By Hazel Lye
For most of my life, I have been a slave to perfectionism. If I can’t do something well, I might as well not do it. That’s how I — and undoubtedly many others — have been raised.
Consequently, this perfectionism — beyond sounding like an insincere way of saying “I’m too good at my job” — has led to many late nights chasing deadlines, procrastinating till the very end because I was too concerned about finding the perfect time to do it perfectly, and an ever-constant voice telling me that I could have done better. Perfectionism kept me backed into a corner.
However, it all changed the day I stumbled upon this quote:
“IF IT’S WORTH DOING, IT’S WORTH DOING BADLY.”G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton was a wise man and prolific writer. But was he so sure about that? I couldn’t wrap my head around it at first. It took some reflection, but I have really come to love and embrace this mindset.
First, what is perfectionism?
Perfectionism, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the fact of liking to do things perfectly and not being satisfied with anything less”.
No doubt, this can be a powerful driving force in pushing us to achieve great results and improve. However, too much of anything is never good. When we’re constantly chasing the unattainable (yet arbitrary) standard of perfection, we can end up feeling like nothing we’ve done or accomplished is ever enough.
According to Psychology Today, maladaptive perfectionism is often driven by factors like fear of failure and low self-esteem. If left unchecked, it could escalate to negatively impact our mental health — possibly manifesting in depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, or even suicidal thoughts.
As perfectionists, we hate the feeling of losing control over or failing at something. Sometimes, that stops us from trying in the first place. However, as much as that mindset is entrenched in our lives, that shouldn’t be something we learn to live with or accept.
Cambridge English dictionary defines being an amateur as “taking part in an activity for pleasure, not as a job”. The word has roots in the Latin word ‘amare’, meaning to love — and to be an amateur implies having passion or enjoyment for the activity.
When we talk about perfectionism, the topic of work usually overshadows play. However, perfectionism is equally prevalent in how we approach our hobbies. With so much emphasis on results and so little on enjoyment, it’s no wonder the meaning of the word ‘amateur’ has morphed into a synonym for ‘being bad at something’.
How many times have you picked up the guitar, only to put it down fifteen minutes later because “it’s too hard” and you’ll “never be great at it anyway”? How often have you told someone that you love photography, but then qualified it by saying that you’re “not that good at it”, just because you don’t do it professionally?
I love making things. I flit from crochet to playing with clay to stringing beads in a matter of seconds. But when I mention this to my friends, often the first thing they’ll say is: “Wow, you can make this your side hustle!” That kind of instinctive response is interesting to me because it seems that the value of the activity relies on whether it has the capability of generating a quantitative benefit for myself.
More often than not, we approach such activities with calculative mindsets or as bullet points on a resume. Because of that, it almost feels as though anything we can’t do well becomes a waste of time.
However, I think that there’s a charm in keeping a hobby a hobby, without needing to justify it by making it ‘productive’. What is life other than to enjoy ourselves and do things badly? As long as we feel that it’s something important to us, we shouldn’t let a fear of wasting time or being bad stop us.
Work(ing on ourselves)
More importantly, excessive perfectionism and a reluctance to let go really hurts the way we work.
When we’re incapable of realising that we’ve put in our best efforts and acknowledging that as enough, feeling accomplished starts becoming impossible. This is especially so if we’re comparing ourselves to people around us. We zoom in on all the skills and knowledge they have that we don’t, and forget about our own abilities.
Pushing ourselves to reach a standard that doesn’t exist also traps us in a vicious cycle of burnout and diminishing self-worth. Ironically, seeking perfection has led me to give up more easily — since I’m afraid of the outcome turning out badly, I keep putting off tasks until I’m sure I can do it perfectly (which usually means never).
I’m not the only one who struggles with this. Steve Jobs took eight years to fully furnish his house because he couldn’t decide on the most perfect furniture for the space. Fictional character Monica from the show Friends was an extreme perfectionist who planned things down to the very last second – even her friend Phoebe’s wedding, to the point where Phoebe had to fire her as the wedding planner. And my own mother endlessly organises and reorganises the house every month or so, never satisfied with the way things are packed.
That’s the very essence of what Chesterton was trying to tell us. Because something is important, we simply have to do it. We need furniture, even if the shelf clashes with the curtains. As long as every item has its place and can be easily located, it doesn’t matter if the books go on the first or second shelf. This mindset reframes our perspective to focus on the task itself, instead of the less-consequential quality of our job.
A university degree is still a degree, regardless of my grades. A job still provides income, and any income is better than none at all. And average work done is still one more piece of experience under my belt, and one less task I’ve given up on. I am better off for doing those things, poorly or not, than if I had not done so at all.
In the end…
Maybe there will be some consequences of doing things badly, and we’ll have to spend time fixing those issues. However, I think the important thing to remember is that these aspects can be fixed and improved later.
I can get a new job, splurge on a new sofa, or redo a drawing I hate. But more importantly, I have to have some foundation before I can improve on it. Realizing that I have the power to change things I don’t like helps in motivating myself to do something.
All in all, being a little more forgiving of myself has allowed me to accomplish more, and try new things without immediately thinking of failure. Now, if something is worth doing to me, I’ll do it, terribly or otherwise.
So at this very moment, stop procrastinating tasks for later. Hop on them now and do your worst.