Many years ago, after twelve years of owning my own photographic business, I lamented that I’d never done the one thing I was told all Good Photographers once did: Assist another photographer to learn the ropes. So, with my business at a stalemate, I decided it was me that was the problem. I found another photographer, asked if I could meet with her, showed her my portfolio, asked if I could be her assistant.
She laughed and responded with, “What the hell? You’ve been a working photographer for twelve years? Why are you here? Oh, I know what it is. You have what I have, which is the crippling Expert Syndrome. You think you have to be perfect, and an expert, and if you aren’t perfect or an expert in EVERYTHING, you freeze and nothing you do is good enough or even good at all. Listen: you are already a working photographer. And my competition. This is silly! Go out and be my competition!”
Eventually crippled by my own doe-in-the-headlights self-doubt and perfectionism, I left my career behind, sold all my equipment, and entered a completely different field. I turned my back on what I’d spent years building.
Well, I’ve returned full circle to photography, and writing, but that perfectionism had amazing staying power and never left, though I did. I face that dragon again now. Zoom forward to a month ago and another interesting reflection from a friend. He noticed my crippling perfectionism too, and gave me an assignment.
He told me of a student who was so crippled with perfectionism that her professor assigned her the task of writing – and turning in to him – the very first draft of a paper. If he found she’d edited it, he would fail her from the class. Wow! My friend said, “You are just like that. Here’s my assignment for you: you must make a plan that is deliberately imperfect and do that plan.”
So, this week, with my first presentation at a museum, I chose to present knowing full well that what I was about to do was imperfect, and do it anyway. I discovered that I didn’t die, and no one else in the room did either. My one suffered renal failure as a result of my imperfect introduction in this talk, and the slightly unsure wrap up of the story. It was imperfect, but I did it. Despite that, one man in the room told me my writing had answered a question for him that he never been able to articulate. He said this: “I want you to know that what you wrote really meant something to me, personally. You helped me understand something about my place in this world. Thank you.”
If that is the result of humble but shared imperfection, with its wobbly, nervous introduction and a not-perfect wrap up, I’ll take it.