One of the things I loved most about playing Mary Poppins is how crazy bold she is. I mean, the woman sings an entire song about being Practically Perfect:
Each virtue virtually knows no bound
Each trait is great and patently sound
I’m practically perfect from head to toe
If I had a fault it would never dare to show
I’m so practically perfect in every way
Whether or not she’s being 100% serious is a topic for another blog post, but there was something freeing about declaring—even for just the 4:26 it took to sing the song—that who I am is not just good enough, but pretty fucking fabulous.
Sometimes, when the world is trying to tell you something important, an idea follows you around for a while. That thing you need to hear pops up here and there—in conversation, on that podcast, in the book you’re reading. And it keeps showing up until you say, “Okay, got it. Thanks, universe!”
I started hearing this saying about a year ago, first on the Better Biz Academy podcast I listened to for work. (I write show notes for podcasts to pay the bills.) The host said something that really struck me:
Done is better than perfect.
And I thought, Is it?
I’ve always prescribed to the belief that if you can’t do something right, if you can’t give it your absolute ALL, you probably shouldn’t bother doing it at all. I used to say these exact words to my students when I taught theatre. Usually when they showed up to rehearsal unprepared or handed in a costume rendering that looked like a page from a very small child’s coloring book.
So I resisted this whole ‘done is better than perfect’ business. Most of the things I’ve done in life that I’m most proud of were the direct result of my desire to be perfect, of working so hard that nearly all of the kinks were ironed out—completely.
And most of the projects that I still have regrets about were the direct result of not having the time to get the thing exactly the way I wanted, of being forced to settle.
I am a perfectionist. And I’ve always thought of it as one of my best qualities. At worst, I figured it took a little extra time—and in some cases may have been unnecessary. Like when I used a yardstick to write on the whiteboard so the lettering would be perfectly straight, or the times I recut the shapes for storytime crafts at the library because the volunteers’ circles were wonky. I knew these things didn’t really matter, but I like things to be just so… So I took the extra time to make it ‘right.’
Yet in the last few months, this idea of ‘done is better than perfect’ continued to follow me around and tap me on the shoulder. One of my podcasts for work did an entire episode about it.
The host was creating the core values of her movement, and she wrote a draft. A draft she knew was only, maybe, about 80% perfect. And she published it.
Even just hearing that sentiment nearly shut down my autonomic nervous system. How could you put something into the world, knowing it wasn’t quite there? It sounds crazy to me, lazy even, to say, “I want to see what resonates with the community and get your feedback around what I’m missing.” Maybe that makes sense for her, but I just don’t operate that way.
And then came the 2X4 right between the eyes. I’m reading Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic, and here’s her take on creativity and perfectionism:
“Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes—but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don’t even bother to be creative in the first place. The most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that it disguises itself as virtue. In job interviews, for instance, people will sometimes advertise their perfectionism as if it’s their greatest selling point—taking pride in the very thing that is holding them back from enjoying their fullest possible engagement with creative living. They wear their perfectionism like a badge of honor, as if it signals high tastes and exquisite standards. But I see it differently. I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.’”
There it is. Most of what has gotten—and kept—me stuck in so many aspects of my life: If I can’t be perfect, I probably shouldn’t even try.
Liz Gilbert happens to be right. I’m totally scared. What if I share an idea and people hate it? Or it makes them uncomfortable? What if I create something, put my whole heart into it, and people criticize it? Or worse, I get no response at all?
And not just about creative endeavors like my writing. This extends to my relationships as well. This goes all the way back to being an awkward, introverted high school kid in small town Nebraska. Most of the Sidney High classes of 1991 through 1993 thought that I was beyond full of myself because I was afraid to talk to people. Afraid I’d say the wrong thing if I did, and afraid that they didn’t want to talk to me anyway. My family was artistic and eccentric, and rather than just embrace that, I decided in advance that I’d be rejected for it.
I saved myself from potential heartache and embarrassment by putting myself in a safe little box. If I couldn’t have perfect social interactions, I wouldn’t have any at all. The only people who knew anything about the real me were my seven closest friends.
The whole thing was worse because I was a performer. If you can get up on stage and tap dance in a nun’s habit or twirl fire batons in a parade, then surely you have the confidence to say ‘hi’ to a classmate at Safeway, right?
Here’s the thing, though. When you’re onstage, you’re playing a role. It’s not YOU. Not to mention, you’ve had the opportunity to rehearse exactly what you’re going to say and do, and it’s a thousand times less terrifying (for me) than talking to a person you don’t know in real life.
I had the time of my life meeting families outside the theatre after the show in character as Mary Poppins. I had zero problem chatting with people, posing for pictures. But take away the English accent and the umbrella? I get a ridiculous red rash that travels from my chest to my neck to my face. And the urge to run—I get that too. (I even have a hard time taking picture with my friends. My instinct is to make a goofy face so that I look ridiculous by intent rather than accident.)
Even with people I know well, I hesitate to speak my mind. I’ve been so worried about being seen as perfect, of doing and saying what I think people expect, that I don’t share all of me. Sometimes I just shut the hell up to avoid rocking the boat.
I’m singing the song without really believing it.
But Mary Poppins would never shy away from a little discomfort or conflict to get to the deeper lesson or truth. She knows it’s going to make Banks nuts when she brings Jane and Michael to the bank where he works, but she does it anyway because she knows he’s forgotten that being a good man is more important than a sexy investment. Until, that is…
Jane: When you invest the bank’s money, what are you looking for, Daddy? A good man or a good idea?
George: I suppose I should say it’s a good idea, but a good man is much rarer, and much more valuable.
Without that key realization, the happy ending doesn’t happen.
Maybe being practically perfect is not about keeping everyone happy and staying out of their way. Hiding and walking on eggshells sure hasn’t gotten me very far. Maybe being practically perfect is about a willingness to really share yourself with other people. To challenge popular sentiment. To really tell the people you care about, unapologetically, what you believe. To get in their way when necessary. To create things that reveal who you are, even if they’re not perfect—or popular.
That’s what’s held me back for so long: the fear that someone won’t like me if I speak my mind or create something with an offbeat point of view. That people will see flaws and criticize. But when did ease become the most important thing? All of these people that I didn’t want to make uncomfortable? They don’t even know ME. They only know the cardboard cutout ‘perfect’ illusion of me I’ve allowed them to see.
And you can count me among the people I didn’t want to make uncomfortable. Most of the things I wanted to do or create but didn’t stemmed from that malevolent idea that I wouldn’t be perfect and people would criticize.
People will judge, and that’s okay. You may not like something I create, or something I believe in, but four decades of playing it safe has held me back in every way—writing, relationships, you name it.
All this comfort has turned into a pair of cement shoes. (Like, the opposite of the Red Shoes.)
Maybe it’s time to get over myself—and put myself out there.
Maybe who I am IS enough. Maybe I really AM practically perfect.
And maybe it’s okay to just be practically perfect. I still find it unacceptable to give anything less than my best, but I see that I will get a lot more accomplished if I can accept that I’m never going to be perfect-perfect and keep that word practically close to my heart.
And maybe carry an umbrella for moral support.