroom breaks right up to the point before a higher authority notices, cutting corners wherever I can locate corners, and giving exactly 50%. I will be the most perfectly mediocre office assistant the world will have ever seen! Hold on, moon, I’m coming!