The highly popular book by Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, addresses the issue of perfectionism so well that she has helped both writers and non-writers the world over lower our unreasonable expectations of ourselves. And she does this with these three little words: “Shitty first drafts.”
Lamott states that just about all writers, even the very successful, first have to face a “shitty first draft” before it becomes something better through the process of revision. Usually there’s a second, a third, a fourth draft, and so on—whatever it takes until you feel ready to put it out there.
But if you’re not aware of this and you in fact imagine that everyone else is capable of whipping off a highly polished, i.e., “perfect,” specimen right from the get-go, you’ll probably agonize over taking the necessary first steps of your project—and probably never get anywhere. Lamott’s words:
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.
Perfectionism. Except for that “ism” part, you might think it would be a good thing—I mean, come on, it’s perfection. But, as Anne Lamott points out, there’s something oppressive involved.
In addition to writing this applies to many other things we try to accomplish in life—maybe those pesky New Year’s goals, for example. Could be an addiction you’re trying to kick. Lamott herself is in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. As heard in 12-step programs, it’s all about “Progress, not perfection.”
Lamott’s interpretation of the origins of perfectionism:
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 while they’re doing it.
For Lamott, a big part of getting beyond perfectionism involves her faith. Not to worry—she conveys even her spiritual beliefs with her usual humorous irreverence. Nonfiction books she’s written on this topic include Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (2000), Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2006), and Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith (2007).