Exchange perfectionism for joy

“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

—G.K. Chesterton

One of my favorite quotes is from G. K. Chesterton, a Christian philosopher who argued that most of what must be done to make the world go ’round is done by the average Joe who does not do it perfectly–or sometimes even well.

For reasons that may be obvious to those who know me, I love this sentiment. Like many of you, I exited my childhood as a perfectionist, afraid of making mistakes and determined to do everything I undertook as flawlessly as I could. I approached college with a soul-killing effort that left me exhausted, albeit graduating with honors. And in my first marriage, I was guided by religious ideas about gender roles that sucked me (and I daresay, my ex-husband) dry after a decade.

It was an unlikely teacher–the marathon–that taught me, once and for all, to dispense with perfectionism. You see, I don’t come from a family of athletes. In my family, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents–all–have eschewed regular exercise. Even in my own generation (brothers and cousins), there are very few who played soccer or softball. We just aren’t an athletic clan. But in my first year at community college, I took a dance aerobics class and learned that I enjoyed moving my body. For years I happily kept up a moderate routine of exercise. And then in my mid-thirties a friend of mine challenged me to train for a marathon.

I took the challenge and quickly discovered that my body was not built for running. I slogged along on my training runs, barely managing the effort it took to build up my miles. Even now, after nearly a decade of marathoning, I’m no faster than I was when I trained for my first 26.2 race. Unlike in my education, pure will and effort have not made me better at running. I do not run because I’m good at it. I run because of what I get out of it. I get exercise, yes, but I also get time to meditate, a way to challenge myself, a clear, deep breath during stressful times, and a regular reminder that perfection is overrated.

In this life, we sometimes do what we do because we do it well. Other times we partake in an activity or engage in a task because it is worth doing. None of us is perfect at marriage, parenting, work, friendship, or any number of other things we value. Some days, if we are honest, we will admit that we aren’t even good at whatever we’re doing. Does that mean we close up shop and quit?

I daresay most of us live with the paradox of working toward “excellence” while making do with “good enough.” Perfectionism, that pesky drive to meet some pinnacle of an outwardly defined ideal, is a mean task-master. For those it does not drive into flurries of striving, it often paralyzes.

Think about this: What do you enjoy, but happen to do badly? Whatever it is, I encourage you to do it regularly. Do you love to sing, but can’t carry a tune? I recommend a weekly night of karaoke. Do you like to paint but can’t even hold a brush steady? Get yourself a canvas and go for it anyway! Do you enjoy cooking but tend to overcook everything? How about Sunday afternoons at your house for burned brunch? Invite people who will love you no matter what you serve them.

Certainly, set goals and strive toward excellence, but to live a life full of joy, you’ll need to embrace whatever you enjoy regardless of your skill level. Don’t be afraid of failure. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.

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