An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s. – J.D. Salinger
It has been a tough three or four weeks for me. I have been preparing a large file for trial, rushing through several tasks, staying late, going in on weekends, and skipping workouts. I am exhausted. And I am fully aware that much of the stress and strain has been self-inflicted.
When I was a little girl, my mother’s boyfriend nicknamed me “Oh Perfect One”. This was not a compliment. He was teasing me. Looking back, I cannot imagine what I was doing or saying at the age of 8 or 9 that would lead anyone to label me a perfectionist. But there it was.
When I graduated from public school, my teacher wrote a quote by Robert Browining in my year book: “Ah, but a man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” Believe it or not, I was very hurt by her message. I thought she meant that I should give up trying because I would never amount to anything.
I work in a very busy law firm and, upon realizing how perfectionistic I was, my (wonderful) boss called me into his office and said, “We don’t need it to be perfect. Strive for 7.5 out of 10.” I looked at him and said, “Boss, it is almost physically painful for me to not get it right.” He looked me in the eye and nodded and said nothing more and I knew that he understood. We have worked together now for 10 years.
I think I fell in love with Olympic lifting because the clean & jerk and the snatch are lifts that, when performed with heavy weight, require perfection. Perfect technique, perfect focus, perfect everything.
That is where the joy lies for me. Perfection. Not good, not excellent. Perfect.
This desire that I have for beautiful perfection of deed does not transfer into a need for perfection in clothes, make-up, home design, or any other “superficial” quality. I couldn’t care less about how someone is dressed if they are performing a beautiful aria or making a perfect argument in court or landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier.
I love brilliant actors who strive tirelessly for perfection such as Daniel Day Lewis or Kenneth Branagh or Sean Penn and it upsets me when people put these actors down because of their personal lives or personalities. All that matters to me is how other-worldly their work is. I’ll watch a bad film just to see one of these actors displaying their craft, their passion. It motivates me.
And then there’s lifting. Bodybuilding is the quest for perfection of the human form. Powerlifting is the quest for the ultimate in human strength. Olympic lifting adds speed and complex technique to the mix. These are the triumvirate of iron. The kings and queens of the gym.
Of course there are other forms of perfection in sport: the marathon, the triple twist lift in pairs skating, or the “perfect game” in baseball achieved only 20 times in the history of the game when the pitcher does not allow any opposing player to reach a base for any reason whatsoever. Only 20 times in the history of major league baseball, only 18 times since 1900!
But what about the cost of striving for perfection? I recently read an article on WedMD:
The drive for perfection in performance is a common motivator for most athletes, but researchers say perfectionism in sports may come at too high a price for many. A new study shows there are healthy — and unhealthy – ways to motivate athletes to excel.
The study identified two major types of perfectionism in sports: a healthy one (adaptive) and an unhealthy one (maladaptive).
Athletes with a healthy motivational pattern set moderately high personal goals for themselves and report low levels of perceived pressure from parents and coaches. They also readily accept their mistakes and express little concern over them.
In contrast, an athlete with an unhealthy motivational pattern has high personal standards and perceives high levels of pressure from their parents and coaches, and expresses great concern over mistakes made during competition.
This is perfect! There is a healthy form of perfectionism and an unhealthy one.
So it seems that the solution to solving the pain associated with perfectionism (for both the perfectionist and those in the vicinity) is not by asking someone to stop being a perfectionist if that is who they are. This is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. It’s about asking that person to be a healthy perfectionist: to strive for perfection for the sheer joy of it and not because anyone is pressuring them or will be disappointed if there are mistakes made. It is about forgiving ourselves for our honest mistakes and forging on.
I once watched a famous, world-class quarterback respond when his pass was intercepted for a touchdown that everyone knew meant the game was now lost. The camera zoomed in on his face. You could feel his deep disappointment, his utter frustration. For about 30 seconds. Then, suddenly, this same quarterback started thinking, looking around, and shouting orders. He started working twice as hard and did not stop until the game was over, despite the odds against him.
When the Amazon race horse, Zenyatta, one of my heros, lost her 20th race by a nose, after winning 19 come-from-behind heart-stoppers in a row, her jockey was in tears. He said, “You have no idea how it feels… and it’s my fault.”
My heart broke for him. But here’s the point. Zenyatta was no less a “winner” in my eyes for losing that last race. If anything, it made her story all the more poignant. She’s not perfect. She’s as close to perfect as it is possible to be without perfection. And that’s damn well close enough. Besides, it was the way she ran those races that touched and inspired so many people. She ran them her way, drama-queen style and with a happy dance before and after.
Today I am not going into the office. I am going to take a deep breath and watch some Oly lifters on You Tube. I’m going to watch Zenyatta run those 19 perfect races. And I’m going to rest. Then, I will forgive myself for not being perfect. I trust that you will forgive me, too.
P.S. For a little bit of perfection, watch Zenyatta here.
This article was first published on my blog, Lift Heavy, Make it Beautiful on April 1, 2012.