One of my recent newsletters discussed a misguided essay (and now, regrettably, book) by a prominent philosophy professor on his notion of “constructive procrastination. I’m happy now to refer you to this essay, I’m With Stupid, by a writer who is not, to my knowledge, a prominent professor, but who nevertheless has figured out a lot of the whole procrastination/perfectionism thing. Robin Marantz Henig started taking tap dancing lessons in her forties and reports:
“Amazingly, considering how ambitious I was in the rest of my life, I didn’t really care about getting any better at tap. As long as I didn’t mess up or fall over, I considered that afternoon’s class a success. That’s what was so great about learning tap as an adult. For kids, every new skill might be the one they really shine in, the one that defines them, which makes piano lessons, ski instruction or tap-dance classes especially fraught. For adults, there’s not that kind of pressure. I was in my 40s. I already knew dancing wasn’t going to be my amazing hidden talent.
“So instead of trying to be great or even to get much better, I focused on trying to redefine my notions of “accomplishment” and “knowledge.” I’d been striving my whole life for the best score, the best job, the best book contract. Tap-dancing gave me permission to stop striving and just be stupid. I found it strangely liberating.”
Henig is demonstrating key elements of nonperfectionism, including compassionate objectivity; focusing on the process, not product; setting tiny goals (like not falling over!); and not overfocusing on external rewards. Her point about how she doesn’t approach the rest of her life this way highlights how it’s often our environmental and mental contexts that determine how well we do, how productive we are, and how much we enjoy and are committed to our work.
She’s also showing the benefit, for perfectionists, of having a fun hobby in which you can learn and practice nonperfectionism. Another great example of this came from one of my writing students who was a quilter. She reported having taken a quilting class where the teacher once said, “If no one’s bleeding, we’re having a great class!”
Unfortunately, a bit later Ms. Henig does demonstrate some perfectionism: “My inability to improvise a few unscripted steps felt like a personality flaw.” That’s both overidentifying with the work, and also pathologizing the ordinary process of learning.
Such is the magic of compassionate objectivity that it inspires the same attitude in others. Whereas most online newspaper article comments are sarcastic and dreary, Henig’s commenters are charming and perceptive. In her essay, she reports that she later moved to New York and stopped tapping: several commenters encourage her to resume, and generously offer referrals to schools. One commenter shares her experience starting ballet in her forties and having a similarly fun, non-perfectionist experience: “Our teacher, Melody…also teaches 3-year-olds, and one day she looked at our class, smiled and said “Any class where no one pees on the floor is a great class!”"
As a final bit of learning from Ms. Henig’s fantastic essay, let’s give a shout-out to enlightened, nonperfectionist teachers in all fields.