March 5, 2011

Stop Making Sense (with Apologies to David Byrne and Talking Heads)

"That which gets used, develops." -- Hippocrates

My inner Recovering Perfectionist (RP) doesn't require that I do everything perfectly the first time. No, she's very forgiving (ha!). She requires only that it be done very well. She's very frustrated when something doesn't come naturally, and she holds back from doing things that she suspects she won't be good at. There's a chance she might look foolish to others (the reason she never joined her friends in playing touch football in college) or to herself (the reason she still finds it hard to get into her art studio regularly).

She's no dunce, this RP. She knows -- intellectually -- that you can't expect to be good at everything, and that the product of a first effort is likely to be mediocre, at best. But this doesn't keep her from setting impossible standards. And in fact, she doesn't think of them that way; these "standards" are so well-ingrained, and of such long standing, that she doesn't think of them at all. Until, of course, she finds herself struggling -- in the studio, say -- with a new process, or unable to make the work look exactly like she envisioned when she started. Even a whiff of potential "failure" can nip just about any new effort in the bud.

Honestly, she's a bitch to live with.

So here I am, fully conscious of how futile, not to mention destructive, it is to think this way, and what do I do? I think about it some more. I write in my journal; I talk to other people about it; I read books about it. I ponder. I ruminate. I make lists (lists, of course, being the answer to everything).

I learn that I'm not the only one with this problem -- not by a long shot.  Somehow, I find little comfort in this.

Then, a friend and very smart cookie, and someone I consider a mentor (although he doesn't know this part), tells me (I paraphrase) that I could spend the rest of my life analyzing the problem, or I could simply propel myself into my studio and make stuff. Keep making stuff. For six months, he says. Make stuff for six months. Six months! Use that make-stuff muscle regularly. Then, and only then, think about the experience. How did it feel? How do I feel? Did the process get easier over time? Did I like some aspects of it better than others? Which ones? Was it fun? How did I feel when things started getting easier (or didn't)? Now what?

He tells me that sometimes we over-think things (Me? Over-think?). He says that those of us who do this often believe that we need to figure everything out, have all the answers, before we act. "Good luck with that," I can hear him saying (although he's much too nice to actually say this to me).

I'm coming around. Sometimes the best thing we can do in these situations is to stop thinking, to turn off the fear messages from our lizard brains* and just DO (thanks, Nike).

The paradox is that not doing is both easy and hard. Easy because if we can persuade ourselves that we can't do it -- after all, our first results were pretty crappy, no? -- we can cross it off the list for good. (One less item on the performance anxiety list.) Harder because it's painful to shut ourselves off from doing things we might enjoy or love -- and even become great at -- because of fear of ridicule or of not getting it "right" the first time out. Never mind that as a consequence, rather than expanding and inspiring us, our lives may grow smaller and more pedestrian.

So, yes, I'm still having breakfast with this RP chick, but I'm telling her to stay out of my damn studio.

*(here's a good article by Pam Slim about Martha Beck's take on the lizard brain. And Seth Godin has a lot to say about lizard brains in a business context, including here and here.)

No comments:

Post a Comment