For Perfectionists Only…NOT!

Last week, on a lovely walk along the Laguna path with my friend and colleague Suzanne Murray, we wandered onto the topic of perfectionism. She admitted to being a “recovering perfectionist,” having recently discovered that she could settle for excellence instead. And while I have made a similar shift from hardline perfectionism to compassionate excellence, I constantly battle the powerful allure of perfectionism.

Suzanne mentioned the poet and teacher William Stafford who is recognized as one of the most prolific poets of recent times. For the last twenty or more years of his life he wrote at least one poem every day. And, to the dismay of his students at Lewis and Clark University, he assigned the same task. I can just imagine the groans and complaints that must have followed that announcement. But when the students asked how it could be done or insisted that it was impossible, he replied simply, “Lower your standards.”

“Lower my standards?” The thought of lowering my standards flies in the very face of my beloved and comfortable perfectionism. If I’m going to put something out in the world it had better be perfect. And, as far as my inner perfectionist is concerned, nothing will ever be perfect! And that, my friends, is the problem.

But see, there’s a key component to Stafford’s assignment that my inner perfectionist doesn’t quite get. Stafford never told his students to, publish a poem a day. He told them only to write a poem a day, which is exactly what he did.

I bet if we were to look at some of his daily poems – the ones that did not get published – we would agree that many of them, perhaps most, were not so good. I’m sure he would agree with us as well. But when you write a poem a day, you’ve got a lot to choose from. And out of those daily poems he found enough good ones to publish more than 50 books, one of which – Traveling Through the Dark – won the National Book Award for poetry. He was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and held the post which is now called the Poet Laureate of the United States.

Clearly there is something to this idea of “lowering your standards.”

Do you want to know how many “unfinished” essays, stories, newsletter articles and other stuff I have stashed away on my hard drive? I bet you do! But I’m not going to tell you. Suffice it to say that by lowering my standards, not a whole heck of a lot, I could have been publishing 2-3 newsletters each month instead of one, plus articles, books and who knows what else!

What would happen if I lowered my standards just a bit? What if I took out these essays, gave them a final (quick) revision and posted them online? What if one person happened upon one of them and it turned out to be exactly the thing he or she needed to hear at that moment? Is it worth it? Is it worth the risk that I might publish an article that stinks? Is it worth it to risk posting an article that isn’t perfect? Is it worth lowering my standards? Even if I can reach just one person, you bet it is!

And what about you? What “articles” do you have sitting on your hard drive? What creation of yours is waiting to see the light of day because it is not yet “perfect?” What if you lowered your standards? Just a tiny bit. Just enough to finish it and get it out into the world.

Here’s my commitment to you: I’m lowering my standards. I’m going to start writing a lot more, and publishing a lot more of what I write. Some of it will be crap. And some of it won’t.

When you read something that’s crap, feel free to let me know. And when you read something that’s not, feel free to let me know that too. And who knows, you may just find a kernel in something crappy that really works for you, a bit of insight buried in the not-so-eloquent stuff that helps you take the next step in your life. Remember, one person’s crap is another person’s fertilizer!

And now here’s my hope and my challenge to you: Can you lower your standards? Just a bit? Can you look through your hard drive, or your closet or workshop? Can you dust off your chisels or brushes, get our your business plan or novel and reawaken your creative dreams? Can you lower your standards just enough to get those creations, those ideas, those dreams that are waiting inside of you, out into the light?

If you find yourself stuck in the process, wondering if it’s perfect enough, remember this line from the last poem William Stafford wrote on August 28, 1993, the day that he died, “Be ready for what God sends.”

Indeed, be ready for what god sends, and be willing to let it come through you and out into the light.

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      10 Responses to “For Perfectionists Only…NOT!”

      1. Linda Layne Foster [Amar] on October 21st, 2006 3:37 pm

        I was one of William Stafford’s many students. I graduated from Lewis and Clark College in 1967 with a BA in English Literature, and I lived in Lake Oswego, the little town near the college where Stafford also lived.

        I remember meeting him one afternoon at a mailbox, each of us with a handful of envelopes. “Sending out poems?” I asked, smiling. “Yes,” he acknowledged, returning my smile. “Me too,” I replied, “but I’ll bet yours don’t come back.” “Oh, yes! They do! I just keep sending them out.” An encouraging thought which has returned to me many times–even William Stafford’s poems were not always accepted for publication.

