You know how job interviewers sometimes ask trick questions? Like:

“What is your biggest weakness?”

It’s a ridiculous question. Nobody would reveal their actual greatest weakness in a job interview. “Gee, well, since you’re asking, I tend to be most productive when my hands are cupping my balls,” or, “I always steal compulsively from my employer’s stationery cabinet,” or, “Well, I’ve never told anyone this, but I watch a lot of porn. Like — a lot of it. Generally featuring people doing it with animals.”

If faced with such a question, anyone with half a brain will take a positive trait and simply disguise it as a weakness. Once, while interviewing for a graphic design job, I whipped out my favorite ‘weakness,’ which I knew was really a strength:

“I’m a perfectionist,” I beamed.

“Oh?” said the interviewer, glaring over his stylish graphic designer spectacles. “How so?”

“Well,” I said, “I tend to sweat the small stuff. Details are my obsession. I won’t let a job go to print unless I’m 100% certain it is perfect. I will slave over every job, big and small, until it sparkles like drag queen glitter, until it glistens like the golden hairs on Adonis’ chest, until it spangles like the —“

“Stop talking. You’re hired.”

The thing is, I didn’t have to lie one bit — I am a perfectionist, I do toil over every task. Only thing is: it really is a big weakness.

What’s so bad about being a perfectionist?

While it may be a coveted asset in a graphic designer, it kinda sucks horse balls in most other areas of my life. Cleaning the house, buying a new pair of shoes, cooking dinner —everything I endeavor ends up in misery if the task is not done to perfection. My biggest enemy — me — comes down like a sack-o-bricks. For example:

  • If I spend money on clothes I don’t wear: Why are you wasting money — tsk, tsk!
  • If I miss a spot while cleaning: Are you lazy? Or just plain stupid?
  • If a cooking endeavor ends up tasting like braised slurry with dung beetle au jus: You’re a tragic failure! Back away from the kitchen! (If you’re wondering, braised slurry with dung beetle au jus is best paired with a shiraz, like: a whole bottle.)

So, I spare myself from myself by eating out, steering clear of shopping, and avoiding housework.

Being a perfectionist is bad horrible frustrating debilitating.

I’ve spent the last three years writing a book. Yes, you read correctly: I said three years. I’ve been tapping at my keyboard for a bloody long time. You see, a book contains a lot of words. And, being a perfectionist, I’m a girl who can spend the meaty part of a week editing a single paragraph.

Writing a book is not like graphic design. When I’m designing logos, brochures and websites, I have a boss or a client who says either, “Not quite right,” or “Yes, perfect.” I thrive on this dynamic. With parameters set by the client, I can pump out designs until I hit the sweet spot.

With writing, there’s nobody to tell me Great! or Horrible! apart from my own mind, which cannot be trusted because it tends to careen dangerously between ‘This is absolutely brilliant!’ and ‘This is utter crap!’ (often within the same sixty seconds).

So, now, I’m starting to wish that my weakness was porn or stationery kleptomania. If stealing from the stationery cabinet was my shortcoming, I’d not only have a lot of free Post-it notes and staplers to share with you, I’d also have a purchasable book to offer you, my dear reader.

Taking action.

I sailed the Pacific with a man I met in a bar named Ivan. Ivan is possibly the most accident-prone individual I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He sunk our dinghy, lost our dinghy and ran our dinghy into a coral head at full speed. He was stung by an array of sea life, he nearly cut his thumb off while opening a coconut with a machete, he was pummeled in the lips by a tree branch, and he once shot an islander with a spear gun (by mistake). But wait — there’s more! …

(Yes, it was an exhilarating two years at sea.)

I now have the wisdom to know that Ivan is not accident-prone, he’s action-prone. His mistakes are a byproduct of DOING STUFF. While I was busy reading How To books, Ivan was jumping in and learning through trial and error (granted, a lot of errors, but still …). Ivan didn’t wait to learn everything about sailing and mechanics before he embarked on his dream voyage across the Pacific. He just did it. And his dream was realized.

Today, I came across this photo online:

Oops! Wrong photo.

I mean this one:

We tend to scorn ourselves and others for getting it wrong, but a grandiose mistake should be punctuated by popping a champagne bottle. Making a big mistake means that you’ve attempted a major pursuit and that deserves a celebration.

It’s inaction that deserves scorn.

