When a Success Leaves You *Less* Able to Do Your Work

I use the term “situational perfectionism” to describe circumstances that cause your perfectionism to spike. A failure (or perceived failure) can do that, but so, paradoxically, can a success, especially if it causes you to feel more visible or scrutinized. J.K. Rowling experienced this after the exceptional success of the first Harry Potter book, but fortunately was able to move past it.

Other writers aren’t so lucky. From this week’s obituary of writer Bette Howland:

  • “In 1984 Ms. Howland received a MacArthur Foundation award — the so-called genius grant. But her literary output dried up. Jacob Howland sees the two things as related.”“I think the award may have sapped her confidence,” he told the website Literary Hub in 2015. “If people don’t expect great things from you, it’s easier to please them. But people expect great things from a writer who has won the MacArthur.””

It’s always best to approach projects with a “clean mental slate,” as free as possible from past history and future expectations. And, regardless of your perceived visibility or others’ expectations, you must always be prepared to fail.

And you should keep others, and especially potentially critical others, out of your head.

Stay Zen! Meaning: stay in the moment, focused on doing the work. And trust the process by which quantity creates quality.

By the way, many people return from holidays determined to “make up for lost time” or “do way better than before.” This is also situational perfectionism, so don’t do it!

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