Muhammad Ali. Steffi Graf. Ayrton Senna. Michael Jordan. You get the idea.
Now think of something you reckon you’re pretty good at and also enjoy. While it doesn’t really matter what specifically, try and think of something that involves conscious effort, maybe even some preparation. So, near-perfect poker games and presentations you nailed count. Witty comebacks and picking the fast lane at the supermarket don’t.
Think back to the last time and to how you felt as you completed “the task”. I like replaying in my mind, specific cricket strokes I played, for example, a bowler applauding after I stepped out to hit him over a position just after he’d moved the fielder. There is that feeling of well-being because of the way things came together just right and you know it was no fluke.
Imagine that as you completed the above mentioned task, you hear a strident voice announcing all the things you did wrong, berating you for the hand where you should’ve gone all in but didn’t, pointing out that you spent too much time on slides 4 & 11. Also imagine being told that you’ll need to run through that same task a dozen times to iron out the kinks and to do it not just well, but flawlessly. Sounds wrong doesn’t it. What if that strident voice is in your head? Still wrong?
How do you differentiate between an unhealthy obsession of a perfectionist and a genuinely fulfilling pursuit to get good at something?
The names at the top of this post invoke awe precisely because of their dedication to being better than everyone around. You’d have to be pretty ungracious to dismiss them as just lucky recipients of a genetic lottery. No way that the talent wasn’t combined with years of hard unglamorous practice. And after all that there exists the realistic possibility of being shown up in front of millions by an opponent in superior condition or brandishing a natural advantage. So are they all unhealthy perfectionists to be appreciated but never emulated?
Or maybe it can’t be that only the wrong kind of effort causes disappointment and hurt. Maybe wearing that cringe that says you cared is the just the other side of the warm glow from having done something really well. I mean, would we appreciate Federer as much if he didn’t break down after losing the Wimbledon final to Nadal?