I used to suffer regularly from perfectionism paralysis. You see, before pursuing a career in writing, I was a Musical Theater major. Out of 800 applicants, I was selected to join a class of twenty-three students. Conservatory training is rigorous — it has to be, given the number of Broadway hopefuls and the competitive nature of the field. Our final exams each semester were referred to as “boards.” For my freshman year board exam, I had to perform two songs. I prepared for these exams the entire semester, working with my voice teacher to select just the right pieces.
The day of the board came and went, and boy — did I feel good about myself. Boards were pass/fail, and I was certain that there was no way I would fail. I had just sung my heart out. I couldn’t possibly fail.
And then I failed. Miserably. Out of five adjudicators, five of them failed me. In case you didn’t catch that, I was failed by every teacher watching me.
To make matters worse, that was my Christmas break send-off. I went home completely wrecked, insecure, and questioning my career choice. I spent the majority of my four-week-long break analyzing and re-analying the situation, turning it over and over again in my head to figure out where I went wrong. I found myself at a fork in the road.
I had two options:
- Confront the situation head-on to figure out how to be better next time.
As tempting as it was to succumb to option #1, I chose the second option.
The first week back at school, I asked for a meeting with my department head. His modest five feet in height didn’t stop him from being one of the most intimidating people I’d yet to encounter in my life. He eyed me as I sat down across from him.
“I just wanted to ask you about my board — I clearly failed, and I was hoping for feedback so I can work to improve.”
After a moment, he asked me simply:
“What are you afraid of?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. Heights? Airplanes? Substitute meat products?
I stared at him blankly.
“You walk around apologizing for yourself. What are you apologizing for? What are you afraid of? You stood at the back of the room in one place the entire performance with horrible posture. Why are you afraid?”
I was simultaneously stunned and furious. I wanted to scream at him — “UM, HELLO!? I was AFRAID of being in this EXACT situation! I was AFRAID I would fail my board!”
And then, I got it. I was afraid to fail — and because of that, I got in my own way.
Up until that point, I had never really failed at anything (we’ll chalk little league baseball up to a bad decision on everyone’s part). But other than that, I pretty much succeeded at whatever I tried. And quite honestly, I expected no less of myself. I expected perfection.
The expectation that everything we do should yield perfect results only inhibits calculated risk-taking and creativity. In an effort to be flawless, we draw a circle around our comfort zone and stay safely within its borders. We preemptively limit ourselves — or worse, condemn ourselves. We don’t risk trying new things — what if we fail?
As a writer, starting a new project was always the most intimidating undertaking for me. I would dance around ideas and always find a way to postpone their start. I’d find a million excuses as to why today couldn’t be the day: I had laundry; I had to cook; I had to read up on Kardashian pregnancies. I found myself pushing new projects or new revisions on old projects down the line.
And then it hit me: I was postponing starting a new project out of the fear that I wouldn’t be able to perfectly execute my ideas. I could envision these comedies as works of art under the guidance of industry giants like Chuck Lorre or Michael Schur. But I was just a newbie — I definitely wouldn’t get it right. It wouldn’t be funny or punchy or well-received, and then I’d just be a failure.
I was in my own way before I even started.
Once I was able to recognize this perfectionism paralysis, I began playing mind-games with myself. Rather than expecting an enlightened first draft of a new project, I began giving myself permission to write a sloppy script. I braced myself for the possibility of failure to allow for the possibility of growth.
When handled correctly, failure can present the best opportunity for self-exploration and growth. Failing my board was one of the most painful experiences, but it was also the time in my life where I grew most significantly. If my fear was failing, it had happened. I had failed — and I had survived it. All of a sudden, the stakes were so much lower because I had been to “the dark side” and back and lived to tell about it. I was also determined to prove them wrong — I was determined to prove that I wasn’t afraid. So I stood up straight and kept my shoulders back and kicked my toes to the heavens in dance class like I was nothing but confident. And eventually, I started believing myself.
Towards the end of my freshman year, we had auditions for our final musical of the season. Up to this point, I hadn’t been cast (for what I can assume to be previously stated reasons). We had to prepare 16 bars of a folk rock song. I decided on Peter, Paul and Mary’s “If I Had a Hammer.”
I walked into the audition room knowing exactly what I intended to do with it. The head of our program sat expectantly behind a table as the piano intro rang out.
I sat on my knees and proceeded to sing the first verse. But for the second verse, I got up, charged the table, slammed my hands down, and sang directly in his face.
He cracked a grin, and I was cast.
Failure is the perfect opportunity to grow — but in order to grow, we have to allow ourselves the chance to fail. Spanx founder Sara Blakely recounts stories of her dad asking her, “What did you fail at this week?” While some may consider this to be a bit harsh, I believe he was trying to destigmatize failure and instead associate it with the confidence to try new things. Another way to phrase this would be, “What new thing did you try this week?” Expecting perfection is a sure-fire way to get in your own way and forgo the opportunity to discover new things about yourself and the world around you.
Allow yourself a sloppy script. Allow yourself the possibility for failure. And if you fail, learn from it. And when you do, sing loudly in someone’s face to celebrate.
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