On Being a Lazy Perfectionist

How to learn how to practice

Russell Markert & The Rockettes, 1935 (Courtesy of MSG Entertainment)

Ok, can I tell you a secret? I know I seem cool and edgy, with a devil-may-care attitude today, but if you can believe it, I was an over-achieving nerd when I was a kid. Like a volunteer for extra credit, clean the blackboards and sweep the classroom, get asked by the teacher to help others with their homework, choir-singing nerd.

I have in my possession (in my parent’s garage, anyway) a trophy commending me for perfect attendance from the first grade through my senior year of high school*. Like, my high school principal and my grade school principal at some point got together and decided that this mind-blowing feat deserved some goddam special recognition in the form of an engraved piece of brass.

And you know what? I was proud of it. I was proud of my accomplishments, proud of being at the head of the class, and proud of being recognized. I thrived on the encouragement and praise and occasional tough love of my teachers and parents. I was, and still am, very happy to work hard.

Of course the accolades and awards and shelves full of engraved brass strongly reinforced my drive to achieve, but even stronger is the motivation of consistently getting things right to a very high standard. If the bar is high, then I’m going even higher. No one demands more of me than I do. I expect to exceed expectations.

Maybe you can see where this is going. Maybe you can see that this attitude might slow me down when going about the day to day business of reality. Well, good for you, armchair analyst. You’re right.

However, unlike many others of this ilk, whose super-charged drive puts the pedal to the metal and inevitably plunges them over a cliff into an abyss of burnout, I have a trick. If at first I don’t succeed, I just move onto the next thing.

I am a lazy perfectionist.

On the bright side, you might call me a “Multipotentialite,” like Emilie Wapnick describes in her great (and supremely validating) TED talk. It’s true. I’ve come to understand that I’m really good at synthesizing- connecting the dots between ideas, I’m incredibly adaptable, and above all, I’m a rapid and rabid learner.

Perhaps I’m just a modern-day Renaissance women, a take that author Leonardo Lesponnato calls “The DaVinci Curse:”

“The Da Vinci Curse plagues people who have too many talents and interests: they are always learning, but never invest enough time and energy into one thing. They are always swapping their job, their hobbies or even home and never become fully engaged in the many domains to which they’re drawn. Withdrawing interest while having learned just enough to feel that if I invested the time, I could achieve mastery.” (via Blinkist)

All of this resonates deeply, but upon closer inspection of what some might perceive as (gasp!) dilettantism, it occurred to me that actually, I just really suck at practicing. I started to think about my behaviors this way a few years ago, when a friend of mine back in Boston decided to teach himself how to make bagels.

Week after week, he’d produce batches of his experiments, making tweaks as he learned and researched, taking fastidious notes along the way. He shared these batches with friends around town, people close enough to be trusted to give honest, thoughtful feedback. Naturally there were ups and downs, highs and lows. His dog, I imagine, ate a lot of bagels, to say nothing of his poor wife and son, carbed up to the hilt.

He kept at it though, numbering each batch, and eventually built up the confidence to set up a stall at a local market. Before long, Adam found himself in the bagel business, selling out to snaking lines of ravenous followers every Saturday. Today, a smidge over two years later, Exodus Bagels are an extraordinary success story, recently crushing a heart palpitation-inducing Kickstarter campaign to fund setting up their own shop.

Maybe it’s ironic that the so-called definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, where just the subtle tweak of doing the same thing over and over and instead expecting repeatable results is the scientific method. Experimentation is, to paraphrase Thomas Edison, just finding all the ways that didn’t work. Despite espousing this kind of fail-forward mentality with my startup clients and projects, I’ve often struggled to embrace it myself.

Because UGH. Practicing is basically just messing up continuously, coming off as an amateur, looking foolish and being vulnerable to criticism, for like, a really long time. Um, yeah, no.

Is it possible that I just haven’t had much practice at practicing? Interestingly, Adam is also an incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist musician, and a teacher to boot. He is a guy who knows how to practice. The skills of developing proficiency and perhaps even mastery are clearly transferable from bassoons to bagels. (Although I think he plays trumpet, not bassoon. But I bet he could figure it out.)

To be honest, a lot of things have come naturally to me, and I have taken it for granted. I’ve spent most of my time and effort focusing on my strengths and not on improving my weaknesses. Here’s a good example: I’ve been “speaking” French for almost 25 years. You would think that by now I’m fluent and flawless, nearly native. But the reality is that I’ve really just been “comprehending” it for most of that time. My vocabulary is quite extensive, I can comfortably read an article in Madame Figaro, and I even find French humor funny.

Yet, I speak it only when pressed, or maybe, maybe wine-drunk in close company. I hate not being able to to have a fluid intellectual discourse (as you do in French) or to be witty or sarcastic or silly. I hate not feeling like I can truly express myself, which is a pretty tough spot for someone who puts an awful lot of emphasis on her self expression.

Perfectionism, of course, is fear, as Liz Gilbert reminds me in Big Magic. My fearfulness is making me too lazy to try something more than once or twice if I don’t nail it right away. Sure, I’ll do all the legwork, read all the books and articles, and get all the conditions to be just right before I engage. I’m too often focused on accomplishing something on a grand level instead of starting small, doing things incrementally, developing tiny habits. And I know that this is standing in the way of my accomplishing some big goals, like presenting at a conference, or even just speaking French with my close Frenchie friends.

Recently, I’ve started taking yoga classes again. It’s been awhile, a long while, and if I’m really honest with myself, I haven’t managed to pick it up in earnest since moving from Boston six years ago. I had a real routine there, at a studio I loved. I’ve taken plenty of classes since, but I’ve never quite got back into the groove. The conditions just weren’t right, for whatever reason or excuse I made. The thing about yoga is that it’s known as a practice no matter what level you achieve. Every time you come to your mat you’re only there to practice. There is no fixed destination, there is no best yoga ever. It just meets you wherever you are and keeps going. Hell yeah I’m rusty, but it’s still there in my bones and muscles, remembering a little bit more every time. Of course I want to feel some measure of getting better, getting stronger. Of course I want to get into awesome shape. But just like our bodies, there is no perfect. Practice only makes progress.

(*To be honest, my Mom’s name should’ve really been on that trophy, because missing school was NOT an option on her watch, and accordingly, she dropped me off every.single.day. Yes, including high school.)

Heather Eddy has 20 years experience leading product and experience design strategy with companies like adidas, Scholastic, Gilt, and Capital One. She’s recently begun coaching aspiring entrepreneurs at shesrobust.com

Hey! You made it all the way to the bottom. Clap not just for me, but also for yourself!

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