For most of my life, when I approached anything I wanted to have or achieve, my self-talk prepared me for how I’d feel if I didn’t get it. I talked myself out of winning, sometimes out of even trying, because I wanted to prepare myself for the sting of failure and disappointment. It was a self-defeating mind-game that made winning seem like a perk and losing, not so bad.
I down-played what it would be like to win. I minimized my emotions to others as well, or didn’t tell them I was hoping for anything at all. It was safer to prepare not to win, not to achieve, or not to have something I wanted, than to put myself out there and fail.
And by fail, I mean Second Place. A perfectionist by nature, Second Place meant I had made mistakes—which was unacceptable. I’ve always pushed myself to be the best at anything I attempt. But my standards were so high I would often bypass opportunities if I didn’t feel absolutely certain I could be impeccable. In other words, if it wasn’t a sure-thing, I wouldn’t take the risk.
This isn’t about pessimism. It’s about perfectionism.
I had no idea I was even entertaining all that negative, limited thinking. I am a positive, happy person. How could this possibly be the way I thought for nearly four decades? The truth remains, I gave myself soothing pep talks in advance of anything wonderful just in case I didn’t get what I was hoping for. It was like flinching for a sucker-punch before a fist was even curled. And here’s what I discovered: This isn’t about pessimism. It’s about perfectionism. It’s about protecting myself from failure by only attempting what I was confident I could achieve.
It’s sad because when I experienced something wonderful and rewarding in life, I had already numbed down my expectations and emotions to neutral. Even when I came out on top, I rarely felt the elation I should have because I had talked myself out of it in advance. I missed the thrill of the moment because I had convinced myself it wasn’t that big of a deal. I didn’t want the spotlight. And I didn’t want the darkness. The safest place I knew was waiting in the wings. Taking a risk felt like all eyes were on me, and that was entirely too dangerous.
Failure both shoved me down and broke my fall.
I let self-doubt and discomfort stunt my growth and limit my dreams. I am a writer. But for two decades I was a damn good executive assistant. Professionally speaking, I could have been writing all along, but I never dared to subject myself to the exposure and vulnerability creativity requires. Instead, I took the safe route in a career that rarely challenged me to step out onto the stage. But something changed me. It was failure.
The very thing I was most afraid of in life cut me off at the knees. I experienced failure in my personal life, a divorce. It unleashed all the demons I was most terrified of: loss, exposure, lack of control, surprise, and vulnerability. It was as if I had hit perfectionist rock-bottom. But scratching and clawing my way out made me strong as hell. Failure both shoved me down and broke my fall. It was a catalyst for the courage I needed to begin taking risks on myself, and that’s exactly what I’ve done.
Naturally, I still have fear, but it’s right in the middle of bravery. I’m no longer afraid to put myself out there. Turns out, failure doesn’t kill you. I don’t prepare myself to lose anymore. I prepare myself to win and to achieve. When I win, I am proud that I gave my best. I am genuinely humbled that I was so blessed. I learn from the process. When I lose or fall short of what I let myself work toward and hope for, I am proud that I gave my best, and I learn from the process…usually, more than I learn from winning.
Risk challenges me to be more amazing than sitting still ever did.
I take risks on myself. I take risks to tell others I am doing it. I take risks to acknowledge what I really want, and then I go for it!
I have been writing on the subject of perfectionism for three and a half years. Much of the last year I have been intentionally pulling it together to compose my first book. My first book. I am green. My career is young. I have so much to learn, and I know it. But I refuse to listen to the nagging perfectionist in my head that says I have to get it all figured out before I ever take the first step. Screw that! THAT doesn’t work.
Risk works. Risk challenges me to be more amazing than sitting still ever did. I am taking steps forward in spite of the possibility I’ll fail. There’s also a damn good chance I’ll succeed. I am taking risks to find out. I am writing. I am editing. I’m not always getting it right, but I am learning as I go. People aren’t beating me over the head for making mistakes. Actually, they are cheering me on, like it’s the coolest career in the world. More importantly, people are connecting with my message. I know I am making a difference, and I’d have never known that if I didn’t risk putting my work out there.
I want to look success in the eye.
I am currently preparing for a writer’s conference in a few months. I submitted my first 2700 words into their manuscript contest. I hope I win in at least one of the two categories I entered. “I hope I win.”—I never used to let myself say that.
In addition, when I attend, I will have the opportunity to pitch my book project to multiple agents and editors. It’s a little intimidating, but I am worth taking a risk on. I believe in myself. I believe in my work. I want someone—or more than one—to look me in the eye and say, “Yes! I want to work with you!” And I want to feel overjoyed and overwhelmed all at the same time for the work I’ve done and for the work I’ve yet to do. “I want to look success in the eye.”—I would have never said that before either, but that’s exactly what I want.
Still, should I go home with arms full of rejections, I plan to learn from those as well. I want to take down all their feedback and weigh it against my own soul and intuition. I want to use their insights as tools to keep moving my work forward, to hone my skills, and to clarify my message. Seriously. What do I have to lose?
We’ve got to encourage one another to be brave, not perfect.
It’s not a matter of if I can do this, or that maybe someday I will be a writer. It’s a matter of when. In fact, it’s a matter of now. I am living my dream right now. Taking a risk on myself each day to write, to edit, to put my work out there—that moves me forward. Risk moves me forward. Fear keeps me standing still, frozen. We’ve got to encourage one another to be brave, not perfect.
More than I want to win, and certainly more than I want to lose, I want the experience. I don’t want to hide anymore behind what I already know I can do. I want to take risks. I want to make contributions. I want to grow. I want to write.
Ironically, the first writing competition I ever entered in 2013, I won Second Place. I was stunned and elated! I felt the pure joy of Second. I had no shame at all for not winning First. No, I celebrated like a boss because I finally found faith in myself, and the courage to take a risk on my dreams.