Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfectionism is demoralizing — Harriet Braiker, Ph.D.
Nobody’s perfect – that’s why we have erasers. Yet nowhere on this sweet blue orb are there more people driven to perfection than attorneys.
It’s really not surprising, after all. We work with laws, rules and regulations: ancient tomes, incantations and idealizations about how our society expects folks to behave. When one acts outside the proscribed rules, one’s in violation, negligent or culpable. When this happens, people turn to a lawyer and expect him or her to get the job done – and flawlessly.
It’s easy to calm our fears with the wilted wisdom, “Well, everybody makes mistakes.” But things can and do go terribly wrong when we make mistakes – and we can and do make them. Things can go quickly awry despite our best efforts and work.
Lawyers are on edge because they feel if they’re not perfect, they’ll fall over the edge. Besides the inner stress, there is the outer pressure to keep a calm and cool façade lest our clients and colleagues lose faith in us.
I’m a perfectionist to the core. In a sense, it’s great because I take pride in my craft as a lawyer. I love the look and feel of good work well done. I can take it too far though – I can get so keyed up about churning out a masterpiece that I lose perspective; I lose sense of the possibly that the judge and his clerk might skip over seventy-five percent of my brilliant delineations of a statute’s historic origins, that the seventh draft of a motion isn’t always much better than the fourth and that there’s real value in not deliberating too much, but simply getting things done.
In a great piece in the A.B.A. Journal entitled, Three Deadly Ps: Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Paralysis, Rebecca Nerison, Ph.D. maps out why too many cracks at perfection can lead to procrastination and then paralysis, a veritable seizing up of our work motor:
Procrastination is an occupational hazard for lawyers. Procrastination robs lawyers of peace of mind. It’s difficult to feel happy, healthy, and successful when you are forever putting off what needs to be done. We procrastinate when we feel anxious about a task, when we’re bored with it, or when we’re tired. In any event, procrastination is about avoidance. Avoidance allows us to temporarily escape the fear, boredom, or fatigue we anticipate as we contemplate the task. We are immediately relieved from the unpleasant feeling. We get to feel good instead of bad.
A dilatory dodge of our work just leads to more problems down the road. We need to take stock and see perfectionism for what it is: avoidance behaviors that rob us of energy and a sense of competency that comes from getting things done. My psychologist, a wizard of the human psyche, once observed that it’s critically important to observe ourselves engaging in healthy behavior. We build a sort of healthy resume of concrete things we do on a daily basis so that we can confidently say to ourselves, “I’m a person who get things done.” Just as procrastination is a vicious circle, not procrastinating is a healthy one.
We really need to let perfection go and let our humanity seep into our daily work; a humanity that while imperfect, is full of good humor, irony and outright silliness.
When we ignore this essential truth, we press down too hard on the gas pedal and our – and our secretary’s lives – are made miserable. Anne Lamott, author of the wonderful book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith wrote:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun.
What would the opposite of perfect be? Maybe just human – and that’s humbling. When we try to be perfect, we are too locked into a view of ourselves as the center of the Universe.
We’re not gods, but in reality vulnerable creatures.
I wonder if God has a sense of humor. How could he not given this goofy planet. Even Jesus knew how to party when he turned water into wine at a wedding.
We lose perspective with depression – we forget to play. Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., once observed:
Most of us have to learn to take better care of ourselves. One way is by spending more time in play. The perfectionist, the depressive, the person who thinks he doesn’t deserve to feel pleasure, believes that he’d better never let his guard down, always busy, always productive. But it’s a joyless if all we care about is getting the work done. Something as simple as playing catch with the dog for a few minutes after work connects us with a part of ourselves we can lose only too easily – the child who can laugh, who can enjoy silliness, mindless physical activity. Tomfoolery is just as much a part of life as our lamentable laments. It’s uncomplicated, mischievous good fun that puts us into contact with our ageless inner child who wants to come out and play. He or she is there – if you just look inside. We need to open that door; we need to let some fresh air in.
William James once wrote “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”
So kick off those Oxford and Manolo Blahnik shoes . . . and start to rumba.
3 thoughts on “Nobody’s Perfect”
After the year I’ve had your comments hit home. I thought I was going to lose my wife to breast cancer, then my father dies and we find out it was a medication error, then my brother dies from cancer at 52 and I leave MHA. My reserve tanks were empty despite how strong, positive and optimistic I have always been. I was emotionally spent, but who knew but me? Thank you for your openness about depression. You are a good person, Dan. All the best…Tom
I especially appreciate the part about remembering to take time for small pleasures. My inner child too often gets starved for moments of freedom and carefree abandon!
Thank you for your courage and humility. By letting your guard down, many other lawyers have followed suit; this has made the profession more human and less ‘perfectionistic.’ Thank you again.