Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”

Here’s my hot take about proverbs: you can always find their opposite. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush? Well, you can’t kill two birds with one stone when you’re holding them. Actions speak louder than words? The pen is mightier than the sword, my friend. My mom used to say that “anything worth doing is worth doing well.” I try to tell myself that “something is better than nothing.”

This might be a one-year-into-the-pandemic thing, or it might be a nearly-thirty-years-of-being-me thing, and maybe it’s just that I really latched on to the “academic perfectionism” webinar I did in September. But oh boy, when I sat down to come up with a list of metaphorical monsters for this month’s theme, that one was at the top of the list. I’m calling it perfectionism, but a therapist might call it something else: “all or nothing thinking,” a common cognitive distortion. Either everything is perfect, or it’s a total disaster. Either you nailed it, or you bombed so hard you should never show your face again.  Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Sound familiar?

This is a miserable way to live, as the above sardonic tweet indicates. We joke about perfectionism like, “haha, I know I’m being too intense about the formatting on this document!” or, “lol, you know how I am with copy-editing! If I overlook a single typo, I will become a permanent human version of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ because I can’t handle making minor mistakes! The monster of perfectionism will consume me, and I will become the monster, and I will thrash about until I and everyone around me has been destroyed like the major city in a Godzilla movie on account of the fact that I refuse to believe anyone who tells me that it is fine and/or that they don’t want to spend the rest of this meeting managing my feelings about my perceived shortcomings!”

So see below a few proverbs of my own that I repeat to myself when I need to sidestep that particular shame spiral:

1. You don’t have to be good at everything, Katie. The number-one piece of wisdom from my academic perfectionism webinar is about being mediocre at things that don’t matter that much. (One of the items in their perfectionism questionnaire is “do you aim to be the best at everything you do, even when it is something you are not interested in?”) Deploying my attention strategically is necessary and important and helps me to invest my limited resources in the things that are most important to me and my goals and values.

2. It’s okay to redirect your energies if you can’t focus, Katie. This, unfortunately, can activate my tendency to do the easiest or most interesting task rather than the most urgent or high priority one. But I have been sitting in this same stupid office chair staring at this same stupid screen for so many stupid months, and if I can’t edit the document I had promised my Google calendar I would edit, perhaps it might help to get up and do three dishes and take a lap around the apartment to find and pet the dog and maybe do a lesser task that doesn’t involve my computer until I feel like a human person again. Schedules and to-do lists are rough estimates. You can change them.

3. You are not helping by pretending you can do it if you can’t, Katie. This is the hardest one, probably, because I am a good Christian lady who suffers from an overwhelming need to be seen as reliable and helpful and because I also like to pretend that I will wake up on Thursday morning with a superhuman capacity to finish all the things I didn’t do earlier in the week. But probably it’s much more useful for me to just email people and say I need more time or just ask if someone else can handle this task or perhaps consider that it’s not urgent or essential anyway.

4. Something is better than nothing, Katie. Rather than descending into a spiral of existential despair that my inability to accomplish my goal of grading ten reading responses in the allotted time means that I am a bad teacher and an inadequate human being and I am going to spend the rest of my life falling short at essential tasks and being angry with myself and isn’t this further evidence that I should move to an isolated cabin in the Upper Peninsula to hide from modern society, perhaps I should pause and consider that giving up means I will grade none of the reading responses. If I release myself from the doom spiral, however, I could finish seven.

5. If you had a regular job with a real supervisor, would that person expect you to be 100 percent productive 100 percent of the time, Katie? And, if they did expect that, would they generally be viewed as a reasonable person with reasonable expectations? No? Do you see where this is going?

Here is the concluding piece of wisdom from my beloved webinar: lower your standards. Find a thing you are doing more thoroughly than truly necessary. Do it worse. Make that your new proverb. Embrace the spiritual practice of being intentionally bad at one or more things.

 

4 Comments

  1. Geneva Langeland

    Whether it’s eating vegetables, going for a walk, putting away clothes, or getting work tasks done, “something is better than nothing” has become my pandemic mantra.

    Reply
  2. Jon Gorter

    Thanks for sharing this, Katie! For the record, I still think moving to an isolated cabin in the Upper Peninsula to hide from modern society is a good idea.

    Reply
  3. Karl

    Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. This saying has become my mantra these days. If it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth just doing, the performance of doing it isn’t what makes it worthwhile or not. Exercise? 1 push-up is better than none, and a walk around the block is better than sitting. Reading? The abstract and discussion is better than nothing, or one page is better than not… anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.

    Reply
  4. Kyric Koning

    The standards we set for ourselves are not always the ones we hold for others.

    This piece has some hard-hitting, much needed wisdom.

    Reply

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