When I was a little girl, I was conscientious, neat, smart, and capable. Achievement was valued in my world, and the need to impress and be validated became strong. I tried ever harder to keep up, to do well, to maintain the very neatest handwriting.
(I still have very neat handwriting.)
I would listen to the other kids playing outside while I obediently stayed in the classroom to try to finish my work. I fell further behind every day. I was near the top of the class, but I was Too Slow, because every word had to be just right. I learned that my role was to do more and play less than everyone else. A pleaser and a perfectionist were born.
If I could just get an A, and keep the faith that one day it’d be a perfect A*, if I could win the ever-elusive school prize that mocked me annually, hell, if I could just finish as much as everyone else, I would become Enough. I operated on that basis through high school, through University, into the world of work, and eventually out of it again. I haven’t had a day job since 2003, but here’s the thing: I’m still staying in while all the other kids are out playing. Even though I’m self-employed. Even though I opted out of the rat race and created a classoom of my own, where the rules are all my own. Even though no-one will really notice if I check out for a whole entire day. (A Tuesday.)
And I do check out, some days. I check out on Wednesdays or Mondays or Thursdays, and I feel terrible about it, because that’s not an A. Because I should(TM) be at my desk from 8 until 6. Because I should be Keeping Up. I should be doing better. I should be making more of an effort. I should have achieved X, Y and Z by now.
But the reason I check out on a Wednesday is not laziness, or uselessness, or the laissez-faire act of a smug entrepreneur who’s Made It. It’s the exhaustion of trying too hard. It’s insomnia (I can’t even sleep perfectly). It’s that push-push-push-meltdown lifestyle.
Yep, this is the part where I remind you that good is better than perfect, that the only person you’re competing against is yourself, yadda, yadda, you know the drill. I know, I don’t really buy it either.
The work continues, painfully slowly… but I actually love it. I’m not churning out the goods, and although I feel guilty about it, I secretly adore posting Instagram pictures of a 2″ square piece of lace that I just handstitched. I can produce absolute perfection in a tiny textile world of my own creation, and over time (LOTS of time), every few years I can join 2″ squares of awesome into something pretty unbelievable.
The same goes for the less image-heavy aspects of my work. I’m building something big, and it’s happening slowly, falteringly, because it’s got to be right.
But here’s what I’ve been missing, and what you may have been missing too, in your own struggle to keep up, perfectly, all the time.
No-one else is like you. Your work is unique. Every word you write, every stitch you create, every note of your song is coming out of you in your own individual way. You are a dynamic agent of creative possibility, taking in disparate influences, nourishing and mixing them to your own recipe, adding a perspective that no-one else can see, and then galvanising it all into something new that is all your own, unmeasureable against anything else. You are part of a conversation that has no scorecard, only the opportunity to make that conversation richer. No-one else sees what you see. No-one else can do what you do, with your specific aptitudes, in your particular time and place. You are vitally important to the conversation.
The challenge in this conversation is not to do as much as everyone else, but to do your part, the part that no-one else can do.
The challenge is not to be comparable to others, but to do the opposite: be as much of yourself as you can possibly be for as long as you are here, because once you are gone, your voice will never be heard again.
The challenge is not to stand out, but to be paradoxically both utterly unique, and an inseparable part of the whole, pulsing organism of life.
My childhood drawings did not deserve to be on the refrigerator because they were up to scratch for my age, or because of the grade they might have received, but because they sang my song. The yellowed sheet of paper that features the “stars and the strips” side by side with the Union Jack is the unmistakeable, five-years-old version of Cathy’s song (being a mid-Atlantic citizen is at the centre of my adult identity.) None of the other kids in the room painted that picture, and none of the other thirty- or forty-something kids are living that picture now in quite the way that I do. To have painted the same picture as the kid next to me, and tried to do it better, would have been a travesty. I had to sing my song.
And so this is my challenge to you: do not strive to be perfect. Strive to be real. Strive only to play your part. And most of all, strive to sing your song.
Need help making your creative life pay the rent? Here’s a quiz to help you, which will also get you onto the mailing list for group coaching and other opportunities. There’s also a regular shot of motivation and encouragement for creative souls like you at my Facebook Page, The Successful Creative.