In an excerpt from her new book "Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear," Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray Love fame) explains the habit that's holding women back.
Let’s talk for a moment about perfection.
It starts by forgetting about perfect. We don’t have time for perfect. In any event, perfection is unachievable: It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death. The writer Rebecca Solnit puts it well: “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good, it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”
Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes–but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don’t even bother trying to be creative in the first place.
The most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that it disguises itself as a virtue. In job interviews, for instance, people will sometimes advertise their perfectionism as if it’s their greatest selling point–taking pride in the very thing that is holding them back from enjoying their fullest possible engagement with creative living. They wear their perfectionism like a badge of honor, as if it signals high tastes and exquisite standards.
But I see it differently. I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.”
Perfectionism is a particularly evil lure for women, who, I believe, hold themselves to an even higher standard of performance than do men. Holding back their ideas, holding back their contributions, holding back their leadership and their talents. Too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they and their work are perfect and beyond criticism.
Now, I cannot imagine where women ever got the idea that they must be perfect in order to be loved or successful. (Ha ha ha! Just kidding! I can totally imagine: We got it from every single message society has ever sent us! Thanks, all of human history!) But we women must break this habit in ourselves. We must understand that the drive for perfectionism is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism.
No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, somebody will always be able to find fault with it. At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is—if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heart.
Which is the entire point.
Or should be.
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