Notes from a reformed perfectionist: N M Browne

Once upon a time I was a perfectionist. This will come as a surprise to anyone who has known me over the last thirty years. I am untidy, careless, a last minute by the skin of my teeth kind of person, an optimistic, ‘it’ll be all right on the night’ under-preparer.
 Long ago, in the days when my hair was long and brown and I’d never heard of anti wrinkle night cream,  I was conscientious, disciplined, ambitious and er teetotal.
God, I miss that girl. She would have a clean, well-organised office, a full work schedule and would probably be far too busy doing something important to write a rambling self-indulgent blog.  However,  I can’t entirely regret her demise because, though a small number of brilliant perfectionists publish incredible books, I suspect that most perfectionists don’t publish anything at all – lost in an eternal editing loop: nothing is ever perfect.
 I was made very aware of what I’d lost when I was chatting to a friend last night. She is still a perfectionist and  I, very unfairly, rely on her to do all the work in our choir so that I merely follow where she leads. I don’t think she could believe that this lazy, red wine toper with such a cavalier attitude to tuning, timing and indeed singing had a perfectionist hair on her unbrushed head. When she asked, a little dubiously, how I had eradicated this tendency so completely, she really made me think.
   It probably began at university when I decided not to live in the library or indeed go to lectures. By the time I did an MBA I was half cured and there the workload was so heavy ‘satisficing’ – ie just getting through, was the main aim. Then there were the children and a whole twenty years or so when getting to the end of a day with everyone more or less in one piece was enough. I stopped setting myself ridiculous goals and berating myself for never achieving them, I learned to live in the moment, enjoy the now, wake up and smell the coffee. ( I may have overdone that last)  Along the way I also lost my competitiveness, my desire to be the best, which only now re-emerges when I play my husband at Scrabble.
   Losing my perfectionist streak has been a kind of slow accommodation with failure, or at least with limited success – accepting that a book is not necessarily going to rock the literary world, but is at least finished, that my writing may not be brilliant but is  good enough. Perhaps though, in this last act, now is the time when my life and my writing would be improved by a rediscovery of this long lost personality trait?
I don’t think it will be easy. As I write on my laptop in an armchair thinking about lunch,  I am trying to persuade myself to clean my office, arrange my pens in size and colour order and reinstate some serious self-discipline.( And to learn my music.)
  Writers can  be too exacting but we can definitely also be too relaxed, too accepting. Maybe  all creative artists need a healthy fear of failure to do their best work even as we accept its inevitability.
OK. I’m walking away from the armchair now. I may be some little time…


Sandra Horn said…
No-one who knows me or ever knew me would accuse me of perfectionism, alas. I've always flown by the seat of my pants and I wouldn't recommend it - it's inefficient and exhausting and drives the people around me mad. I don't think you are in the same league, Nicky! You are an achiever!
Nicky said…
I think we probably share the same faults, Sandra!
Bill Kirton said…
Too relaxed, Nicky? Nah. Never. Sounds to me as if the person you've evolved into is better for you than the previous iteration. 'There's nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.'
Children are a good cure for perfectionism. I know that feeling of achievement when you get to the end of the day with everyone more or less in one piece. (It's even better when they all reach the age of 21, or in the case of my younger son, 30)
I remember at school the English teacher once commented that he could always rely on my handwriting to be just as neat at the end of an essay as at the beginning. This is probably still true but not quite in the way he meant it! Everyone who has seen my handwriting laughs at length when I tell them that story.

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