I used to be a perfectionist.
There are benefits of working hard and completing things well, but when “good enough” is never enough, it creates stress, reduces creativity and leads to procrastination.
Needing things to be perfect used to prevent me from attempting hard challenges or giving things a go.
But not anymore. Now I make purple pancakes. Let me explain.
My First Job
My first job in high school was in a small delicatessen in Adelaide. I served soft drinks, bubble gum, and a variety of sandwiches. This should have been easy but it wasn’t.
I’ve always been book-smart, but as a teenager, day-dreamed too much and lacked the practical life-skills needed to hold down a real job. And my boss was terrifying. An ex-policeman, he was six-foot tall and built like a tank. He had high standards and would cuss and swear whenever I made a mistake. This made me nervous, leading to even more mistakes. I only lasted in that job for six months, and by the end of this trial, my self-confidence had hit rock bottom. It took me years to recover from failing at my first paid job.
My First ‘Real’ Job
Fast forward a decade and I was a now a graduate physiotherapist employed in a country hospital in Victoria. Throughout my time at university, I held a number of low responsibility casual positions — a telemarketer, a factory worker, and magnanimously, a Mr Whippy ice-cream truck driver. But this physio position was my first ‘real’ job. At twenty-one years of age, I was done as a student and ready to earn money.
But like most fresh recruits entering a new profession, I lacked experience. It was both exciting and terrifying. I doubted myself. I felt like everyone was watching me and waiting for me to make a mistake. This felt especially true because of my previous work experiences. At times I felt like that pimply teenager slicing salami at the corner shop, bound to fail once more. And because of this fear of being found out and not-quite-measuring-up, I became paralysed with worry. I remember heading to the toilet on several occasions to catch my breath, to say a private prayer and pep-talk myself into to walk back onto the ward. Not fun.
Here’s the crazy thing. This enormous pressure to perform was internally driven. No one was complaining about my work. I was performing at the standard expected of a new graduate. But in my mind, I was failing to reach the impossible standards I had set for myself. I was struggling with perfectionism.
Dreaming of Pancakes
It was during this time as a new graduate physiotherapist that I had a dream. It wasn’t a Martin Luther Jnr type dream, but a dream-dream … about purple pancakes.
In my dream, I found myself back in the corner store of my youth serving customers, but this time as a twenty-one year old professional. I was back in the shop that had rocked my confidence as a young teenager, and like an emerging nightmare, something was about to go wrong.
In my subconscious mind, the shop was packed with people. It was crazy busy and everyone was in a rush. But I was the only one at the front counter serving customers and the line was getting longer and longer. It was a hot day and everyone was agitated. They needed me to take orders quickly but I couldn’t keep up, no matter how fast or how efficiently I worked. I did my best, turning over simple orders like “a can of coke” and “an ice-cream,” until a demanding lady reached the front counter and ordered a large serving of pancakes. That’s when my world fell apart.
“I want pancakes,” the lady exclaimed… but we didn’t serve pancakes in our deli. I had never made pancakes. I didn’t even have a recipe. But this lady was adamant so I had no choice.
Then completely out of character, I ad libbed. I cracked eggs, added flour and water into a pan and started cooking. I started to sweat. The line was getting longer and people were becoming impatient. I felt stressed but also exhilarated as I made things up. Jumping in without a plan was certainly out of character, but it was working for me. Until my pancakes turned purple.
In my dream, I remember looking at the pan, watching my pancakes turn a bright shade of purple. It was heart wrenching but there was nothing I could do. I didn’t have time to start again. I was stuck with my purple pancakes. Out of options, I carefully stacked them onto a plate, drizzled them in honey and placed them in front of the customer. She looked at my strange creation with a disapproving look and stated the obvious: “They’re purple.” My response was understated: “I know.” Then to my surprise, rather than create a fuss, the lady took a bite, looked up with a smile and said; “O.K., this will do.” She paid and went away satisfied.
Then I woke up.
The Meaning of Purple Pancakes
I recall this dream vividly, more than twenty years later, because it profoundly changed my perspective on life. I remember waking from this dream with a mixed sense of fear and relief. There was anxiety about having made such a colossal mistake, but enormous relief in knowing that these “purple pancakes” were enough.
Before my dream, I was a perfectionist and it was problematic. A good job was never a perfect job, so I would spin myself in circles, constantly worrying about my performance. There was fear of failure. There was fear of being found out. There was fear of falling behind the impossible standards I had set for myself, measuring my self-worth against my achievements. On the outside, I was competent and reliable, but internally, anxious and afraid. And because my impossible standards were, well, impossible to reach, I subconsciously avoided taking risks and trying new things. This is the hidden danger of perfectionism. If something has to be perfect to be worthwhile then it’s best not to start until you are ready. And ready never comes.
Thankfully I discovered the power of purple pancakes. From that day onwards I made a decision to stop aiming for perfect and start enjoying the beauty of imperfection. Life is messy and unpredictable. So rather than avoid life in its fullness, I decided to make purple pancakes instead. No longer would I delay creating something meaningful or worthwhile out of fear of making mistakes. No longer would I hold off trying something adventurous simply because I didn’t have the knowledge or experience to do it with excellence. I would make things up and learn on the road. And I would be compassionate on myself in my less-than-perfect moments. For it’s better to make a start than to be perfect. That’s what I learnt from my purple pancakes. This dream was the beginning of a journey to stop critiquing myself so harshly and begin embracing the value of “good enough.”
My Favourite Purple Pancakes
Twenty-something years later and I am no longer a perfectionist. I still have an eye for detail and enjoy completing tasks with excellence, but I no longer need or expect things to be perfect for myself or others. In other words, I’m learning to live without a recipe.
This has served me particularly well in recent years, where entrepreneurship requires making a start without knowing how things will end. Here are a few of my favourite purple pancake happenings from the last decade:
- Starting a book club;
- Applying for my first managerial position when no one thought I would get it;
- Having children (who by definition are purple pancakes);
- Sharing land (and life) with another family to build community;
- Resigning from my permanent job to start a company;
- Signing a contract with a team of executive leaders without coaching qualifications;
- Launching a church community (a misunderstood project in our current culture);
- Drafting a book manuscript, even though I had no idea how to publish;
- Speaking on podcasts on a wide range of topics outside my comfort zone.
Make Your Own Purple Pancakes
There are many ways to make a purple pancake. All you need is a desire to make a difference, some motivation … and no recipe.
If you are someone who avoids risks, overthinks things, or takes too long to start something new, what might it look like for you to make a purple pancake? Can you give yourself permission to make a start? And when you stuff up, can you pat yourself on the back because you took a risk? At best, you will have contributed something beautiful and meaningful to the world. At worst, you will have gained some important life-lessons. Sure, your pancakes may be less than perfect, but they will be pancakes none-the less. Purple is enough. Well done!
Life is too short to hold back your best until you are certain. There is beauty in imperfection. It is better to create a purple pancake than to never create one at all, so what are you waiting for? Get cooking!
Do you have a purple pancake inside of you? If so, what is the next thing you need to do to get cooking?
Daniel Sih is a productivity trainer, professional speaker, and award-winning author of “Spacemaker: how to unplug, unwind and think clearly in the digital age.” You can read more about his work, including his blog posts at www.spacemakers.com.au