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Reaching For The Stars

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A study in contrasts, exhibit A:

A cake I made, sugar roses and all, for my cousin and his wife for their 5th anniversary party.  I stressed and agonized to complete this cake, took two days off work to do it, couldn’t get it as perfect as I wanted, but overall I was satisfied with the cake when it was finished.

Exhibit B:

A cake I made willy-nilly for a sister’s housewarming, completing it in 15 minutes from frosting to finish, and obviously exerting very little effort by comparison.

The first cake I did my way, striving for perfection.  The second cake I made the way my husband would have me do every cake, taking the easiest route possible to get it done as fast as possible, without worrying too much about the end result and not stressing over it one lick. (Funny, but he doesn’t appreciate the level of stress in our home when I’m working on a cake!)

For your optional viewing pleasure, a video showcasing (some of) the stress that abounds during my cake escapades:

Obviously the effort I exerted had a direct impact on the finished cake.  Although I think both have their appeal, I’m definitely more happy with the first and find it much more attractive. When I look at the second, I have slight feelings of shame and embarrassment for not putting more effort into it.

Even before making a sub-par (for me) cake, I had been thinking about my crazy perfectionist approach to things, versus my husband’s relaxed and laid-back approach.  Evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of each, and coming to some surprising (to me) conclusions.

I used to envy, and still do, the way my husband breezes through life with scarcely a care.  It is taxing to be as uptight as I am!  Everything I do has to be perfect, which of course is impossible, which upsets me, which causes me angst and stress.  I stress way too much because I can never attain the perfection I constantly seek.

You can see where I crushed my finger into the corner. Happens every time!

Dennis takes an interest in something and learns how to do it to a moderate degree, and doesn’t bother to perfect it or care that his technique isn’t perfect.  His interests are wide and varied and he has talent in many areas, such as playing the guitar, drums, bass, juggling, doing martial arts like Wing Chun, Shaolin Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Kempo, and Aikido, doing Tai Chi, using weapons such as nunchuks and bali song knives, a whip, and a bow and arrow.  A little more than a year ago he started taking singing lessons.  He enjoys all these things and they never cause him stress.

You can see some of his skills in this crazy random video we made a couple years ago. (Just skip to :47 and 1:36 to see him in action.)

His approach seems healthier and I love the zen thing he has going on (I love everything about the man!), but I have realized there is a profound benefit to my own as well.  The few things that I do, (obviously not including martial arts) I do quite well, or at least a little better than average.  Which has led me to formulate the following philosophy for myself…

If you reach for the stars and land on the moon, you have still achieved more than you would if you had only reached for the moon to begin with.  In other words, if you strive for excellence and come up short, what you achieve will still be greater than if you had little or no regard for the quality of the outcome.  If you set your sights higher than what you think you can accomplish, you will attain something much greater than you would trying to accomplish what you know you are capable of.

I shared this perspective with my husband, who recently entered Guitar Center’s King of the Blues contest, and I could see the lightbulb go on in his head.  He made it to the store finals here in Kansas, but only by default because they pick two players each night of the preliminaries, and the night he competed, there were only two players.  Including him.

As always, his playing was decent (OK, a little less than decent because he was quite nervous), but we both realized it wasn’t on par with the people he would be competing against in the finals.  I sometimes have trouble discerning when I should support him without criticizing, and when gentle criticism would be helpful, but I realized that he was going to have to try harder and reach higher, so to speak, if he ever wanted to get to a level where he was worthy of even entering this contest.  It was hard to say, and I didn’t know if I was even doing the right thing, but Dennis is very open to criticism (I always forget this, most likely because I do not take it well myself) and was actually extremely grateful for it.   Right away, he began practicing with a mental intensity he never had before.  Before, he only strived to do as good as he could with the least amount of effort possible.  Now he’s striving for excellence and not taking the shortcuts he used to actively seek out.

Realizing this direct benefit to striving for perfection or excellence makes me feel a little bit better about my anal approach to most tasks I undertake, however I feel I need to work on the stress that accompanies my perfectionist tendencies.  Despite Dennis following my advice and applying higher standards to his guitar playing, I don’t see him stressing about it one little bit.  He’s not screaming every time he hits a wrong note or wailing after he completely messes up the rhythm.  (I can be quite dramatic when decorating cakes, and will wail like a colicky baby over every little single thing that doesn’t go my way.)  He practices every night for hours, repeating the same things over and over like a machine.  He knows what he needs to do and he’s doing it.  He messes up, he corrects it, he moves on, and tries to get it right the next time.

“Reaching for the stars” had an impact on his performance at the store finals, which, while still not on par with the other contestants, was leagues better than his performance two weeks prior in the prelims.  So if he can reach for the stars without herniating his anus in the process, that probably means that the stress is not a necessary byproduct of striving for excellence!  Wow.  News to me.

Here is a video compilation of the store finals, in which Dennis plays next to last.

Ultimately, these hobbies of ours have very little importance in the large scheme of things, so it does seem ridiculously silly to get so bent out of shape when I can’t get the sides of my cake perfectly smooth and the corners sharp.  Particularly when I know, based on experience, that I can and will get them fairly smooth and sharp enough that the cake overall will be impressive even if it’s not perfect.  Particularly when I consider the things that are most important to me.  This differs from person to person, but I have to think, what is a finger smashed into a nearly perfect cake in comparison to growing my relationship with God, or helping bring someone to Him?

Not that everything is made unimportant by comparison to what is most important, for certainly our hobbies matter.  They give us a sense of accomplishment.   Sometimes they are a much needed distraction.  They bring us joy.

Which is exactly the point.  If I’m stressing over my hobbies, I’m not accomplishing the main reason to have them in the first place.  Finding that joy!

I think Matthew 6:34 can translate to more than just worrying about tomorrow, and perhaps to cakes as well:

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” ~Jesus

Perhaps it is high time I put my perfectionist tendencies to good use in applying this scripture to my life.

What about you? Do you suffer from perfectionist-related stress?  Or are you one of those laid-back types that I would love to be?  Do you think it’s possible to reach for the stars without getting stressed in the process?

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