Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Letting Go of Perfection

It's been years since I've had to endure a job interview, but I was always prepared for the standard questions, "What's your best quality?" and "What's your worst quality?" I would answer both questions, with total sincerity: "I'm a perfectionist."

When a life is at stake or a complex, expensive piece of machinery is used, perfectionism is a worthy goal. Those involved should be well-trained and in good physical condition. Equipment should be inspected. Checklists should be devised, tested, and followed. I'm a big fan of checklists. :-)

But if I'm going to be honest with myself, I have to admit that checklists have caused me almost as much grief as they've saved me. Like anything else that can be used for good, they can be used inappropriately or to excess. A dash of salt enhances the soup but a cupful renders it inedible. The same kitchen knife that chops vegetables can be used as a murder weapon. A checklist ensures that essential steps are taken, but really, do I need a checklist of books I want to read?

Writing things down gives them an air of legitimacy, and striking items off a list makes me feel I've accomplished something, a feeling so powerful that I sometimes list items I've already done just so I can cross them off right away. Hey, I wrote all this stuff down, then I crossed it all off; look at how effective I am! But if I can't complete the checklist, oh, the disappointment. Some lists are overwhelming—discouragingly long, or containing tasks so vague I don't know where to start. So I don't start, because I know I won't be able to finish, and the perfectionist in me insists that I must "do it right or don't do it at all." Even worse, I've made strong starts but then abandoned worthwhile efforts due to minor setbacks. How many times have I lost some of the weight I wanted to lose, or started a fitness program, or made an effort to learn a new skill, then gave it up because "I couldn't get it right"?

But with age comes pride in the attempt and the ability to laugh at myself. If not for those, I don't think I could ever have started this blog!

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