How To Be Perfect

 Sweat rolled down my face as I slowed to walk. I strolled down Cameron Street and checked my phone to see how far I’d run. Nearly one and a half kilometers without stopping. Woohoo!

For most runners, that would have been a joke. But for someone learning to enjoy it, it was a big deal. Today, for the first time, my run felt different. Not joy, exactly. More like emotional relief. As much as I loved the gym, not even a great workout with weights had ever given me this feeling. I guessed that there were some physiological or psychological reasons for this, whether it was the way the endorphins were released or that it was something I’d never been good at, but running had suddenly become a different experience.

So why had it changed? And why now?

In Pursuit Of Perfection

In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert discusses, at length, on the importance of why we should all live a creative life, and why it’s imperative to never focus on commercial failure or success. For Gilbert, dwelling on how many books we sell or how many pieces of our art are sold to a gallery or whether our latest idea becomes a million dollar invention means are not important. A creative life is lived for the joy and inspiration and therapy it gives to the one who creates.

I agree with the sentiment, but humans are both mimetic and competitive. And not only with others. As someone who was raised as a jock, I can tell you that even in my forties, I compete against myself when I go to the gym. I still want to set personal bests. I still want to get bigger and stronger. I still want to look better than I did ten years ago.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, until the day it freezes you.

This, more than anything, is what Gilbert is talking about. Comparison sets us up for failure. When we stop writing or painting or working out for a while, it becomes difficult to start up again. In the past, I would go for a run and beat myself up if I didn’t better my time. I expected linear growth. I expected this:

Time + Consistency = New Personal Best.

And when my pursuit of perfection failed, when I couldn’t lift the same amount of weight, and when my writing wasn’t as good as a previous work, my first instinct was to quit.

Why bother if I wasn’t going to get better?

The Lesson

What I’d missed was that perfection was found in the pursuit, not in the result. I needed to accept my imperfections and understand that life wasn’t linear, but a winding path. The reason I’d always hated running was because I sucked at it. I was never going to be fast, and I didn’t realize that my refusal to accept this imperfection was keeping me from enjoying it.

The same was true of my writing. I’d written for nearly two decades. Sure, I’d gotten better. Become readable. Even developed a few fans. But it wasn’t what I’d hoped for. I’d long believed that I should have had a breakthrough by now. Perhaps not as a best-selling author, but certainly as someone with more notoriety than I’d received.

Instead, it felt like I was spinning my wheels. If my writing was getting better, it was in tiny, nearly microscopic ways. Noticeable to a professional editor, perhaps, but not to the big publishers or the general public.  And as someone who’d always believed in the “put the time in – get better” axiom, it was paralyzing. I stopped writing fiction for two years in my thirties when my literary agent abruptly stopped talking to me and cut me off. To this day I have no idea what happened. Only the compulsion to create stories drew me back.

The Life

A small breeze rustled the leaves on the tree beside me as I walked down the street. I paused to smell a few lilacs near the sidewalk and used my shirt to wipe the sweat from my eyes.  I smiled, thinking back to a special needs boy I’d worked with years ago. He had a favorite joke that I would always repeat.

“Hey, Jamie. Do you know why we sweat?”

“No.”

“Because we’re sweaters.”

Every time I said the punchline, he would burst into laughter.

I thought of Jamie now. Thought about the kids I’d worked with over the years. Thought about their delight at the simplest things. Always in the moment. Never competing. Just enjoying. Largely bearing the truth (and fruit) of what Elizabeth Gilbert emphasized in her book.

It was the enjoyment of the thing, not the preciousness of it or the seriousness of it, that mattered most.

I took a final whiff of the lilacs and started jogging again, my face set into smile. In just a few weeks, I’d improved how far I could run without stopping.

But that didn’t matter.

What mattered was that my feet were touching the sidewalk. I was able to smell the lilacs. And when I’d finished my run, I would feel better about myself, and a little better about the world.

It was the perfect realization that I was imperfect.

And that it was okay.

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