Progress, not perfection

Ever since I can remember I’ve struggled with perfectionism. Maybe it’s oldest child syndrome or something, but somewhere early on I got this idea in my head that everything I did needed to be perfect. I had to get perfect grades growing up, and let me tell you, in college that translated into way too much time spent studying and absolutely way too much heartache over my few A- grades. I had to be the nice, well-behaved child or I’d let my parents down somehow. I needed to know what was happening three weeks in advance so I could put it in my planner. I didn’t start drinking until fairly late in college because I was afraid to lose control.

During college I recognized that being so inflexible and focused on everything being just right was making my life harder, not easier, and less fun, so during my sophomore year I tried to start relaxing my uptight perfectionist qualities, just a bit. One of the women I studied abroad with that year had a tattoo on her wrist that said “poco a poco.” It’s weird to say this about someone else’s tattoo, but that really resonated with me. In Spanish it means “little by little,” which I thought was a nice motto to adopt for that semester in Chile, and it’s also a musical term meaning the same thing or “gradually” (shoutout to my fellow chorus nerds and also any band nerds who might be reading). I didn’t make any major changes overnight or even at all (I, ahem, spent most of my senior year in the library…), but I started trying to relax my tight hold on things just a little bit. If something was only 90% or almost-perfect, it was going to be alright. The world wasn’t going to end.

Then I graduated and got caught up in the excitement and change and responsibility of being a Real Adult with a job and an apartment and bills and discretionary money to spend on happy hour. In the midst of all that, I forgot about trying to take things a bit at a time. Sure, I’d managed to become a slightly more easy-going and fun person since my first year or so of college, but that didn’t mean I’d cured my worst habits. I was just able to give things a bit more leeway and/or pretend they didn’t bother me. But things did and do bother me and I’m my harshest critic. Lately I’ve started noticing an insidious strain of background thoughts that at any given moment might sound something like:

Why can’t I figure out what to do with my life?
Why did I make that purchase when I’m actively trying to spend less?
I’m young, so why am I the only one modifying this pose in my barre3 class? I feel like I’m not working hard enough even though the point of modifying is so I work around the pain in my knees instead of unproductively pushing through it.
Why do I keep putting off this bone-numbingly boring thing I have to do at work instead of just doing it and getting it over with?
Why can’t I save up even $200 to make an automatic monthly contribution to my Vanguard account?
I know that starting meditation will likely help me sleep better and calm my anxiety and racing thoughts, so why don’t I actively start cultivating that habit?

There’s a constant litany in the back of my mind telling me how I’m failing to do things perfectly, and I think it’s only increased in the few months since my birthday. Honestly I all but pretended my birthday didn’t happen this year. Yeah yeah, I know mid-twenties is still young and all, but there was something about the big quarter-century mark that made me approach my birthday with a sense of impending doom. I’m now twenty-five years old, so why the hell do I still feel so lost and like I don’t have my life together at all? I know, the real secret of adulthood is that no one ever knows what they’re doing or has it 100% together all the time, but 25 is a significant number and it feels like by this point I should have at least the slightest damn clue what I’m doing or what I want. I know that’s not logical, but that doesn’t change the fact that I still feel I’m somehow behind and too old not to know these things yet. But that’s the perfectionism rearing its ugly head again and to be quite honest, I’m sick of it. I don’t want to spend this year berating myself and then getting even more mad at myself when 26 rolls around and lo and behold I still don’t have my life 100% together.

So here’s what I’m going to try my best to work on: progress, not perfection. Perfection is boring and unrealistic and I’m only all too human so it’s also impossible. I think fear of not being perfect also stops people from so many things in life, like getting their finances together. I don’t know where to begin with figuring out what options my employer offers for my 401k, so I’m just going to ignore it altogether instead of trying and maybe making mistakes but at least starting to save for retirement. This is unproductive and in this case costly, since if fear of not getting it exactly right the first time keeps you from contributing to your retirement, you’re missing out on years of compound interest. I think many of us would be happier if we stopped being so afraid to do things if we’re not sure we can do them perfectly and just did them. We’d certainly be less stressed. I also just read a post the other day about trying to be 10% happier instead of 100% and I absolutely love that idea. Ten percent is progress.

So, in answer to myself to all those questions from before:
Why can’t I figure out what to do with my life? I don’t know what I want to do in life, but that’s why I’m working towards financial independence. I don’t have that freedom right now and I have to accept that I’m currently at a point in life where I’m tied to an unfulfilling job, but I am actively working to change that.

Why did I make that purchase when I’m actively trying to spend less? Conscious spending is not just about spending less, but also about wisely spending money when it does happen. Perhaps that was not the most wise use of my money, but I can learn from this and do things differently next time. Perhaps it’s also a particularly spendy month, which doesn’t mean I’m failing. It just means a lot is happening at the moment and things should be back to normal/lower in the future.

I’m young, so why am I the only one modifying this pose in my barre3 class? I feel like I’m not working hard enough even though the point of modifying is so I work around the pain in my knees instead of unproductively pushing through it. Fourteen years of ballet were not kind to my joints, so yes, some days my knees or ankles (or both) hurt. Some days I’m feeling just fine. The whole point of all the modifications offered throughout class is that you can take the ones that work for you. Comparing myself to the people in my class isn’t going to get me anywhere, and maybe they’re having a good day today but will be dealing with something in the next class and will have to modify. I’m still getting a workout regardless, and one that doesn’t exacerbate my pain is obviously the best choice.

Why do I keep putting off this bone-numbingly boring thing I have to do at work instead of just doing it and getting it over with? It’s really hard to get motivated to do bone-numbingly boring things, especially if said things don’t have pressing deadlines. Most of work seems to be bone-numbingly boring things lately so I’ve got a plethora of them to choose from. Maybe I don’t do some things as quickly as I would if they were interesting or if they had actual deadlines (don’t get me wrong, I get things done on time when I need to. Even if it is horribly boring. But it did take me three months to get around to filing a stack of folders sitting on the floor of my office because I might’ve been bored at work but I wasn’t that bored), but they do still get done. I’m not sitting at my desk doing zero work all week.

Why can’t I save up even $200 to make an automatic monthly contribution to my Vanguard account? I’m not at the point where I feel comfortable putting that much money anywhere on an automatic schedule because it’s possible I might need that money somewhere else. I don’t make enough to be able to throw around large amounts like that. But I can choose to cultivate productive money habits using smaller amounts, and to that end I’m sending $5 a day to my Vanguard account (and more on payday). This doesn’t seem like a lot, but even insignificant amounts add up over time: I’m actually not too far away from $200 a month anyway. But doing things this way feels less scary because I’ve broken it into much more manageable numbers.

I know that starting meditation will likely help me sleep better and calm my anxiety and racing thoughts, so why don’t I actively start cultivating that habit? I meditated last night. I didn’t meditate the night before that, but I can and will meditate tonight. And hopefully tomorrow night and the night after. That’s progress.

I know I’m going to struggle to actively remember this; after all, I’ve amply demonstrated that I’m not perfect! I’m also going through some things in my personal life that are going to take time and effort to work through. So this is the perfect (hah) time to be writing this post so I can go back and remind myself. Poco a poco. Ten percent, not 100. Progress, not perfection.