So cheers to taking risks and making mistakes. Cheers to shooting islanders with spear guns. Cheers to releasing the tight grip on my manuscript and for trying to give up the dizzying tail-chase of ‘perfect.’ Cheers to all the fuckups reading this. Cheers to swearing like a sailor because I am a sailor. A tragically bad sailor, true, but still a sailor.

PS: I’m concerned that I went to far with my animal porn joke. If so, cheers to taking risks and making mistakes! Hello? Anyone? Are you there?

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40 Response Comments

  • Lauren Fritsky  June 9, 2011 at 6:25 am

    I remember that Harry Potter picture. This is an awesome post, and you’re absolutely right. I make mistakes all the time, but I’ve also struggled with perfectionism. The first one is better. It makes you human and alive.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  June 9, 2011 at 6:28 am

      Thanks, Lauren! I think mistakes are less scary if we learn to rejoice in them rather than beat ourselves up.

      Reply
  • Katie  June 9, 2011 at 6:25 am

    Perfectionism is like a really nicely-designed slide that just allows you to spiral into a dark and horrible place where absolutely nothing is right. I know it well – it’s exactly the same weakness I mention at job interviews, too. I never want to make mistakes, but that’s how we learn to be better. Or how to deal with people yelling at us, one of the two.

    Huzzah for mistakes! (Unless they involve apostrophes, my pet obsession.)

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  June 9, 2011 at 6:31 am

      Yes, exactly, it’s an obsession. A touch of this trait is great for writers and artists (in most cases, it’s what makes someone an artist), but too much obsession can be catastrophic.

      Reply
  • Odysseus  June 9, 2011 at 7:20 am

    Wow, I love this post ~ largely because I am a recovering perfectionist. My case may even be worse than yours since I’m pretty sure I’m not a perfectionist by nature, but I was raised to be one ~ and you are so dead on in calling it debilitating!

    Also, you are so funny! Imagine how much more interesting job interviews would be if people actually trotted out their worst traits.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  June 9, 2011 at 8:04 am

      Thanks.

      It’s liberating to clean the house with a pep-talk, “I’m not going to obsess over every streak in the window, I’m going to let myself be happy with 80% perfect.”

      Good luck with your recovery!

      Reply
  • Beware of Falling Coconuts  June 9, 2011 at 7:57 am

    Very well articulated. I’m not sure if ‘perfectionist’ is the right word (why do your opening inverted commas curve backwards?). I prefer to think of it as suffocating obsessive compulsive disorder. Lucky for you – and for me – you work in an industry where OCD is praised, coveted even, and it creates an outlet where otherwise you might be up until 3 a.m. brushing the tassels on the rug with the Mason & Pearson so all the threads are all aligned in the same direction. But, so very true, it’s better to jump in the deep end and take a chance – and write a book – then sit at a computer desk for 12 hours a day inserting commas in other people’s books. I look forward to reading your next adventure.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  June 9, 2011 at 8:17 am

      Not sure what’s wrong with my blog’s inverted commas, but I’m going to resist the urge to spend 10 hours troubleshooting it (I’ve donez it before).

      For me, there’s a lot of pleasure that comes from the preening part of any job. Editing and perfecting is my favorite task EVER. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with channelling those tendencies into a job, but I think it’s bad when you’re so afraid to make a mistake that you can’t let go and declare the job finished, or worse — you can’t begin.

      Another bad aspect to being a perfectionist is never celebrating your accomplishments because they could’ve been done better. Yep, I do that.

      Reply
  • ed pertl  June 9, 2011 at 8:01 am

    I so agree with you Torre. The mistakes are not important, its what you do with them. I tell that to students all the time and emphasise the learning aspect. Cheers Torre, I love your blog.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  June 9, 2011 at 8:18 am

      Yes, as long as you’re learning from your mistakes and not, say, shooting islanders with spear guns over and over again, then it’s all good. Thanks for your comment, glad you like the blog!

      Reply
  • Akila  June 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Boy do I know this feeling. Yeah, it kind of sucks being a perfectionist and writing a book because I obsess over every sentence. I’ve edited so much that I know most of it by heart, now.

