March 2017: “The Perfect Trap”

I have heard all the truisms. Perfect is boring. Perfect is impossible. Perfect is dangerous. Still, none of those lines stopped me over the years from wanting to be perfect and trying to be perfect.

If you looked inside my brain, this is the dysfunctional chain of thinking you’d find: first, wanting to be perfect. Next, because I cannot be perfect, wanting to be the best at something compared to anyone else around me. Then, if I cannot be the best at something compared to anyone else around me, wanting to be good at something — but when I say, “I want to be good at something,” what I really mean is “I want to be good at something the minute that I try doing it.” Not only am I perfectionist, but also I am extremely impatient.

The worst part about it? Becoming good at things does not end up making me happy enough to justify the self abuse along the way: I am hard on myself when trying to become good at the thing, I tell myself I can only be happy once I have become good at the thing, and even if I eventually become good at the thing, I feel like I don’t deserve to be happy because I am still “not good enough” at the thing.

This is kind of a ridiculous way to think and live, isn’t it? There’s more to life than being good at things and enjoying life does not require being good at things. I would argue that enjoying life demands moments of being stupid and being thoughtless and getting in trouble and embarrassing yourself and adventuring without knowing what’s around the bend. In other words, a life well lived is a messy, imperfect one.

Why have I held myself to absurd standards and logic? The short answer is they served me well enough that it was worth putting up with them.

I have a decent history with perfectionist thinking and behavior— the most vivid memories come from when I was learning to play tennis as a kid. You’d think my dog had died if you saw how upset I got at myself for hitting a ball into the net or getting a fault on a serve. The behavior continued all through school, when I’d destroy myself for scoring anything outside of the A-range on a test or paper. Unhealthy as it was, grinding myself into a perfectionist pulp worked for a while — at least as far as getting me into college and graduate school.

Now, in my last 8 months of attempting perfection as a product manager and in my personal life outside of work, the cost is no longer worth my mental and physical health. I’d hardly compare my level of stress to that of Obama or Bush, but looking at these pictures of aged Presidents, I’m a case in point of the same phenomenon. Never has one experience aged me so much in such a short period of time as my current job.

Even though everyone I know has told me at some point to cut myself a break and be nicer to myself, I could never envision what life would look like for me if I were less hard on myself. This month, I think I started to see the light as I started taking improv and doing jiujistu.

I intend to write more about both of these experiences, but in a few sentences, what I like about them is that there is no way I can be perfect at either of them. My next line or move depends on the person matched up with me, and there is only so much I can anticipate or prepare for.

All I can do in improv is say “Yes, and,” and continue the exchange on the stage. All I can do in jiujitsu is try to extricate myself with what little technique I possess. I am inelegant and completely graceless, lacking the luxury of time to think through a next move and lacking the intuition that comes with experience in both improv-ing and fighting. I have to roll with the outcome — in the scene and on the mat.

The irony of all this is that one of the activities helping me learn to be less hard on myself is an activity that is physically hard on me.

Regardless, this is as close as I’ve come to escaping “The Perfect Trap.” Not by working harder or writing more, but by doing more things that forbid me from thinking.

Isn’t that a perfectly poetic solution to the perfect problem?


(Originally posted March 26 on Medium)