My mom recalls with such clarity my elementary school teachers sharing with her how one itty-bitty mistake in my universe sent me into an I-must-start-over-again tailspin. Imperfect handwriting was not OK, coloring outside the lines was not good enough, and if my ponytails and braids were lopsided, I was inconsolable. Perfection is what I sought. Always.
Danny is nothing like me—when he showed me how he accidentally smeared the marker drawing on the cover of his fourth-grade writer’s journal, he said, “I’m just pretending that it’s water dripping down the front.” What a healthy response to a minor error. What did I see when I spotted the goof, which was topped with bubbled-up sticky laminating wrap? I saw imperfection. I wanted to re-do that project. And fast. But I didn’t. It wasn’t my problem to fix. It wasn’t a problem at all, in fact.
Perfectionism is not all bad. I suspect it’s the character trait that allows me to stick with exercise routines, clean diets, organized schedules, and healthy routines. It’s not all good, either, though, and honestly, I know deep down that it’s mostly detrimental to my well-being. I’ve long been aware of this, and through cancer-related therapy and anti-depressant treatment, I achieved some success curbing my pursuit of all-the-time greatness.
Then I became an editor.
What was I thinking?
Writer and editor Laura Hale Brockway says, “As an editor, the kick in the head is that no matter how hard I try—proofreading backward and forward, fact checking, checking sources, etc.—simple, preventable errors still occur.”
I know. I know. And it’s killing me.
I chose a career I love—one that kinda, sorta, pretty much requires perfection. Clients hire me to fix what they’ve missed. If I don’t catch their flubs, then I’m not really doing my job. Or so goes the story in my head.
What I must learn is that I am doing my job. And I’m good at it. I’ve been told by those who pay me to proofread that I’ve exceeded their expectations, I’ve helped them score good grades, I’ve taught them so much about the written word. Still, that missing comma or extra quotation mark, discovered long after I’ve delivered a project back to its owner, haunts me.
Perfect is an impossible goal. I am human, and humans make mistakes; therefore, I am set up to fail with every task I tackle. Sure, there may be times when I achieve 100%, but can I keep up that gig for all of time? Not a chance.
Brockway cites Joseph T. Hallinan, author of the book “Why We Make Mistakes,” who reports that humans have design flaws that set us up for mistakes. We are efficient, but also error prone. We are just wired that way, and the sooner I get over my hang-ups about getting everything right all the time, the smoother I will sail through life. Am I capable of such an undertaking? I’m really not sure.
According to the experts at the University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign’s Counseling Center, I should experiment with my standards for success. “Choose any activity and instead of aiming for 100 percent, try for 90 percent, 80 percent, or even 60 percent success,” they say. “This will help you to realize that the world does not end when you are not perfect.”
Yea, I realize the world will not come to a screeching halt just because I stumble when I intend to soar. My concern is that maybe editing is not what I should be doing in this world. The pressure to perform at such a high standard is just so consuming.
I don’t intend to make any big career moves at this very moment. I’m just soul searching, trying to find peace in my body so that I can enjoy more happy and less haunt.
And you do know that I’ve proofed this story about a zillion times in hopes of catching all of my blunders, right? Did I leave some behind? I’m sure I did. But I’m moving on. Really, I am.