We had an interesting discussion in the class I’m taking on conflict today. One of the cool things about this class is that it doesn’t just relate to our conflicts with others – but to those within ourselves.
When is the last time you watched a toddler who was learning to walk? They hoist themselves up using a couch, your legs, a table or whatever else is handy. They totter along in odd, jerky, bumbling steps. Every few steps forward, they stumble, land on their bums, and have to yank themselves back up. So they do, and the entire time, their eyes are alight and they’re smiling and maybe squealing with pure delight.
There is no fear in the eyes of that toddler, even though landing on his butt again and again is nothing short of a certainty. There is no worry about failing to get far enough or getting hurt when the body meets the floor. There is just a pure simple joy and fascination. Walking – moving in that way as opposed to crawling or being carried – is thrilling and new. The toddler isn’t counting his steps and thinking he should have gotten one more in before the next tumble. He’s just amazed by the feeling of his feet planted on the ground and the new vantage point of looking at the world from that upright position.
Mom and Dad, meanwhile, are usually torn between overwhelming pride and fear that he’s going to do a crash landing and bang his head on the coffee table.
We all did that at one point. I wish I could remember it. Because those early accomplishments that we all have – learning to walk, learning to talk – are some of the few in our lives that we take on with the pure, innocent curiousity of childhood. These are the things we do before we start getting ingrained in the adult world’s ideas of failure, not being perfect, and doing things wrong.
Somewhere along the way, we lose the playfulness of discovery. We continue to learn and do and challenge ourselves throughout life, but we approach things in a different way. With a new sport, it is about being good enough to win. With a new job, we want to succeed so that we can move upwards or feed our families. As grownups, we tend to approach things with an idea of how do to them “perfectly” in our minds. We think more of the end result than of the journey itself.
Of course, a lot of that comes from life being what it is. We do HAVE to do well in our jobs, if want to keep getting a paycheck. If a pipe breaks in your house, you aren’t running around thinking about how new and fascinating the water pouring down your walls is – you’re rushing to turn it off. But just because we HAVE to strive for things as adults doesn’t mean we can’t approach that from a goal of discovery rather than one of perfection.
Kids have it right. I wonder, if we had to learn to walk as adults, how much harder would it be? I know for me, every step would be accompanied with my inner fearmonger yelling “This is it, girl. THIS is the step where you slip and bust your ass.”
There’s something to be said for letting go of the need to do everything perfectly, to BE perfect, to always get it right.
In thinking about my life, there are two versions of me. There is the me who has continued to approach challenges that way – as opportunities to learn and discover all I can. That’s the me that at least for the most part is who I’ve been at work. That me has been able to be one of the leaders in a project that brought up an entirely new computer system for a university, basically scrapping the way everyone did everything and starting over.
Then there is the “perfectionist” me. That is the me that comes out when I try to move forward with professional writing. Not at work – I can give you an article or a training manual or web site content without batting an eye. But when we’re talking my fiction, my essays, my ME stuff, my curious child goes into hiding. She is replaced by a woman who has had an image of what it meant to be a successful writer in her head since she was ten years old, and who is so terrified of not meeting that goal that sometimes she’s too paralyzed to try.
What I realized today in class was this crazy difference in my two selves, and more importantly, where that difference comes from. As a kid, I didn’t sit around daydreaming about becoming a university administrator or a project lead. I fell into it as part of my quest to keep a roof over my head. So I never approached that job with preconceived notions or with any real fear of failure. It was a challenge, and sometimes interesting, and an opportunity to learn and stretch my wings. But it was NEVER all tied up in my sense of self, wrapped so tight that not “getting it right” would make me question an identity I pride myself on even in those times when I don’t like much else about me.
Being a writer IS that tied up in what I think I am. I have literally gone through my less confident periods in life thinking “I may have nothing, I may not look like much, and I may suck at everything from cooking to balancing a bank account, but dammit, I have a way with words, and that’s a gift. It is a reason for something as blundering and messed up as me to be on the planet in spite of all my flaws.” To put that to the test, to put it out there and get rejected, is terrifying.
But the irony in that is that until I do, I never WILL be a published writer.
So I’m working on reframing that, on coming at this new journey from a place of discovery. Rejection doesn’t mean your writing sucks – it is a chance to learn more about what different publications want, how to query in different ways, how to better choose the publishers who want YOUR thing rather than someone else’s, how to improve your work. It is an exploration.
Like a toddler learning to walk, every writer has it in them. You just have to be willing to fall on your ass a lot, and smile the whole time.
That’s MY thing when it comes to putting aside perfection and looking for discovery. What’s yours?