Our house in Syracuse is across the street and down a hill from a municipal nine-hole golf course. You can’t actually see the golf course from my house, but you can’t help but know it’s there because, every spring and early summer, it’s golf ball season.
See, there’s a certain hole in that course where, if you slice them just right, you send golf balls over the fence, down the hill and onto our property. I find them nestled against the curb in front of our house, on my front lawn, or in the flower beds on either side of my front porch. One memorable time, while I was weeding my backyard garden, I witnessed one in action, bouncing down our driveway and coming to a stop at our garage door.
Finding golf balls is as much a part of my spring as the blossoming of early perennials, packing away my winter sweaters, and medicating my reaction to tree pollen.
The one waiting for me at the foot of our driveway when I got home from work today happened to be a nice, pretty new Titleist. I generally feel a little badly for the golfer when he or she sends a new one over the fence, as those things aren’t exactly cheap. But the majority of the balls that land in our yard are obviously practice balls, the more expendable, practical choice for the beginning golfer.
I never learned to play golf. Oh, I took some lessons and tried playing it on the very course I live near today, but it didn’t come naturally to me, so I quit.
I quit because, for too many years, I prided myself on being a perfectionist. And I used this desire to be perfect as a compass for my life; if I was good at something (and/or received praise for it) I stuck with it. If not, I dropped it.
Besides, what’s wrong with wanting to be perfect, I’d wonder? Isn’t “perfect” a wonderful word, a positive one? Don’t people remember Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci for her perfect ten? Why settle for B’s when you can get A’s, for “good” when you could be “best”?
And that perfectionism served me in many ways. I did very well in school. Loved reading because I was good at it, and writing because of the grades and accolades it brought me.
Then there was art. From the time I could hold a crayon, I loved to make pictures. Although I had no formal art training, I experimented with watercolor, chalk, pencil, ink, charcoal and acrylic paints. My mother didn’t just put my pictures on the refrigerator–she framed some of them. I believed I was destined to design greeting cards and illustrate children’s books…that was until, my sophomore year in high school, I got a C in art.
I never took art in school art again. Nor pursued a career as a commercial artist.
Writing, on the other hand, consistently brought me the grades, praise and awards I craved. Long before I graduated from high school, I had my mind set on being a writer.
Little did I know that the perfectionism that drove me to write would also turn out to be my biggest roadblock to a successful writing career. Far from being a “positive’ trait, it held me back, taunted me, scolded me. I’d get a rejection slip and quit writing for months at a time. I’d start a novel and, compared it to the work of my favorite authors, then abandon it, embarrassed, disgusted. Without teachers to stoke my ego and provide me with the encouragement I so needed, I floundered and procrastinated, struggled and avoided.
Yeah, perfectionism does that. So much for being a positive trait.
What I didn’t understand for the longest time…well, actually there were three things:
First, Nadia didn’t achieve her stunning level of performance naturally. She practiced. A lot. Yes, she possessed physical attributes that lent themselves to becoming a gymnast, but she also needed to spend countless hours honing them to accomplish what she did during those ‘76 games. Certainly she stumbled and fell and had imperfect dismounts during the years of practice leading up to her perfect scores.
Nadia exemplified the phrase practice makes perfect. If I had worked on my writing or art with even a tenth of the dedication Nadia put into her routines who’s to say what I could have accomplished.
Second, I’ve found that with any endeavor, the best lessons often come from one’s mistakes and failures. I think–I hope–that I am a better sister, friend, aunt, employee, writer and all around person based on the mistakes I have made over the years and what I eventually learned from them. In fact, I have come to believe that we’re all here to learn. Life is one unending series of lessons. And we’re not going to excel at each and every one of them–what’s the challenge in that?
And third, whether it’s pursuing hobbies or vocations or better mental and physical health, it’s important to have fun with the journey. When I finally stopped expecting myself to write epic prose and just began writing more regularly, I began enjoying both the process and the outcomes more. Sure, I still wince a little when I catch a typo or grammatical mistake I’ve made, and I still sometimes really envy the brilliance in other writers. But I know that my time at the keyboard is cathartic for me and, I hope, beneficial to others. Plus I learn from those other writers. And truly, that’s enough.
So as I retrieve the golf balls that come to my yard each year, I hope that the people who sent them my way don’t give up too soon. If they’re having fun, getting exercise, and spending time with friends, I hope that can be enough for now.
My only advice would be not to invest in new Titleist balls from the get go. Learning something might come at a cost, but it doesn’t have to be so expensive.