    Reply
  • John  June 9, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Torre,
    Writing is so much more difficult in the digital age. Before the first word processing programs, you either typed your work or hand wrote for a typist to type up. There was some scope for updating and corrections in the latter method, but major revisions could be costly. Now, whenever we commit our work to our file, it can be reworked almost to infinity. All you need to do is reread and you think of ways that it can be improved. Scary for perfectionists. My son is in the final year of his PhD now and really struggles, because he believes he cannot work fast enough, when in fact it is because he is continually reworking his thesis. I’m sure that his first draft is at least 90% as good as his final revision. How much time is that other 10% worth?
    Twitter chats, MSM, Skype chats etc allow you to make your mistakes in front of a live audience. It is then we reveal how good or in my case bad our typing and grammar skills are. It doesn’t prevent me using Twitter, but I often have to delete Tweets and redo them after correcting. Blog comments are similar, once you have clicked ‘Submit’, there is no way of correcting your errors.[Note: If you have spotted any any obvious errors in this, please feel free to correct them ;)]
    Mistakes are good some of my best recipes came about that way. Furthermore, it is virtually impossible to learn to snowboard without falling over. I normally say, “If I am not falling over, I am not trying hard enough” when trying to progress my snowboarding. Of course it depends where I am on the mountain. I stay within my skill limits when riding dangerous terrain.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  June 9, 2011 at 10:19 pm

      Thanks for your comment, John. I guess this is really key:
      ‘How much time is that other 10% worth?’ You make a good point about the digital age — so true.

      Reply
  • The Travel Chica  June 9, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    I am a fellow perfectionist. And yes, that was also my go-to answer for the weakness question in job interviews. Of course you want your IT project manager, who is responsible for a million tasks getting done in the right order on time, to be a perfectionist!

    But since I quit and started traveling 8 months ago, I have met so many Ivans. I will never be one myself, but I can be more like them in some aspects of my life.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  June 9, 2011 at 10:23 pm

      Being a perfectionist is a good thing, in my opinion. But keeping that beast on a leash is important, otherwise it can take over!

      Reply
  • milla  June 9, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    hi, liked this, not least for clearing up the dung beetle / shiraz thing. Sadly my mistakes are of the keys down the drain or red shirt in the white wash variety, neither of which generally calls for much champagne. But it’s worth a thought …

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  June 9, 2011 at 10:26 pm

      Ha ha. Red shirts in the whites wash — BAH!

      Reply
  • Tucker Bradford  June 9, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    No, you won with the animal porn joke. I just laughed my ass off for 2 minutes. Cheers to you!

    Reply
      • Tucker Bradford  June 9, 2011 at 10:46 pm

        how long did it take /you/ to read it? I actually laughed a few other times today thinking about it.

        “Gee, well, since you’re asking, I tend to be most productive when my hands are cupping my balls…” bwahahahaha

        Reply
  • Karen  June 10, 2011 at 1:13 am

    Loved this post. So what are you going to do about it Torre? x

    Reply
  • Kelsey  June 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Great post! I have the same problem, and it regularly wreaks havoc on both my personal and professional life. In some things, I am completely an un-perfectionist, but in others…man, watch out!

    I love hearing about your own struggles with this.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  June 14, 2011 at 2:02 am

      Thanks for you comment, Kelsey. Being aware of it is a good thing.

      Reply
  • Rease  June 14, 2011 at 1:58 am

    I am not as crazy as you but I am a psycho planner. I got a retirement account at the age of 21 and I started a savings account at 16. Traveling has really freed my of my need to obsessively plan everything.
    Love the post. I considered telling you there was a typo but not tell you where, but I thought that would be too cruel.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  June 14, 2011 at 2:06 am

      That’s so cute: a retirement account at 21!

      I love travel for the same reason: it helps me let go of sweating the small stuff.

      That would’ve been cruel! One person who critiqued my manuscript found a few typos and instead of marking them up, she put a dog-ear on the page. It was like playing Where’s Wally, but not as much fun.

      Reply
  • Sabrina  June 14, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    So true! 🙂 I was laughing when I read this post because the perfectionism bit is my standard answer in a job interview as well. Partly because people like to hear it, partly because it’s true. And that’s why I work much better in a group environment than by myself – there usually is someone else who will say “Yes, that’s it, awesome, let’s go with it” when I still keep tweaking and thinking and changing tiny bits… I guess that’s why I still haven’t put up that website I’ve been planning and obsessing about. Could you maybe send Ivan over? I think I need someone who just does things! 🙂

    Reply
  • amy  June 21, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    This is great and so true. I can relate to all that you write here. I cannot wait to read your book! I just mentioned to someone this morning that I think I like traveling because there is no real way to “control” every aspect of it and I generally try not to have expectations so I avoid making mistakes that way. I also like to vacation where I can’t speak the language and then the expectation is that I won’t know what they are saying and it will automatically be harder to do things so I am safe again. I can’t fail at what I don’t know. Lame maybe but true. Maybe I should adopt this same thought pattern in my day to day. Please keep writing and sharing!

