I am a recovering perfectionist. I thought I had cleansed myself by adopting the mantra, “it’s good enough,” but a recent dream showed otherwise. My perfectionism has gone underground, migrating from my daytime personality into a shadowland, though not only to sabotage my happiness. This re-revealing of an old truth encourages a new assessment of the ways that perfectionism works in my life, for good and ill.
Yesterday I went to a meeting of a group of design professionals and experts about alternative water treatment and stormwater system design, in the context of a new green building framework called the Living Building Challenge. It’s a deeper, more holistic and ambitious program than the LEED Green Building Rating System you may have heard of.
As I sat in the meeting, listening to them swap stories of recalcitrant code officials, obstructionist jurisdictions, and reluctant owners, I thought, man, I do not miss this. All that knowledge and expertise, all those sincere intentions, and for what? To pour it all into one cutting-edge project for the prestige of a Living Building Challenge certification? No thank you.
I couldn’t help thinking, these people who build wetlands to filter stormwater and benefit the environment have to submit their data to a panel of scientists for peer review, when not far away, also in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, drillers are toxifying water with fracking chemicals — legally. It took a fair amount of will power not to point out the insanity of the little guys bending over backwards to do a good thing, whereas drillers get a pass. Ah, the dissonance of life on the threshold between cultural stories.
Walking to my car afterwards in the cold darkness and rain, I had to admit that I want my projects to be perfect. I see all those code officials and civil engineers and MEP engineers as obstructions to that. I’m so committed to perfection that I’m willing to give up the whole thing, rather settle for “good enough.” I stopped looking for a middle ground between lofty ambition and messy reality, and just walked away.
And yet I know better. There is no perfection in the physical world, and most of the point of being here is simply to have experiences like sitting in meetings with smart people who care about the environment and are willing to dedicate some of their precious time to puzzling over conundrums. To wrestle together with how we can take steps towards this lofty goal, knowing there are many obstacles in the way.
In this threshold time between stories, we are being called to hold the opposites, to explore the terrain of both/and. Nothing is black and white, either/or, much as I might wish or imagine it to be. And anyway, it’s in the messy reality that moments of transcendence occur. What’s better than a group of people rolling up their sleeves and collaborating to co-create something innovative? There is, truly, strength in numbers and they can buoy each other up when the going gets tough. Thank god there are some people who actually thrive on the messiness, on solving problems and rethinking goals and figuring out workarounds.
Left unacknowledged, my shadow perfectionism causes me to disengage, to retreat into imagining a more perfect world. It shows up as a preference for talking and writing about it, rather than jumping in and lending a hand — because to do that requires me to face my anxieties and imperfections, my fear of disappointing people (or, worse, myself), not measuring up or achieving a goal, making mistakes, or generally failing to pull off an ambitious project because I can’t, in actuality, control code officials, civil and mechanical engineers, or owners.
Control is part of the crumbling old story, so what would it look like to participate in a complex design project with the perspective of humility, curiosity and acceptance? I may not be able to make fracking go away, but I have the skills and experience to do my part.
“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” ~ Helen Keller
In the old days, practicing architecture often made me miserable, and life is too short to be unhappy eight or ten hours a day. There is no right answer here, so I will continue to take the path of least resistance. This in itself feels subversive, since I’ve been taught to power through adversity and bang things out the hard way to get to a goal.
When I do what feels good, trusting that my heart is the best guide, I am far more aligned and powerful, even in the face of challenges. With pursuits like writing and leading retreats, I don’t worry about being perfect; I just enjoy the process and the results, both. Working outside in the sunshine sketching house designs with a natural builder friend is far preferable to sitting in a windowless conference room hashing out abstract theories to fix our broken built environment. Maybe it’s just that simple. Look for what you enjoy, even when it’s messy, and do that.