I’ve always been a perfectionist. I see the brilliant work of those around me and then expect the same of myself. Of course, I know I can’t measure up to their work, I only have a fraction of their experience, but somehow I still expect it from myself.
It can be absolutely crippling. How can I try something new and give it my fullest if I know that I’m going to be disappointed in my results? And then how can I continue doing it if I know that I’m going to continue to be disappointed in my results?
As Ira Glass brilliant explained, the process of becoming brilliant, of actually measuring up to your own standards takes years and years of practice. This means years and years of producing work which you’re not quite happy with.
This was a demon I remember facing first hand a few years ago, when preparing for my first on stage performance, playing the guitar and singing at a local Open Mic Night.
For years I’d wanted to perform music. I was a competent enough guitar player and, although I hadn’t done much singing, I knew I could carry a tune but I was no revolutionary and I’d sure as hell never performed in front of anyone else before. I knew that I wanted to get on stage and give it a go but the thought itself was paralysing. I knew I’d be no good… and I’d have to do it in front of a bunch of people.
The solution? I had to give myself permission to suck. I had to give myself permission to absolutely bomb.
Permission to Suck
By giving my self permission to suck, I was able to quell my inner perfectionist and take the pressure off myself. My aim became simple: to get up on stage and conquer my stage fright, with no pressure to put on a good show.
As much as I logically knew that we don’t start at the top and that we do have to climb our way up there, it wasn’t until I explicitly gave myself permission to suck that I was able to relax over it and see the performance as a brick in the wall of experience and not a measuring stick for my future.
Getting up on Stage
So I totted on down to the local Open Mic Night, guitar in hand and a freshly laid loaf in trousers. This was to be my first time singing in front of anyone and I was going to do it into a microphone, on stage, to an expectant crowd.
So what was the result? I was rewarded for my bravery, for overcoming my fears, for giving myself the permission to suck and giving it a go, right? I nailed it, right? I snuck in quietly from the side, shuffled discreetly on stage, took my place and then blew everyone away with a unexpectedly awesome performance, right?
Oh if only.
It was terrible. I’d prepared three songs and I sang each out of key. My hands were shaking so much that I couldn’t even play guitar properly. I managed to jumble up the lyrics that I had printed out in front of me. The only saving grace was that I wasn’t really close enough to the microphone, making me really difficult to hear.
All round, it could be taken as a pretty horrific experience.
But… I already knew that I was going to suck. I wasn’t wrapped up in images of grandeur. I wasn’t up there to give Bob Dylan a run for his money. I just wanted to get my first on stage experience over with so I could continue on my path. It wasn’t a crushing defeat to get up there and bomb. It was expected. I’d given myself permission to suck and I’d risen gloriously to the challenge and survived.
When trying something new, we’ve got to give it our best shot and be proud of our efforts but also appreciate that we’re not going to live up to our standards, especially us perfectionists. Giving ourselves permission to suck helps us follow through on what we really want to be doing.