    Reply
  • marion  June 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Brilliant.

    There’s a great book called “Mastering the Art of Possibility” that says we need to just tell ourselves that everything we do is just, absolutely perfect. There’s magic to giving yourself license to know that whatever you do, however it turns out, it will be perfect. And if you shoot an islander by mistake, well, … what was that mistake asking of us?

    Wonderful post!

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche  June 23, 2011 at 1:25 pm

      I can certainly roll with this philosophy. Thanks for sharing it!

      Reply
  • Meg  June 23, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    I really love your blog. I keep saying…ok. I am done. No m0re. Ok…. fine one more post. I love the way you write and how real you are. I hope I can aspire to do that in my blog journey that is just starting out. I am a perfectionist too! You don’t happen to be a Virgo? and it’s always my “biggest weakness” whatever the hell that is. Being a perfectionist has always taught me to try and do everything on my own with no help from anyone because god forbid they do it wrong. 🙂 Ahh. I have work to do. I do make mistakes, I hope I can continue to laugh about them as they happen. They will happen.

    Reply
  • Lorna - the roamantics  June 27, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    Ack! Me too! But life may have just played the biggest joke on me for my pre-trip, time-wasting perfectionism (which never results in perfection anyway- at least not for me!). I left without doing so many of those things I “needed” to do to have the trip, this project, my blog, etc. be just right. Now I giggle thinking, ha! that’s just perfect 😉

    Reply
  • Cherszy  July 10, 2011 at 9:23 am

    Mistakes are truly crazy and embarrassing even, but life wouldn’t be fun and fruitful without them. I would have never learned to write decently (if my writing is really decent) without having gone through all the grammatical mistakes that my teacher corrected me for when I was in 1st grade. Or, I wouldn’t have learned how to be careful if I hadn’t almost cut my finger with a wire cutter. Well, not that I am a really careful person now. I’m still careless, but I have learned to be more careful than before. But, I’m a risk taker. I love to just do things, so I always end up with a lot of messed up stuff. I don’t like reading manuals, so yeah, I’m not gonna be surprised if one of these days, something explodes on my face.

    Mistakes made and are still making me learn, and over time, I have come to accept that making a mistake should not be something I should be shameful or angry about. Instead, it’s something I should be grateful actually because they make me grow and they remind me that I’m still human, that I’m like any other person, that I haven’t developed any wings of some sort and am now flying over everybody’s heads, bashing them on their heads because they’ve done wrong. Everybody makes mistakes, so yeah, I’m proud to be part of that everybody. I’m growing though. I believe I am. I think I am becoming a better person with each mistake I’ve committed and have learned from.

    Cheers to taking risks, making a mess out of ourselves, and standing tall even after all that! 🙂

    Great post by the way! 🙂

    Reply
    • Cherszy  July 10, 2011 at 9:56 am

      This is the reason why I always say: Live and Learn. 🙂

      Reply
  • Dan  September 15, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    When I get stuck on being perfect, I try to find the answer to this question:

    Who is this supposed to be perfect for?

    The answer isn’t always “me” and it isn’t always comfortable to acknowledge, but it does help me move through the roadblocks. Sometimes.

    Thanks for a great post!

    Reply
  • Neda Lahrodi-Blake  January 28, 2012 at 12:33 am

    You’re such a crack up, I’m in stitches ! All right taking risks is the agenda, to realize my dreams…pondering ehh thinking way too much …I need to be all ‘actin women’ tomorrow and give my stunt women a rest ; )

    Reply
  • Clare Edwards  January 29, 2012 at 10:44 am

    Do you need a stapler? I’ve got a few I could lend you.

    Reply
  • Sean  April 26, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Laughed out loud about the animal porn! While the strength as a weakness might work as an answer for some (especially if it is genuine such as yourself) interviewees should use caution when choosing an answer. If you reply to the question with “I work too hard” and have no information to show why it is an actual weakness, the interviewer is going to see you as phony, and then question the truth in your other answers. Always give a weakness with some truth, and a weakness not directly related to the position. for example if you are applying for a graphic design job, do not say “I have trouble being creative”, while that same answer might work well at other jobs.

    Reply

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