For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a perfectionist.
One of my clearest memories of elementary school is from second grade. I'm sitting at my desk crying over the results of a weekly spelling test. I’d gotten one question wrong. It was the first time I hadn’t received a perfect 100, and I was devastated.
I continued to excel academically throughout high school and college, though the veneer of academic success eventually started to wear off. I still remember the “aha” moment when I realized my self-worth didn’t need to be tied to my academic performance or how someone else valued me and my work.
One of the questions I’m living right now is – how do I fail gracefully? How can I push myself to try new things, to be bad at something, to mess up – and not beat myself up about it? How can I practice radical self-compassion as I expand beyond my safe, comfortable horizons?
Last week, I baked about 50 loaves of bread by myself for the first time. After two months of working as a baker’s assistant, it was time for my first large solo bake. Had I learned enough of the subtle art of knowing exactly when to take the bread out of the oven, how to hold the razor blade that scores the dough, lovingly prepared for days to get to this final moment of transformation?
My first four scores resulted in “footballs,” as Wilson, the bakery owner, calls them. They are still delicious, but the shape isn’t quite right – they are flatter than they should be and lack the beautiful unfolding that a properly scored loaf of artisan bread has. The next round of bread came out slightly underbaked. Constantly, as I moved and agonized, waiting and staring at the baking bread through the tiny peephole in the oven, I wondered – did I do it right? Am I doing it right now?
And I adjusted. After the first two missteps, I made a point to score deeper and to wait longer for a deeper brown that indicates the bread is truly ready to leave its transformative cave. I focused my attention on each task at hand intently, trying to let go of my multi-tasking nature. I slowed down. I forced myself to breathe more. I blared Taylor Swift’s new album and tried to shake off the footballs.
With great relief, the final ¾ of the bake went much better. I’m still learning. Learning takes time! Treating myself with compassion – even when I mess up – takes time to learn, too. Learning is cyclical, as is life. Part of me still wants to be perfect all the time, of course. But what I’ve learned, slowly, cyclically, incrementally, is that if I don’t try new things, if I don’t risk being bad at something for awhile, if I don’t mess up – I’ll only be living half a life. Timid, shy, scared of mistakes – that was me at age 7. I’m 33 now, and I’m vibrantly alive, messy, unfinished, confident, secure in who I am, and thriving – cyclically. Incrementally. Slowly. One step forward, two steps back.
So, I’m practicing. I’m practicing failing with grace. I’m practicing imperfection. I’m pushing myself to do things that scare me, including writing like this blog to share with others. I’m challenging myself to share one poem per day this month on Instagram (you can follow me here)! And I’m pushing myself to write even more.
I’ve always been a writer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept a journal. Maybe one day I’ll have enough courage to share parts of my journal from first grade – they’re classic! I’ve loved connecting people with the written word. I’ve written for others in various non-profit jobs. I’ve started writing to share on this blog. And now I’m working on not one, but two books!
It’s scary! I have to practice saying it out loud to people because it’s so new and slightly terrifying. But I have to start somewhere. This is a dream I’ve had for a long time – to write and publish a book – and it’s been stuffed way back, deep, buried away in the recesses of my body. Now, I say to it – welcome! It will surely be a wild ride, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me.
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We all have unrealized dreams. I’m going to make mine come true!