Perfection is a killer. Or should I say ‘seeking’ perfection is a killer. There are many stories of people who try to perfect their ideas, writing, product or service before putting them out there and in doing so miss the opportunities to sell or improve and change the lives of others.
Understanding the fear
But I fully understand the fear of putting yourself and your thoughts out there and wanting things to be perfect. It’s a simple defence mechanism to avoid uncomfortable feedback. Back in 2005 just 12 months after starting Inspired Working I was discussing my business with my coach and he suggested that I set up a mechanism to ‘keep in touch’ with the people in my various business networks; current, former and potential clients, fellow consultants and the interesting people I meet who I’d like to stay in contact with.
While I was excited about the idea of a newsletter or blog, the thought of actually writing one was a bit daunting for me. When I was still in school I once got a ‘D’ in English because I found spelling very tricky, I was appalled and considered myself an absolute dunce. However, I grew up bi-lingual and having two languages constantly swirling around my brain was a bit of a mixed blessing. I loved exploring the meaning of words and how many different ways there are to say something, but the rules of spelling and grammar eluded me. I don’t remember learning much about them in school; either because I didn’t pay attention to those lessons or my teacher was not very good at teaching them! So using my intuition for spelling English was not helpful, especially when I had Dutch phonetics and a Dublin accent to rely on.
My first career as a Chef didn’t really require much writing so I never thought about it until in 1987 (not long before I ended that career) I remember being asked by my Head Chef to write out the method for one of his dishes. He was being asked to write some recipes for a magazine and for some reason he felt I was the best writer in his brigade, so he delegated the task to me. He said I’d get some help from the magazine editor.
As someone who actually avoided writing I was used to documenting dishes in professional shorthand; essentially a list of ingredients, in order of preparation, with some simple notes or arrows to indicate the cooking method – that was all. The various preparation techniques were obvious so there was no need to mention them.
Knowing the reader
When it came to writing the recipe method for the magazine I made some notes and got rather blunt feedback that the reader would be a person with no professional training. I was stumped! Where was I supposed to begin? I quickly realised that normal every-day domestic cooks were clueless about the physics and chemistry of applying heat or acids to food. I had assumed they would know enough basic anatomy of small animals, birds and fish to remove innards, bones and isolate the tender muscles. I also took for granted that they would know about the importance of seasoning and infusing flavours into various liquids to make a sauce.
It was difficult to know where to start and it took a number of drafts with lots of feedback from the magazine editor before I got the hang of it. Once I could visualise a particular type of reader with a particular type of basic kitchen (like one of my non-chef friends) it was easier to write for them. I remember feeling at the time that it was not perfect, but once it was good enough for the editor it was fine. That experience taught me a lot about knowing your reader. By the way, most chefs don’t write their own books – they have ghost writers to do it for them!
When I started working as a Trainer in 1988 I was required to write a lot more but it was not something I relished or enjoyed. By the time I completed my Post Grad Qualification in Strategic HR in 2001 I was used to putting an argument or premise in writing, backing it up with theory or research, drawing conclusions and making recommendations, but it was still a chore (but at least by now I was getting pretty good grades!).
Making a decision
So in late 2005 I made a decision I was going to write an article every month and then spent ages wondering what to write and how to write it. Who was I writing for and what were they interested in? Just the thought of it brought up all my old fears about being judged and getting that ‘D’ grade. Every time I attempted it I would draw a blank. I wanted my first article to be perfect and highly acclaimed. So I procrastinated . . . for months . . . but as I began to research what others were doing and how they started, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it’s not about being perfect, it’s about practicing and getting something out there. If you look at the amount of rejections and re-writes some of the greatest book authors had to endure it is easy to see that writing is as much about persistence as it is about ideas. So I persisted through my petty fears.
Finally, with encouragement from my coach I put some words on paper and began to play with them. I gave up trying to be perfect. It was just about getting a few ideas down and making some sense of them. It took me about three months to get the very first article ready to distribute. It was sent out to the 32 people who I had entered into my automated mailing system. It was far from perfect but I got it out there.
The feedback wasn’t great but it was helpful and now I was committed. I didn’t have three months to write the next one, because the next deadline was only four weeks away! I’ve never seen myself as particularly disciplined but as I look back over the years and consider that this is my 100th article, I can see that I’ve never missed a month. Sometimes in August or December I’ve just done a summary of the most popular articles from the last six months and in others I’ve done the odd additional piece during the month. While none of them are perfect, some of them get thousands of reads when reformatted as blogs.
A little ritual
It’s now become a little ritual. Every month I’m curious about what the next topic will be. It may be a book I’ve read or an article about some interesting research that prompts a topic, or it may be a conversation with a client, fellow consultant or Pam that triggers my interest and raises a point I want to share. Amanda and Glo are my excellent proof readers and they sometimes question what I’ve written, providing me with a good sense-check.
In the last few years it’s been interesting to re-publish the articles as blogs on various websites and more recently as ‘Posts’ on Linked In. Before re-publishing the articles I review and update them. It is interesting to see the evolution of the articles and how there is always something to tweak, edit, re-phrase or update. They are never going to be perfect so there is always a time (usually the publishing deadline) at which I have to let it go and trust it will be good enough to provoke a reader to reflect a little on the way they see their world and invite them to explore an alternative way of thinking or behaving.
As I reflect on my first 100 articles the overarching theme is one of raising self-awareness and questioning unconscious thinking and behavioural habits. We are all imperfect and it is quite liberating to recognise that. We are living in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world that is more interconnected than ever, but we are doing it with a brain that was designed for a very basic and simple life of survival and procreation. It’s no wonder we all make mistakes and seeking perfection is a recipe for procrastination, frustration and disappointment.
I’ve learnt that the key to writing an article is to get some words on the page. Letting some thoughts flow. It’s not about getting it right first time, it’s about the evolution of an idea and revising it until it’s good enough . . . because it will never be perfect.
In which aspects of your life or your business do you feel you need to be perfect? What would happen if you just gave it your best shot and instead of expecting it to be perfect and impressive, you allow it to be imperfect and expect feedback to make it even better. Other people will always give you a different perspective and the broader your perspective, awareness and understanding, the more successful you can be.
Surrounding yourself with people whose feedback you respect is the key to success which is why I’ve set up a new business with Alli Gibbons, a very special fellow consultant who I’ve known for over 17 years. She is very different to me and we give one another refreshingly honest feedback and cheerful encouragement so that together we are better than either of us on our own. We are still in the early stages of putting a new website together and as any of you who have written copy for your own websites know, it can take while. But we’ll persist and resist trying to be perfect.
Remember, especially as you consider perfection . . . stay curious!
With best regards,
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