Let me tell you all about quartz

In my first year of secondary school Science, each student was randomly assigned a rock or mineral as a research project. Others had diamond or emerald or ruby; mine was quartz. Turns out, almost everything is a kind of quartz, and my assignment turned into an encyclopaedia of quartz, with a chapter on each kind and hand-drawn illustrations. My parents drove me to Geelong (a good hour away) to meet with a friend of my grand-aunt who was a rock collector. This old man gave me rock samples for a display case I’d made out of a plastic shirt box. 

Later, I continued this obsessiveness with a Geography project on the Mallee (a geographic area in my state) which included chapters on the Mallee root (don’t ask) and the Mallee fowl. I got a C on this assignment because I was three days late handing it in; I’d spent weeks getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning to work on it. In History, I was asked to collect 20 newspaper articles on apartheid in South Africa and to write a paragraph on each. I became overwhelmed by the hundreds and hundreds of articles I’d collected, didn’t hand in anything at all and got a shameful 52 for the semester. 

I’m telling you this because I’ve been thinking about perfectionism; about the fine line between working on the edge of one’s abilities and being in way over one’s head. Mulling over the role of perfectionism in my own life is of course just part of broader, more generalised brooding over How To Live, and the internet has lots of ideas about this. I’m particularly taken with the programs at London’s School of Life; I’d like to commit myself (in the psychiatric sense) to a long-term residential stay. The School’s blog directed me to Richard Herring’s series on Bad Habits, which, in his opinion, include procrastination, lateness, laziness, perfectionism and workaholism. Unfortunately, the links to procrastination, lateness and perfectionism appear to be busted, so no help there. 

Then I happened to read a piece in the NYT about a man’s re-evaluation of his father, years after the father’s death. A man who, for intents and purposes, was difficult, erratic and, basically, mad was, the author now sees, driven to this by the sheer frustration of managing his maddeningly obsessive compulsions. Ironically, the author discovers another side to his father through correspondence with one of his father’s underlings at the paper where the father was a senior editor. It becomes clear that in his role as editor, his obsessiveness was an asset; at home, a severe liability. 

I’m guessing that all of us grapple in one way or another with these kinds of issues? Big picture/small picture, forest/trees, it’s hard to keep it all together. I can spend absorbing hours moving letters micro-millimetres around a page, or wondering about the use, under- or over-, of the comma, when all sorts of other aspects of my life are chaos. I guess what I’m circling around is the discomforting idea that the things that I’m good at (discerning gradations of ink, re-arranging paper fibres, judging something to be square) might not be evidence of skill so much as evidence of the worst aspects of my personality. Or maybe not the worst exactly, but not great. Hmmm. Where is this going? How about you? Is perfectionism the dark underbelly of craft? Are your neuroses reflected in the type of creative work you choose to do?


I love this quote from Julia Cameron on the dreaded P:

‘Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough — that we should try again.
No. We Should not.’

Posted by Salsa on 14 July 2009 @ 10pm

So much here that I grapple with myself!
Ordinarily a Good Girl, I have to confess there are two assignments that I recall never submitting- a project in grade 4 because I just couldn’t be bothered and I think I wanted to see if I could get away lying about it being lost, and the major assignment in a first year Uni course- I worked out that I would probably pass without submitting it, and I really was only taking that subject so that I had an easy course to pass, so I didn’t want to bother wasting time on it.
Quite out of my normal character.
I have to say I’ve been spending quite a few years now trying to manage some aspects of my personality more effectively, so that I’m a happier person (and hopefully the people around me too), without trying to necessarily be someone other than me. I have recently found that there is alot of wisdom and food for thought in Buddhism, and regularly listen to Zen cast podcasts for inspirations or insight into how my mind is working.
Good luck with your musings and reflections.

Posted by di on 20 July 2009 @ 7am

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