Recovering Perfectionist

When I'm working on a new book, especially during the editing process, I set a goal of reading and re-reading the manuscript until I can read it straight through without finding a single typo or other mistake. Even with a publishing team working on the project, also scanning for errors, I will usually read a manuscript about a hundred times myself before my editor yanks it from my hands and sends it off to the printer.

Invariably, a few months later when I get the first copy hot off the presses, I open the book and right there like a flashing neon sign is the one typo we all missed. Without fail, this has happened with every one of my 17 books so far. And, without fail, this consumes me with jolts of regret and failure: What will readers think when they see the typo? Will they think I'm a bad writer? Does this typo mar the whole book?

The little voice in my head taunts, You should have read through it one more time! The Perfection Monster sinks its fangs into my heart and soul, casting shade over something that should be a joyous accomplishment.

Maybe this isn't too surprising since my mom will tell you how I was the kid who while playing outside with friends would come home numerous times a day to exchange my dirty clothes for clean ones. My pursuit of perfection is a marathon that started a long time ago. How about you?

We all have, at the least, a little Perfection Monster lurking within. I also think it's safe to visualize said monster with red pointy ears and tail, and pitchfork in hand.

Modern society loves to feed this beast. Opportunities abound to compare ourselves to perfect models and actors on magazine covers, to the perfect little family who lives down the block, and to the perfect person we know who has it all. And even closer to home for me: to the perfect author I admire whose books are flawless.

Perfection becomes a cyclone tearing through the mind. There's a famous saying that insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Our obsession over perfection vividly illustrates this spot-on observation.

However, what we often don't realize in our pursuit of perfection is that those "perfect" models and actors who make us look in the mirror at our every flaw with self-loathing are often airbrushed and Botoxed to within an inch of their lives (I know this, I've seen many up close. Their faces have every wrinkle, pockmark, and dark circle ours have.). That "perfect" little family down the block actually has a whole truckload of problems they work hard to hide behind their perfect candle-apple red front door decorated with the perfect seasonal wreath (addiction, infidelity, debt, jealousy, abuse). That "perfect" person who seems to have it all, well, he or she doesn't really (They, too, fall prey to insecurity, loneliness, fear of failure, health issues, and so on.). Oh, and that "perfect" author I look at longingly, her books slip by with typos, too!

We often confuse our desire to become better people with achieving perfection -- in appearance, how we act, what we produce. The one leads you down the path to salvation while the latter will lead you straight over a cliff. Perfection becomes the poison pill on which we get hooked, no matter the cost.

I teetered on that cliff's edge for many years, shoveling in handfuls of those poison pills -- beating myself up when a B skewered my run of straight A's, tormenting myself when a head full of thick wavy brown hair faded away, slumping into a depression when one rejection after another (and another, and another) kept me from getting the jobs or book deals I wanted.

But then I heard a story that changed everything.

The Amish make beautiful quilts. Their quilts are master works of art, culled from generations of learning and experience. Amish quilts are as close to perfection as human hands can render. However, the Amish have a special tradition when they finish a quilt. They always unhook one stitch, because they believe only God is perfect.

Let that image of the undone stitch sink in for a moment. Then chase it with a long deep breath.

Only God is perfect. We are not perfect. James 3:2 reminds us: "For we all stumble in many things."

Our fallibility, our mistakes, our missteps and foibles -- our imperfections -- are our undone stitches.

We must give ourselves permission and acceptance to be imperfect people. Just as importantly, we must give others the space to be imperfect as well.

Now when I open my newly published book for the first time and see a typo, I smile and think, There's my undone stitch. When I forget to deliver a crucial sound bite during an interview or speech, There's my undone stitch. The zit that pops up on my nose before a big party, the recipe that I just can't make work, the rejections that still come amidst an otherwise successful career -- all undone stitches.

My name is John, and I am a recovering perfectionist. It's one day at a time, sweet Jesus!

When you retrain your mind -- tamping down the Perfection Monster's roar, you begin to see those undone stitches as practices toward peace and calm, humility, godliness. And, you begin to understand that the most sincere form of perfection is actually imbedded by divine design in our ongoing trail of imperfections.