I’ve been taking a holiday. My annual leave – except I haven’t left! I’ve been glued to the TV, watching the tennis at Roland Garros. It has been an unexpectedly surreal experience – sitting in scorching hot sunshine in the North of England, watching an unbelievable deluge in Paris. The wettest May there since 1873, I believe.
Inevitably, one of the key themes of the fortnight has been Andy Murray’s performances, and his strange transformation on court from a quiet, thoughtful and reserved ‘gentleman’ into a rude, obnoxious, argumentative ‘yob’. Personally, I find it very difficult to watch. Others seem to enjoy the controversy and the meltdown which invariably ensue. One thing we agree on is that it does Andy no favours in terms of his performance. (Unlike the infamous John McEnroe!)
Several of the commentators suggested that his explosive behaviour was due to his perfectionism, and his resulting frustration when he failed to execute precisely the shot he’d intended. This, I don’t doubt. What I found interesting, however, was their assumption that perfectionism was a good thing. I’d like to let them into a powerful secret: perfectionism is a killer of all things good.
I think, perhaps, that people confuse perfectionism with having goals and ambitions. They talk about ‘standards’ and ‘expectations’, as if these measuring sticks are the best criteria to support one towards achievement – as if the process of reaching the goal is defined by its attainment, when in fact the truly successful are those who let go of expectations and rules, and allow themselves to be ‘in the moment’. (Like Roger Federer.)
This is not to say that practising techniques and honing skills are not important, but however perfect anyone becomes in executing the dry bones of a dream, they will always remain merely a perfectionist and never a true performer. Being ‘in the zone’ is not attained by technique alone. It is a surrender to something much bigger.
When it comes to creativity, being a perfectionist is the quickest way to kill the spirit. I once heard a perfectionist described as ‘someone who takes great pains – and gives them to others’. Whilst being a very clever and accurate definition, this surely runs contrary to the inspiration and soul of creativity. It does, though, explain why there are so many adverts these days for writing schools, workshops, classes, courses …..
One can learn as much as one likes about the techniques of writing – the best use of punctuation, the construction of flowing dialogue, the need for less adverbs, not to mention ‘show, don’t tell’ – but these strategies will not, on their own, make one a good writer. You may write a perfect piece in terms of grammar, use of adjectives, character development and plot-line, but unless you have released something of your soul into the writing, it will touch no-one.
This is what makes ‘being perfect’ the constant illusion that it is. Because what comes from my soul is always going to be different from what comes from yours. There is no one perfect way to do anything, except to be perfectly yourself. And by attempting to achieve perfection, you will inevitably bypass your own reality on the way to someone else’s.
For me – a self-confessed former perfectionist – I am thankful to have learned how the Persian rug-makers do it. Every one of those magnificent creations has, somewhere within it, a deliberate mistake, because ‘only Allah can be perfect’.