Let’s chat about perfection in our work and worklife (e.g. could be research for my PhD folk; any specific work/projects/responsibilities that all you other beauts are dealing with)
A lot of people (PhD students, friends, the mean girl voices in my head) come to me stricken by perfectionism / an irrational need to be ‘perfect’, to do ‘perfect’ work, to get ‘perfect’ results.
This usually comes hand-in-hand with what’s on the other side of the same coin: fear of failure…
… where ‘failure’ isn’t necessarily even a huge catastrophic thing. In many cases, even the slightest flaw, tiniest mistake or things not turning out exactly as we plan is regarded and experienced as deep dark overwhelming total failure.
AND worse, the (tiny) mistakes that we make or (minute) imperfections we notice instantly come to mean that there is something wrong, bad and broken with us.
That’s to assume, in the first place, that mistakes/flaws/imperfections are somehow inherently wrong, bad or broken, but this isn’t necessarily the case… and that’s what I’m here to talk about today.
So here we go…
We’re taught to fear imperfection and geared towards achieving and upholding perfection as the ultimate be-all-end-all of all things to aspire towards.
Think about it – from the time we start being cognizant of things being measured and valued, our worlds of value are determined by Grade As and measured by percentage – the closer you are to that whole, perfect 100% the better: exam grades, opinion polls, performance evaluations.
It’s common for many of us to develop an all-or-nothing way of organising our worlds – and our sense of sense:
Either you’re perfect OR your nothing at all
Either you’re 100% OR you’re a big zero
Either you’re flawless OR you’re something to be ‘eliminated’ (think of all those reality competitions).
But rarely, if ever, is the Real Life actually like that. There is so much that happens between the 0% and the 100%, an infinite number of rich possibility in that spectrum that we’ve overlooked by wanting to go straight from 0 to 100.
So, instead of fearing imperfection or seeing it as an either/or binary, I’d like to invite you to get curious about im/perfection.
See it as a separate entity, a ‘thing’ that is separate from you, not conflated with you / your identity / your sense of value. Give it its own space – again, separate and outside of you.
Then, look at and investigate this ‘perfection’ thing as an interesting, intriguing curio.
Here are some prompts to get you thinking and investigating:
- What would perfection be or look like in your work?
- What does ‘perfect’ work mean?
- What does it mean for you/your work to be perfect? (Is there even such a thing?)
- What does it mean for you if something in your work isn’t perfect? Or if you make a mistake? Or if something fails and falls completely flat?
Observe the perfection like a researcher
Then, get very real, practical and as objective as possible about im/perfection (again, get curious. Look at, probe, observe this ‘phenomenon’ of perfectionism as a researcher would)
More prompts (be as honest as you can):
- What would actually, realistically happen if something goes wrong, is flawed, turned out as not perfect? (get up close with this fear and look it in its damn face)
- Then, if something really does turn out wrong or turns out horribly imperfect – what skills, abilities, knowledge, resources do you already have to be able to deal with it?
That last one’s a scorcher – because I promise you, I am 100% sure that that whatever happens, you DO have what it takes to deal with it, even if ‘dealing with it’ is something as basic as reaching out to someone for help and advice.
Imperfection + fuck-ups can be a good thing…
Once you’ve put imperfection/failure its place and given it its own meaning/value that’s distinct and separate from you, you might then start disentangling it from its necessarily bad connotations.
And perhaps – just maaaaaaybe – you might even venture to consider how it could ultimately, also be a good thing. Ask questions like:
- How can things going wrong/imperfectly actually be a good thing?
- What new possibilities or opportunities can it open up?
- What new skills can that imperfect situation/flaw/mess-up help you to develop/apply?
‘Mistakes’ in research
For researchers, especially, things going wrong can actually enhance your research, make it more interesting, open up new directions and generate even more interesting, original, novel knowledge (which is exactly what we’re trying to do as researchers, right?).
When things go imperfectly, disastrously, horribly wrong in your research, consider:
- What new discoveries can you make from what’s happening (vs what you expected?)
- What new ideas/perspectives is your researching showing you when things go wrong?
- What other theoretical/methodological approaches can you incorporate, that could take your research to the next level?
- How can you extend your research or take it in novel directions? Ask new questions? Open new avenues for further research?
Imperfection/failure and good research aren’t mutually exclusive events. You can fall flat on your face and still emerge with excellent research.
So much excellent discovery and creation arises out of happy accidents (hey, Fleming + penicillin!) and is very much intertwined w/ or even dependent on that messy in-between space of unknowable, uncontrollable, uncomfortable, imperfect work.
Magic in the mess
As someone who has fucked up PLENTY in the big and small ways, I hold that there is almost always magic in the mess and flaws and imperfection.
Of course, it’s not always obvious at the time it’s happening or when you’re in a sticky, spiky tangle.
But if you can just pause and stop yourself flailing about like a trapped insect for a second, remind yourself of this very key thing:
I am not my mistakes or flaws
I am not my mess-ups
I am neither my perfections nor imperfections
Because, really, you’re not.
Maybe you’ve made a mistake. Or there’s a part of you and your work that isn’t ‘perfect’ (and spoiler alert: there’s no such bloody thing anyway).
But that ‘thing’ – no matter how smooth or ragged, ‘perfect’ or fucked-up it is – is not you.
Untangling yourself from it is the first step to being able to look at the imperfection with space, a little grace and a lot of curiosity.
And when you do, that’s when you find the magic.
(If you’d like a little extra support with separating that im/perfection from you, and finding the goodness within the mess, you’re in the right place. Get on a 30-minute clarity call with me – we’ll get curious about whatever’s holding you back right now, and start finding some magic.)