On Perfectionism

As they do their other subscribers, DelanceyPlace.com sent me an excerpt from Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open some time ago. It captured his would-be coach’s advice to deal with his tendency for perfectionism. I will share the entire thing in a bit, but first some thoughts on perfectionism.

Fear, courage, pride, humility

I think the issue is one of fear vs. courage. I want to be perfect so I can keep up some reputation, more perceived than real. I hesitate because I fear the possibility of shame and embarrassment so I remain stuck when I insist on certain specifications or conditions.

Pride strengthens my tendency for perfectionism. Humility is the antidote.

I make my art and creations personal. I define myself by my work. It doesn’t have to be so, but here I am. When someone praises my work, they praise me. When someone mocks my work, or worse, ignores it, they insult me.

It’s difficult, but I should take my sense of worth from a primary source other than my work. The feelings of value I get from my work should be secondary.

Could I remove myself from my work as much as possible so that love or hate wouldn’t affect me so? Or should I embrace love or scorn or silence from the audience in equal measure? Am I performing for them or for myself? Am I enjoying the show as much as they are? Are they even here? It’s all in my head.

Of course, athletes play finite games.

Someone has to win or lose so the quest to be perfect may seem reasonable. But artists, creators, and producers do not always have that constraint. We run on different scripts, some more demanding, more capitalist-driven than others. If your job requires you to deliver to your audience’s specifications within a narrow band, for example, contract writing or commissioned art, then you’re restricted, and your work receives either a yes or a no. Maybes may count, but your employers will only tolerate that for so long.

For the rest of us, we shouldn’t allow our anxiety to be or sound like established definitions of success to rid us of our involvement, our contribution, and our enjoyment of the gifts we are privileged to bear.

The channel that waters is watered.

We’re both presenters and audiences of our work. We are blessed as we present our gifts to the world. This is the path to fulfillment, but perfectionism stands in our way. How much more opportunities should we allow to go to waste?

Here’s the excerpt with the colorful words cleaned out:


Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

Soon to be coach Brad Gilbert’s assessment of Agassi in 1994 while in the dregs of underachievement and a potential illustrious career waning fast:

“You always try to be perfect, he says, and you always fall short, and it [messes] with your head. Your confidence is shot, and perfectionism is the reason. You try to hit a winner on every ball, when just being steady, consistent, meat and potatoes, would be enough to win ninety percent of the time…

“Quit going for the knockout, he says. Stop swinging for the fences. All you have to be is solid. Singles, doubles, move the chains forward. Stop thinking about yourself, and your own game, and remember that the guy on the other side of the net has weaknesses. Attack his weaknesses. You don’t have to be the best in the world every time you go out there. You just have to be better than one guy. Instead of you succeeding, make him fail. Better yet, let him fail. It’s all about odds and percentages. You’re from Vegas, you should have an appreciation of odds and percentages. The house always wins, right? Why? Because the odds are stacked in the house’s favor. So? Be the house! Get the odds in your favor.

“Right now, by trying for a perfect shot with every ball, you’re stacking the odds against yourself. You’re assuming too much risk. You don’t need to assume so much risk. []. Just keep the ball moving. Back and forth. Nice and easy. Solid. Be like gravity, man, just like [] gravity. When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you’re doing? You’re chasing something that doesn’t exist. You’re making everyone around you miserable. You’re making yourself miserable. Perfection? There’s about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can’t lose to anybody, but it’s not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being, for that matter. It’s the other times. It’s all about your head, man. With your talent, if you’re fifty percent game-wise, but ninety-five percent head-wise, you’re going to win. But if you’re ninety-five percent game-wise and fifty percent head-wise, you’re going to lose, lose, lose.”

[Delanceyplace Note: Under Gilbert, Agassi went on to one of the most successful periods of his career].

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