Anyone who knows me fairly well knows that I am obsessed with the movie Jaws. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen Jaws, but … just … don’t get me started. (Writers, study Jaws if you want to see a movie where every single scene moves the story forward. Nothing is wasted.)
If you know anything about the making of Jaws, you know that the mechanical shark, a.k.a. “Bruce”, didn’t work very well. In fact, there were so many problems with the shark that it wasn’t seen on screen nearly as much as director Steven Spielberg had originally intended. During production on Martha’s Vineyard in 1974, the frequent refrain from the loudspeakers was “The shark is not working. The shark is not working.”
Welp. As we all know, the shark worked well enough. In fact, the semi-working shark worked so well that Jaws was the movie for which the term “summer blockbuster” was coined, back in 1975 when it first appeared in theaters.
One of the main things I do as a coach, when I have a session with a client, is listen for stressful thoughts. Thoughts are stressful when they are not deeply true for us, but we believe them anyway. So when I hear something that strikes me as painful or stressful for a client, I scribble it down in my notebook. If it seems important, I’ll point this thought out to the client and we’ll work with it.
I was going back over some notes before a session recently, and it really hit me just how often our thoughts are perfectionistic. They have to do with how we’re not doing enough, not doing it well enough (whatever it is), and how our reality is not matching the vision inside our heads. (I say “our” because, like my clients, I have a strong penchant for perfectionism. I’m always teaching what I most need to learn.)
I’ve written a lot here about perfectionism in the past (you can click on the categories link titled Perfectionism to the right to check out more). But I don’t know if I’ve emphasized how important it is for perfectionists to make a point of noticing what is working — and what is working well enough.
Because one of the biggest issues I see perfectionists struggling with is decision paralysis. We’re so terrified of making an imperfect decision and the havoc it will surely wreak that we hang out in indecision until it hurts. And then, then, we beat ourselves up for not making decisions quickly enough! It’s a totally lose-lose scenario.
And here’s the thing: We don’t struggle with decision paralysis as much when we give ourselves credit for having made good decisions in the past. Most perfectionists have a pretty big story about being poor decision-makers (it’s in keeping with the idea that we never quite measure up). We are also control freaks, so we tend to think we have much more control over our futures than we actually do.
Therefore, we think, we have to weigh each present or future decision very, very carefully, so we don’t repeat our past mistakes and don’t screw up our futures.
Why do we have this story? Probably because when life happens, as it will, it feels more familiar for us to blame ourselves than to admit the truth: Life is messy, and life is not fair. No matter how “good” we are, we can’t escape this reality.
So what if we were to flip this story on its head? What if we were to look back and notice how we made good enough decisions, and how some of them were even really good? How would we proceed if we basically believed that our lives worked well enough?
I think we’d go on making our movies, doing our writing, living our lives. We’d trust ourselves to create something good. What if Spielberg had decided to resign in the middle of production on Jaws because the shark wasn’t good enough? (Well, probably Universal would have replaced him with a different director. And we’d have had a very different Jaws. Which would have been a damn shame.)
At the bottom of it all, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about our lives, are either helpful or not helpful.
I don’t mean that we should tell ourselves things we don’t truly believe. I’m not talking about piling positive affirmations on top of our fear like white-washing a rotted fence. I’m saying we need to really give ourselves some credit. I’m saying we need to lower our standards enough that we can show up in our lives and in our creative work (or creative play, as I prefer to call it).
Perfectionists, aim for the B rather than creating A+ work that exists only in your head. Make the decision that feels best to you and call it a day, knowing you can course-correct tomorrow. Admit that the shark at the core of your movie is working well enough to continue the filming. Create your flawed-but-amazing works of art and live your flawed-but-amazing lives.