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“Move into yourself. Move into your human unsuccess. Perfection rapes the soul.” — Marion Woodman
“Artists aren’t afraid to be imperfect,” pointed out Jonathan Fields in a recent blog post.
Fields used the example of a student in yoga, a beginner who came to the front of an intermediate class. She tossed down her mat like a gauntlet. She sweated and struggled and contorted herself in full view of everyone. It probably hurt to watch. But she came again the next day. And the next. Because she didn’t care about looking like an idiot, because she knew how to keep showing up, she made rapid progress. Today she’s a yoga teacher.
This example hit home with me because I am getting much more serious about my own yoga practice, and I can tell you that I do not take a spot in the front of the class. I’m in the back, baby. I do take classes that are at my ragged edge, because I like to watch the bendy people. But I struggle with my self-consciousness when my poses aren’t perfect, when I make stupid mistakes, when I drip sweat like a mofo. (That old saying about how men sweat, women perspire? Nuh-uh. I sweat.) The yoga teacher cocks his head at me and asks, “Are you all right?”
I hate that.
After reading Jonathan’s post, I made the connection between my self-conscious struggle in yoga and my equally self-conscious struggle to finish the current draft of my novel. The freaking draft isn’t perfect and oh, woe! So cry for me, Argentina.
Perfection is a bitch. And severely overrated.
Don’t get me wrong. It has its place. Bridge-building. Rocketry. Neurosurgery. Drycleaning.
But we screw ourselves when we hold ourselves to some standard of quote-unquote perfection in what is essentially an ongoing process: like yoga, like art, like life. The way to achieve excellence in anything is to focus on the moment-to-moment experience of it, to learn how to find pleasure in the actual learning of the thing — the slow deep attainment of mastery — of true knowing — instead of trying to rush ahead to the final product because of some image in our heads of what it will look like to others and how sexy it will make us.
We want perfection and we want it now.
We don’t want the tedium of repeating things we’re still too uncomfortable with to actually enjoy yet, and we don’t want to be the sweat-dripping loser at the back of the class who can’t keep her balance in Warrior 3. (Ahem.)
So we get caught up in the story going on inside our heads (I’m a loser, this is stupid, I’m no good at it, what’s for dinner, when is this class going to end, that guy with the tattoo is kind of hot, why is she wearing such an unflattering outfit) that disconnects us from the present moment and all the richness of learning, of direct contact with the world outside our heads, the moment always offers.
And when we disconnect, when we stop paying attention, sooner or later we forget why we’re doing what we’re doing in the first place. We get discouraged. We quit.
Thing is, we learn and grow through the very fact, the awkward reality, of imperfection. With each mistake the brain is forced to stop, go over what went wrong, compare it to the model and make the adjustments. The brain must slow down and pay deep attention: thus, it learns. (This is what ‘deliberate practice’ is all about.)
On an intellectual level we know that, and yet…
Being imperfect – especially in public – makes us so freaking vulnerable.
We feel so threatened and shamed by our own imperfection that we banish it to the shadows. As we grow up, we learn to craft our persona according to outside expectations: we keep the elements of ourselves that bring love, attention and pleasure, while disowning those that cause us pain.
Perfection is about being safe, secure and controlled.
Imperfection is about being messy, flawed, and out of control.
If perfection is what is good, and rewarded, then imperfection is bad and invites scorn and punishment.
And yet it’s the willingness to be imperfect that contains the treasure chest of our own creativity.
“Out of perfection,” writes Joseph Campbell, “nothing can be made.”
“The earth must be broken
to bring forth life.
If the seed does not die,
there is no plant.
from the death of wheat.
Life lives on lives.
Our own life
lives on the acts
of other people.
If you are lifeworthy,
you can take it.”
Perfection is finished, stagnant, and still. It has nowhere to go. Process is motion, learning and life. And every process involves breaking something up: sometimes even taking what seemed perfect and stripping it to find the new, better form. Destruction before creation.
William Chen calls this investment in loss; giving yourself over to the learning process.
Josh Waitzkin, a chess champion and Tai Chi Push Hands champion, writes in his book THE ART OF LEARNING
“Periodically, I have had to take apart my game and go through a rough patch. In all disciplines, there are times when a performer is ready for action, and times when he or she is soft, in flux, broken-down or in a period of growth. Learners in this phase are inevitably vulnerable. It is important to have perspective on this and allow yourself protected periods for growth. [For example a} gifted boxer with a fabulous right and no left will get beat up while he tries to learn the jab…”
It’s a battle, I think, between ego and what I think of as soul. The ego wants to be the best. The soul wants to get better.
Being the best depends on who else is in the room; you can be the very big fish in a very small pond.
Getting better is about humbling yourself, stepping outside your concern for your image and opening yourself up to learn from your superiors…even when you have to actively seek those people out.
The ego only plays when it knows that it can win.
The soul may lose at times, but it plays with heart. And as the heart gets bigger through use and practice, so does the game.
In her book SPIRITUAL DIVORCE, Debbie Ford describes a children’s story about a crab named Grasper, who discovers one day that he has outgrown his shell.
“…Grasper comes face to face with a giant crab….The crab explains to Grasper that the same thing will happen to him if he continues to grow and molt. But Grasper can’t believe this explanation because all the crabs he knows are as small as himself. The giant crab explains to Grasper that a crab grows only as large as the world he lives in, and as big as the heart inside him. He says, ‘You must have a big heart to live in a big world.’”
Your ego has hardened around you. It keeps you in your comfort zone. It keeps you smaller than you want to be. Splitting open that shell — putting ourselves in new situations that make us feel vulnerable — can be painful. But pain, as Debbie Ford points out, “is a spiritual wake-up call showing you that there are oceans you have not yet explored. Step beyond the world you know…Go to places you have deemed off limits.”
I began this post with a quote about artists, and I’ll end with another one by Seth Godin defining who and what an artist is
(I love this quote):
“Art isn’t only a painting. Art is anything that’s creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.
What makes someone an artist? I don’t think it has anything to do with a paintbrush. There are painters who follow the numbers, or paint billboards, or work in a small village in China, painting reproductions. These folks, while swell people, aren’t artists. On the other hand, Charlie Chaplin was an artist, beyond a doubt. So is Jonathan Ive, who designed the iPod. You can be an artist who works with oil paints or marble, sure. But there are artists who work with numbers, business models, and customer conversations. Art is about intent and communication, not substances.
An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it personally.
That’s why Bob Dylan is an artist, but an anonymous corporate hack who dreams up Pop 40 hits on the other side of the glass is merely a marketer. That’s why Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, is an artist, while a boiler room of telemarketers is simply a scam.
Tom Peters, corporate gadfly and writer, is an artist, even though his readers are businesspeople. He’s an artist because he takes a stand, he takes the work personally, and he doesn’t care if someone disagrees. His art is part of him, and he feels compelled to share it with you because it’s important, not because he expects you to pay him for it.
Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.
Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.”
Artists aren’t afraid to be imperfect. They’re not afraid to work and live with heart, to be vulnerable, to get open, to fuck up at times, to outgrow shell after shell. The bigger they grow, the more impact they have, and they accept that; they’re willing not to play small. They put themselves out there.
Because there’s a big world out there, and it’s waiting.
You are lifeworthy. You can take it.