I deleted the first sentence of this post 3 times. I switched the topic midway through writing. I think a part of me wanted to avoid this topic, but I’m glad I didn’t.
Like many people, I struggle with perfectionism: the unhealthy desire to write the best thing, to not say the wrong thing, and to keep polishing until the cloth tears. My perfectionism ultimately leads to self censorship; the more that I resist it, the more unwieldy it becomes, creating a vicious loop of anxiety.
Perfectionism sucks, but there is a solution: vulnerability. Public figures whom I admire, like Brené Brown, Dax Shepard, and Dan Coyle - to name just a few - speak extensively about vulnerability as a superpower. These superheroes inspired me to get curious about the link between perfectionism and vulnerability; and through a slow hunch moment, I also answered a question that I’ve been chewing on for some time: why are many people afraid to write?
Writing and Vulnerability
Charlie Kaufmann - the famous screenwriter, producer, and director - best known for films such as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, says creating good writing means discovering and uncovering your wound; something that all of us have. It is only by uncovering your wound, by facing vulnerability, that a writer can dig deep inside to create good writing; writing that is interesting, that resonates with others, and that is simply good art.
Philip K. Dick - a prolific science fiction writer - famous for writing the book, turned film, The Minority Report, discusses just how vulnerable writing can be. In one of his science fiction masterpieces, A Scanner Darkly, which I just finished reading, he writes about the failed drug war of the 70s. It was a deeply personal book for Dick, made even more clear in the afterword, where he mentions that writing the book was a struggle of vulnerability. His wife talks about how he cried often while writing parts of the book - it was just that deeply personal for him.
God damn, let’s be real: writing is hell of a lot important; communication is important, speaking our minds, and sharing messages with the world, is god damn important.
We need to write, we need to share, we need to communicate; we need to learn to handle perfectionism so we can stop self-censorship. We need to be vulnerable, and we need to befriend our perfectionism; we need to treat it like a member of our Board of Directors.
Wait, what? Did I just say to treat our perfectionism like a member of our Board of Directors? What do I mean? Bear with me, let me explain.
Imagine that your mind consists of members of a Board. Each member has a different personality, but they all have your best interest in mind - each member has a fiduciary duty to YOU - the biggest shareholder!
There’s one special member: Perfectionism, who is the Chair(wo)man of your Board. Sometimes all of the power gets to her head, and she starts to act out.
Instead of resisting or trying to ignore Perfectionism, give her a seat at the table and listen. What does she need? Why is she getting in the way? Listen and take notes. Recognize that she is here to help; but, just like all parts of you, she is complex; she wants to be heard, and she has needs to meet.
When I did this exercise, I realized that my Perfectionism acts out because of Imposter Syndrome: feeling like I don't belong as a writer in this space, like I am out of my element, a fish out of water. After talking to others, however, I realized that Imposter Syndrome is completely normal; in fact it never fully goes away, but it’s important to learn to handle it. Seth Godin, an author and Internet entrepreneur, gives the following brilliant take on Imposter Syndrome:
You are an imposter! You are because you are predicting a future that you can not control. You are saying something about tomorrow that you cannot guarantee. You are acting as-if. All leaders are imposters. What to do with it is, thank you, thanks for giving me a compass, because if you don't feel like an imposter you're a phony; You're just turning the crank and someone else can turn the crank faster and cheaper than you. You feel like maybe you're coming to the edge of something and that's where you will learn and that's where you will come alive.
With that, let’s put an end to perfectionism; let’s be vulnerable, create shitty first drafts, and have messy conversations; what we have to say is important, so let’s stop pretending it’s not.