The Pursuit of Progress, or Perfection?
I have a drawer stuffed with old t-shirts whose sentimental value keeps them from the donation bin. The oldest is a marching band shirt with cracked plastic lettering, “Only by the constant pursuit of perfection can excellence be obtained.”
When I need to get some serious writing done I scribble some iteration of this motivational quote on a post-it and stick it to the edge of my computer screen. Reminders placed in the periphery are a little more effective than ones stuffed away in a drawer.
I value the idea of working towards perfection, but I also find it helpful to "lower the bar" to a manageable height when I’m having trouble making progress. Adjusting my standards to a realistic height allows me to make progress and avoid the discouragement that comes with adopting unrealistically high standards when I’m not ready to do so.
So are the pursuits of progress and perfection mutually exclusive? I’ve found that I need to choose the appropriate pursuit, depending on where I am in the writing process.
I’ve learned from experience that adopting perfectionism during the initial drafting stages only hinders progress. When pursuing perfection, writing anything that's less than insightful and profound feels worthless. Progress comes to a standstill because, unfortunately, it’s exceedingly difficult to produce pages of ground-breaking prose out of thin air. Profundity doesn't just materialize – I think it’s best to raise the bar in incremental stages toward the standard of perfection. This is where the idea of "lowering the bar" comes into play. If our standards are too high to be realistically met, we writers need to do ourselves a favor and adjust our standards. Disassembling a writing project into small, manageable tasks catalyzes progress. Each stage has its own appropriate standards that best lead to success. Once you've built each successive ladder rung of well-done parts and completed tasks, then it's far easier to try to reach the high standards we set for ourselves.
Assessing where we are in the process allows us to get a get a clear idea of "what’s at stake." What will happen if you’re wrong or make a mistake at this point? What's at stake when you’re brainstorming an essay or drafting your ideas? Using an extra sheet of paper?
During the initial and intermediates stages of writing, the goal is continued progress, not perfection. Every inch of progress is an achievement because it places me one step closer to excellence.