        Something else I haven’t seen written about him: he was also a photographer. He brought a camera to class and took photos of his students’ faces, which he had printed and posted all over the walls of his campus office. It was those photos, he said, that helped him to remember his students’ names and faces years later, as he did mine when I heard one of his last readings in 1992.

      2. Edward Mills on October 21st, 2006 6:20 pm


        Thanks so much for the comment. It gave me chills to hear that he really was as compassionate and connected as the image that I have of him.

        And your factoid about his photographs inspired me to write a quick entry about my grandfather who did the same thing!

        Warm regards


      3. Evolving Times » Photographs and Memories on October 21st, 2006 6:40 pm

        […] I just read a wonderful comment from Linda on the For Perfectionists Only…Not post. In the post I mention William Stafford, and Linda, who was a student of his at Lewis and Clark college, shares a lovely personal story about him and his down-to-earth humility and kindness. She also shared this interesting fact about Stafford: Something else I haven’t seen written about him: he was also a photographer. He brought a camera to class and took photos of his students’ faces, which he had printed and posted all over the walls of his campus office. It was those photos, he said, that helped him to remember his students’ names and faces years later, as he did mine when I heard one of his last readings in 1992. […]

      4. Bryan C. Fleming » The Last Personal Growth Carnival on December 20th, 2006 11:12 am

        […] Evolving Times presents For Perfectionists Only…NOT! posted at Edward Mills, saying, “Hi Bryan. What a great way to end the year. It was touch choosing my best article. I chose this one on perfectionism because, in addition to its personal growth focus, it really touches on an issue that affects many bloggers. Ed” […]

      5. Bryan C. Fleming on December 20th, 2006 11:20 am

        The Last Personal Growth Carnival…

        You read that correctly.  This is the last Personal Growth Carnival for 2006.  I’ve asked the regular submitters to send in their best article from 2006.  I’ve put them at the top for you to read.  Hopefully you’ve found a lot …

      6. Patricia - Spiritual Journey Of A Lightworker on September 2nd, 2007 2:45 pm

        One of what I thought was my worst article and wouldn’t attract much comment has been the one that recieved the most comments on my blog. It was a writing assignment from another blog, not even really in my niche. I wrote and posted it anyway. My readers really liked it.

      7. Bruce Terrell on November 24th, 2007 3:53 pm

        Yes! This article is spot on for me. Putting out a writing piece that is not perfect in my own opinion has been way out of my comfort zone for years.

        Here is a confession. In one of my first blogs I had a gap of a few weeks between article submissions.

        I had the thought to check my hard drive and see how much I had written during that interval that I had not published. I counted more than 320 documents! Some of them were short and yet others were quite long.

        One might think that this revelation was enough to break my perfectionism trance and yet there is still a great gap between what I write and what I publish.

        I had some great new business cards printed up recently with my blog address on them and I am reluctant to hand them out thinking that I need to tune up my blog first.

        Hello, my name is Bruce, and I am addicted to being a perfectionist.

        Ah, good, I have now taken my first step to recovery.

        I am going over to my blog right now to write a short article about this.

      8. Roger Collins » Blog Archive » lower your standards on January 6th, 2008 3:39 pm

        […] be done or insisted that it was impossible, he replied simply, �Lower your standards.� -"For Perfectionists Only – NOT", Evolving Times, June 20, […]

      9. art on June 24th, 2008 7:00 am

        Your article really articulates and encapsulates the challenges I face with the perfectionist’s mindset…lowering my standards would help eliminate the anxiety I feel and give me the opportunity to produce more work. Additionally this perfectionists mindset has kept me from reaching out to others to complete tasks that are needed to achieve lowering the standards I will let others help me reach my goals since they can create high quality results too..Thanks again, Art

      10. David on January 26th, 2009 7:03 am

        I think having a streak of a perfectionist is good for a creative person. You end up doing work which is immensely satisfying to you though there is a limit to what you can do. Its the same quantity vs quality issue, depends on what are your goals and how you approach them. Sometimes quantity is what matters, you get a lot more work done.

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