Of Perfectionists and Abandoning Projects

This paper airplane seems to be abandoned. Maybe it was made by a perfectionist.One of my favorite musicians is a perfectionist. I know this because, in my sporadic attempts to be a dedicated fan, I spent some time reading this musician’s comments about one of his albums. He described himself as a perfectionist musician, then stated his work was never finished, only abandoned.

The terminology caused me to pause. It sounded familiar because of my acquaintance with some of Paul Valery‘s work, but the phrase still didn’t quite compute; at least, not at first. Abandoning a project can suggest quitting, and I’m no quitter. I often stick with a job or project long after the job or project should be relinquished. I don’t like to quit. I don’t like to fail.

I found myself pondering the phrase as I considered my work habits and strategies for coping with my perfectionism. I came to the conclusion I do abandon projects. The abandoning began as an attempt to control my out-of-control editing habits: I was the person who had to be told to stop editing. I had to put a limit on how many times I could edit a piece. My perfectionism was that bad. It still could be if not for the concept of abandoning projects.

I think the idea gained momentum in graduate school. I wrote poetry for workshops; I wrote poetry for form and theory classes; I wrote papers and prepared presentations for literature classes; and I wrote content for websites and print materials at my job. When workshop, classes, and work overlapped, I had to learn how to write and to keep writing. I couldn’t obsess for days and days about a poem or a paper or a website. I had a deadline to meet. I had to leave a poem or paper in favor of the next poem or paper. I began to abandon poems and papers in order to focus on what was next.

That isn’t to say I don’t review my work. I do. I still obsess about lines and word choice and punctuation marks. If I’m honest, though, I rarely re-read the work I publish on this site or my Tumblr blog. To do so is to enter dangerous territory. It’s a territory filled with bogs and meandering paths that lead nowhere. Once a work is published, it’s published. It’s time to move onto the next thing. It doesn’t do any good to worry about the work. Yes, I’ll review it based on feedback I receive, but I won’t dwell on it. I will make the necessary alterations to the work – if they’re in keeping with what I am attempting to accomplish with a particular poem or post – then I will abandon it. It’s the only way to get things done when I’m a perfectionist.

Photo: Nic Stage (CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Comments

  1. I know a lot of people that start a project and never finish it! It makes me crazy!

    • John Treck If you ever work with me, you will learn that I am a person of my word. Projects always get finished at Write Right. Then they’re abandoned so that attention can be given to the next one. 🙂

  2. I love that line. It’s so TRUE. I have to constantly remind myself that perfection is NOT the goal nor the expectation that others have for me. I have to work hard to release myself from the expectation of perfection. I’m getting better at catching myself but it takes pointed effort.
    Great post!

    • kateupdates It does take effort! I’ve struggled with perfectionism since I was a kid. I’ve learned to live in tension with it. The funny and best thing is that the perfectionism disappears when I’m doing the work. That’s what we’re supposed to do – the work. Not worry about how perfect or imperfect it is or we are.

  3. Hmmmmm…I do believe this post will inspire me to write a blog post about the concept of perfectionism, failure and quitting…because you KNOW how I feel about perfectionism. From my perspective, it’s like balance…chasing something that can’t be caught. Cheers! Kaarina

    • KDillabough No, it can’t be caught. It’s unattainable. It’s why I do the best work I can and move onto something else. There’s no point in getting caught in that trap.

  4. Sometimes the best thing you can do is learn how to publish and move on to something else. That is not to say you shouldn’t strive to do your best but you can make yourself crazy trying to catch the dream and miss out on other opportunities that could be more fruitful.

    • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes Exactly! I know some artists can work on a single work over the course of their entire lives. I guess I’m not wired that way. I want to create and create and create.

  5. You know, this is interesting to me because I have quit projects before for the exact opposite reason (or so it seems to me). There is something else that is shinier. I have to stop that. Sometimes perfectionism can be a crutch, huh? I am glad you see it and can battle that beast.

    • rdopping I think you have to learn to gauge when it’s time to move onto something else. “Quitting” may be the wrong word in that case. You’ve given a thing your best shot and learned that that thing isn’t the right one to pursue.
      Perfectionism is a huge crutch. It can isolate a person and turn that person into a demanding control freak. I revisit a book called The Heart of the Artist from time to time. It has a chapter on perfectionism that is just right for me.

  6. glad to know I’m not alone w/ struggling with perfectionism. i can’t tell you how many times I edit my posts after I publish. need to learn to just. let. it. go. thanks for the insights and for sharing your story, Erin 🙂

  7. I have to work hard to release myself from the expectation of
    perfection. I’m getting better at catching myself but it takes pointed
    effort.

  8. @anti fatigue mats That it does! I’m glad you’re making the effort.

Trackbacks

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