Four years ago, I dropped out of my Ph.D. program with a heavy heart and and self-esteem in tatters. Before my flight home, Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. Today, that synchronicity makes me smile. I say to my fellow San Franciscans, “See? Further proof of my direct heart line to NY.” Don’t worry, it was 100% the right choice to leave, for many reasons. The main one: I literally could not bring myself to write, a.k.a do my job. I share this grad school PTSD story because what I experienced is an extreme version of what countless creative people subject themselves to constantly (read: perhaps you, friend): I call it the Tragedy of the Common Perfectionist.
I went to probably one of the most elite institutions at which you can study art history and archaeology. Many of my colleagues will go on to run the art world, and I’m extremely proud to have studied beside them and know them. Almost everything about the place itself is intimidating: the Neo-Classical, Gilded Age mansion on the Upper East Side that is The Institute; the professors are some of the brightest minds in The Discipline; they’ve written things that are squarely positioned in The Canon; the fact that people regularly refer to The Discipline and The Canon.
I went to class. I read a lot of academic writing that was rambling, pretentious, verbose, and So. Pretentious. There were lots of vague, made-up noun-concepts (“methodological tautology”) and references to The Great Dead White Dudes and Their Impenetrable Theories. I had to re-read some parts of these theories like, seven times. The jargon and lazy sentence structuring made me feel like I was standing in a hall of smoke and mirrors, blood sugar tanking and no snacks in sight. Felt real dumb, a lot. But that’s not even the worst part.
Almost The Worst Part
I thought, “I guess this is what good writing is.” Sometimes bad academic writing happens because tenured professors enjoy unheard of job security in exchange for publishing a lot of words about stuff and things. I tried to emulate this style by eking out my own overwrought, Ivory-Tower-Championships-level garbage. I had loved to write, and soon the act filled me with dread, all because I compared myself to and mimicked other people’s work.
The Nearly-There-Worst Part
I started to believe I was a bad writer. When I sat down to start writing, that blinding-white empty Word doc would glower at me, waiting. In really low moments, I’d imagine Clippit the Office Assistant boinging onto my screen and mocking me (it was Office 2008, okay?): “You can’t do it, can you? It’s been hours. You’re such are a shitty writer. Absolutely pathetic, and you can trust me on that — I watch a lot of people scrunch up their oily-nosed mugs trying to fill this page up.” Real creative paralysis, all because…
The Actual Worst Part
I felt like my work had to be “brilliant”. Ugh, that word. It’s a close cousin to “perfect”, but contains an element of striving for Being a Genius. It’d ring loudly in my head, paralyzing me. Soon, my soul all but shriveled up and sputtered, which others could identify as an admixture of severe anxiety and depression.
“That was so brilliant.”
“S/he’s so brilliant.”
If my writing wasn’t brilliant, nearing a work of genius (both of which I wrongly associated with “publishable”), what was the point? Dark times, but not without lessons worth their weight in gold. I really must stress them, and they bear repeating:
Perfect (and all its uptight, grandiose word-cousins) is the enemy of good work. Striving for it will freeze up your sparkly, glowing orb of a brain. In this nuclear winter, your ideas and projects hunker down and hibernate, waiting for more reasonable climate (read: self-compassion). Your nascent good, good work looks out the window, sees the insane storm of your ego’s self-limitation, and bolts the door shut. Herein lies the tragedy: You are depriving us of the specific brand of light only you can deliver. We must stop trying to achieve perfection, especially in the beginning of a creative act.
If you’re in this spot, listen: The well of your creativity will absolutely fill back up. It just takes some TLC and practice. In the grips of perfectionism (read: fear), it’s tough, I know. Start by soothing your nervous system; chronic anxiety makes your mind-body think a bear is always after you. Smile, hang out, go move your body somehow. Take yourself less serious. I’ve been saying this to myself, first thing in the morning, every morning for the past year and it helps: “I am a ghost, driving a meat-coated skeleton made of stardust, riding a rock, hurtling through space.” Try it, it’s humbling and comforting all at once. Here it is if you only speak Emoji:
You’re made of stardust, a beautiful thing, so of course you can then make beautiful things. Just make a start. And…go! Today. ✨