This year I’ve decided I’m going to master the art of imperfection. I’ve spent the past 12 – 18 months dithering and procrastinating over various projects, even failing to get the simplest things done because of a creeping fear that they won’t be perfect. I’ve been working on the development of an online course to help women communicate with more confidence in the workplace, but have I launched it? Have I hell. I’ve been reviewing scripts to perform as part of a new acting showreel, but have I recorded it? Of course I bl**dy haven’t. I’m terrified the course won’t be good enough, I’m terrified my screen acting won’t be up to scratch and, let’s be honest, I’m terrified of failure.
As Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.” It’s all too easy to get stuck in that fearful ‘what if’ mode, a perfection paralysis where you find yourself worrying about, well, everything. What if it’s not good enough? What if I look like an idiot? What if I lose my credibility? Not only does perfection paralysis stop us from simply getting stuff done, it can also stop us from speaking in public, whether it’s speaking up in an internal meeting or presenting to thousands on a conference stage. Many of us think that in order to excel at public speaking, what we say needs to be perfect; a perfectly delivered, perfect performance. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. We can’t be perfect and correct all of the time and the sooner we can get our heads round this and embrace imperfection, the sooner we’ll start to fly. It feels risky to speak in public, but there’s a greater risk if we aren’t willing to stand up and speak out: that we become invisible and unmemorable and lose out on opportunities because people don’t see us express ourselves. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of public speaking. It’s essential for building a successful career and doing better business. So how can we overcome this perfection paralysis and start to embrace imperfection?
1) Trust that who you are is enough. Speaking in public isn’t about a flashy, perfect performance. It’s about allowing who you are to come through and trusting that it is enough. If you’re nervous, that’s ok. If your voice wobbles a little, that’s ok. If you make a mistake, that’s ok. It gives you a deeply human quality and makes you more interesting. To quote Leonard Cohen:
“Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
2) Let your brain drop into your stomach. (Yes, I know this sounds odd but try to close your eyes and imagine it. It’s a way of centring yourself and switching off from all the thoughts in your head.) You can do this just before you start presenting. Or you can remember it while you’re speaking. Really try to feel it happening. It can help you get out of the anxiety in your head and remind you just to BE. All you’re doing when you’re speaking is being a human saying words in front of another human. It doesn’t need to be a big deal. Put your brain in your stomach and say the words.
3) Turn your worry into strategy. When perfection paralysis strikes and you find yourself in a permanent state of worry, all you have to do is turn that worry into strategy. Get a blank sheet of paper and on the left-hand side write down your list of worries, your ‘what ifs’. On the right-hand side write down your strategy. It’s a simple and brilliantly effective way to help put your mind at rest. For example, if your worry is “what if I sound like an idiot?”, your strategy is to focus on the audience, not yourself. Think about what your audience NEEDS to know and what stories they might LIKE to hear and keep in mind that you can’t be perfect and correct all of the time. The audience is the hero, not you.
4) Strive for excellence, not perfection. Embracing imperfection shouldn’t be an excuse for shoddy work or poorly prepared presentations. Excellence is achievable. Perfection is not. As Michael J. Fox said,
“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”
As 2022 rolls on (and let’s face it, judging by the past couple of years, it’ll be far from perfect) I’m going to thoroughly enjoy mastering the art of imperfection. I know that my online course won’t be perfect. I know that my acting showreel won’t be perfect. I know that this article isn’t perfect, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let perfection paralysis continue to get in the way. I’ll be putting them all out there anyway, imperfections and all. Perfectly imperfect sounds about right.