“Look at you, you have to make it perfect.”
This was an accusation that I regularly faced from my best friend growing up, and for a long time I really didn’t get it.
My abiding memory of hearing him speak these words is from a school art lesson, as I toiled to make my work look adequate next to his unfailingly brilliant splashes of colour, texture and tone. How could he say I was perfect?
Well, he wasn’t was he? When he called me a perfectionist he recognised a trait in me that took a lot of years and a catastrophic breakdown for me to recognise in myself: I wanted to be perfect.
And who wouldn’t?
Thing is, life isn’t like that is it? In fact, by accepting nothing less than perfection we might actually miss those beautiful imperfections, the mistakes that can unexpectedly make life that much richer.
(I’m not talking about misuse of apostrophes here – that is and always will be unforgivable. See, it’s apostrophes, not apostrophe’s. And it’s it’s, not its or its’. Ahem).
There are many wonderful mistakes out there, for starters there are all of those unplanned children that have brought joy to parents across the world (and a career to Jeremy Kyle ON NATIONAL TELEVISION).
Do you know the song ‘Creep’ by Radiohead? If so, what sound has just pushed its way into your head? It’s that guitar crunch isn’t it? Yep, it’s a mistake, made when Jonny Greenwood came in too early (much like those unplanned children I guess….).
And post-it notes. The genesis of these office essentials was in the failure to create a strong adhesive, the result being an adhesive that stuck to objects but could be pulled off easily without leaving a mark. Years later a colleague spread the substance on little pieces of paper to mark his place in a book and the idea was born.
Like many a self-destructive trait perfectionism can start as a form of self-protection: if we are perfect then we are above criticism, above the harsh judgement of others. But we all know who our harshest critic is, don’t we?
And I’ll tell you something for nothing, he or she is full of shit.
Don’t believe me? Next time you flay yourself for being, heaven forbid, human, ask yourself what you would say to a friend that was telling themselves the same things that your inner critic / arsehole is telling you. I’d make a fair bet you wouldn’t be agreeing with them or suggesting additional defects that they failed to mention would you?
We live in an age of artifice where image is everything, where style overwhelmingly trumps substance and where taking a photograph of yourself can make headlines (well, if you’re a Kardashian anyway). In this world a great night out is a series of selfies to show the world what a great night we are having, in between prolonged bouts of staring at the screen of a mobile phone and not talking to each other. (I’ll stay in with a good book thanks).
When what other people think becomes our priority we can set ourselves up for a very bumpy ride.
We fear making mistakes and revealing our flaws and imperfections. We avoid taking the kind of risks that are necessary if we are to scale the greatest heights that our talents lay the foundations for. We avoid giving our all because, well, what’s the point? It will never be good enough; someone, somewhere will always find fault.
How many of you have had the thought that you are a fraud? That if people saw the real you and not a carefully crafted illusion then… Then what? You would lose your job? Your friends? Your identity?
You’re not alone. I expect that the majority of the greatest minds, the greatest inventors, the greatest statesmen, the greatest sportspeople have thought the very same thing. In fact it may have acted as fuel to the fire of their desires, igniting a work ethic and will to succeed that propelled them to their greatness.
But when it comes right down to it, they were fuck ups too. Just like you, just like me: fuck ups to a man, fuck ups to a woman. How do I know? Well, because they were human just like the rest of us.
We’re all actors, portraying the most suitable best-self as the scene determines.
Truth is that in life’s play you can be both strong and weak, a good guy and a twat, intelligent and dim, witty and boring. People are a mass of contradictions that can’t easily be categorised as one thing or another.
When we believe a fairytale sold as truth – the perfect marriage, the perfect job, the perfect parent – we can think that something is wrong when life just won’t play ball. The myth that it’s possible to be happy all the time, that there is a perfection that we can attain, can lead us into dark places where anything less than happiness or perfection is a symptom of our failure.
But one thing that I’ve learned in recent years is that whilst the fairytale may be where we’d like to live, our greatest lessons and gifts are often found within our nightmares. After enduring a dark night of the soul we can see that sometimes our greatest journeys begin from the darkest of places.
I still have that critic whispering in my ear. He’s there every time I write, sitting on my shoulder as my finger is poised above the ‘publish’ button. ‘It’s trite. It’s pat. It’s bollocks. You’re just saying what has already been said much better by others.’
But I hit the button anyway because, really, all of that could be true but who cares? In the last week my uncle has died and two friends have lost loved ones in terribly tragic circumstances.
Life really is short and it can be taken from us at any moment. Best to spend as much of it as you can doing the things that matter to you, because in the end will it really matter what anybody else thought?
Bob Lind (The Only Way Is Down) – Pulp