Is Perfectionism Killing Your Success?
Last time I wrote about stress and how it can kill creativity. Many “normal” people (code for “non writers”) see our job as play, as fun. They really don’t grasp what goes into creating the stories they all enjoy and that it is a lot of work. Also, because our field is so subjective, writers must endure an onslaught of “enemies” no one else can see because often they are in our head. Sometimes, in our effort to produce the best work we can, we invite in a very dangerous enemy.
All of us want to do a good job. We want to put our best foot forward. We all say that we want feedback and critique, but deep down, if we are real honest, we want people to love everything we say and do. Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality. We can’t please everyone, and it is easy to fall into a people-pleasing trap that will steal our passion, our art, and our very identity.
I’ve seen this happen time and time again with writers. They rework and rework and rework the first chapter of their novel, trying to make it “perfect”—which is actually code for “making everyone happy.” Here is the thing. Not gonna happen. Ever. Oh and trust me, I am giving this lecture to myself as much as anyone.
One person will say our book is too wordy. Another wants more description. We add more description and then another person is slashing through, slaughtering every adjective and metaphor.
Lessons from Aesop
I find it interesting that some of my favorite childhood stories were about character issues that I’ve struggled with my entire life. My favorite story Old Man Whickett’s Donkey and was loosely based off one of Aesop’s fables, The Man, The Boy and The Donkey. The story in a nutshell is this.
An old man and his grandson head to market with their donkey carrying bags of grain for sale. A passerby says, “What a fool. Why buy a donkey if you aren’t going to ride him?” In response to the critic, Old Man Whickett and the boy load up and ride the donkey into the next town where another passerby says, “You cruel lazy people. That poor donkey carrying all that weight. You should be ashamed.” So Old Man Whickett and the boy dismount and carry the bags of grain and the donkey (which seriously freaked out the donkey).
Anyway—and I am probably butchering this story, but give me a break, I’ve slept since I was five—Old Man Whickett and the boy keep trying to please everyone who passes and what happens?
The bags of grain burst open and spill all over the road from being moved around so much (and in Aesop’s version the donkey falls in the river and drowns). They never make it to market and all of them are exhausted and half-dead from trying to please everyone.
Moral of the tale?
Try to please everyone and we please no one.
The Fine Line of Fools
We have to walk what I will call the Fine Line of Fools. There are two different types of fools. There are fools who plunge ahead and don’t ask for any feedback and ignore anyone who tries to warn there might be a problem. But then there is the other type of fool who can never seem to make up her mind. She keeps changing direction every time someone has an opinion (been there, done that).
All of us are in danger of being one kind of fool or another. While the wise writer is open to critique, she also needs to know when to stand her ground. If she doesn’t learn to stand firm, that’s when the donkey hitches a ride.
I would love to tell you guys I’ve never been either of those fools, but I don’t dig getting struck with lightning.
Perfectionism and People-Pleasing Mask Fear
I have learned through a lot of trial, error and stupidity that perfectionism and people-pleasing really are just an extension of fear. If we get everyone’s opinion about our book, web site, blog, color of fingernail polish, if someone else doesn’t like it, then we don’t have to own it.
“Well, that wasn’t my idea. That was Such and Such’s idea.”
We Can’t Please EVERYONE
Over the weekend I took a short family trip to get away and reset my head after the trauma of last month. I love mysteries and detective novels so I hastily just downloaded a book Audible recommended to me based on other books I’d enjoyed. I had never head of the author but there were 14K reviews and overall 4 stars.
So I started listening and the story was just moving at a snail’s pace. In my opinion it was wordy and pretentious and gave me no good sense of place. I kept listening for three hours until I just could’t give any more time to the book. When I looked the book up again, I realized that the author was actually the legend J.K. Rowling writing under a pen name.
I thought that it had to be me. I was just being picky. Maybe I hadn’t turned off my editor’s brain. But when I glanced at the one and two-star reviews, the commenters were saying the same things I was feeling about the story.
But isn’t that just more than a little amazing?
Not that poor J.K. had to endure one-star reviews, but that she isn’t…wait for it….wait for it…she isn’t perfect. Even the famed J.K. Rowling can’t write a book that pleases everyone. Many other readers (far more actually) enjoyed the book. So good for her! She still did her job and did it well.
***As a quick side note this is one of the many, many reasons I never leave a review unless I can give it four stars. There is a person on the other side of that review and for all I know it really could just be me. Maybe Mercury is in retrograde, my underwear is too tight, or I needed to try this book after a vacation.
Learn to Drop the Donkey
In this new publishing world, all of us need to learn to be leaders and leaders own everything, the good and the bad. That is no easy task, and I have to admit there are times my neck starts hurting and I get this lower back pain and then I realize…I’M CARRYING THE FREAKING DONKEY! DROP THE DONKEY, YOU IDIOT!
We have to be aware that there are jerks and there are also people mean well. Humans offer constructive criticism to show love, even if there is nothing wrong. I’ve seen perfect works of fiction get eviscerated by well-meaning “helpful” critique groups.
This is why it is critical to really understand the rules of writing, why it is essential to really know what our book is about, and to learn to be confident in our brand. This way, when well-meaning folk offer us poles and twine to tie up the donkey on a sledge, we can say, “No, thanks. I think my donkey can walk.”
This is one of the many reasons I love for authors to have a blog. It really does help us develop rhino skin and trains us to publish even when the writing isn’t worthy of a Pulitzer. One mantra I have when I find I am afraid to move forward is:
Perfect is the enemy of the good.
So are you carrying the donkey? Do you find him difficult to drop? Do you fall into the trap of carrying your donkey? I know I am a notorious donkey-toter, but getting better every day. What tools, suggestion or advice would you offer to other who struggle with their respective donkeys? What are warning signs that you are carrying a donkey?