Let’s Talk About “Situational Perfectionism”

“Situational perfectionism” is when something causes your perfectionism to spike above its usual levels. (Which usually, in turn, causes your procrastination to spike!) It’s a common phenomenon, with many causes. Here are a few: A prior failure. Often, when we perceived we’ve failed, we get more afraid of future failures. (The solution is to not make such a fuss over failure.) But, paradoxically... A prior success can also do it! That’s because you feel (often rightly) more scrutinized. Second Novel Syndrome is a classic example of this type of situational perfectionism, and even J.K. Rowling experienced it after the success of the first Harry Potter book: “For the first time ever in my life, I got writer’s block...The stakes seemed to have gone up a lot, and I attracted a lot of publicity in Britain for which I was utterly unprepared.’” Fortunately, she got over it, but many writers and others, alas, never do. Labels can be a problem! Labeling your project “urgent,” “important,” or “difficult” … [Read more...]

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 … [Read more...]

Harper Lee, “Second Novel Syndrome,” and Situational Perfectionism

Harper Lee, author of the immortal To Kill a Mockingbird, died last week at 89. She never published another book except for Go Set a Watchman, which was published in 2015 in what many consider to be dubious circumstances. Lee may have suffered from second-novel syndrome, a form of procrastination in which an author becomes self-conscious due to the public attention she receives for her first book, and is consequently inhibited from publishing her second. I don't know whether she wanted to keep publishing or not, but she did tell one interviewer: “I was hoping for a quick and merciful death [of Mockingbird] at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement....I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.” If she did suffer from second-novel syndrome, she wasn't alone. Ralph Ellison … [Read more...]

Dave Barry on How to Cope With Post-Pulitzer Prize Situational Perfectionism

Situational perfectionism is when something causes your perfectionism to spike. It can be a failure, of course, but it can also be a success. Here's J.K. Rowling, quoted in Salon: “For the first time ever in my life, I got writer’s block. The stakes seemed to have gone up a lot, and I attracted a lot of publicity in Britain for which I was utterly unprepared.” Turns out humorist Dave Barry got into a similar fix after winning the Pulitzer Prize: “I had this feeling like, You know, jeez, does this mean that I'm still allowed to write stupid columns? Because my column won in the distinguished commentary category. No one had ever called my writing “distinguished.” So I wrestled with my first columns after winning.” (From And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft, by Mike Sacks.) (Also an example of how labels and arbitrary categorizations can screw you up. Save them for your marketing--and even then, don't take them too seriously. Just take your writing at face … [Read more...]