Last Year I Gave Myself Permission to Suck. Here Are the Lessons I’m Taking Into 2024

After about 20 years, I finally admitted to myself that I am a perfectionist. Not in the way you may be thinking, however. I am not someone who executes everything perfectly. Far from it, actually. Even my handwriting is a nearly illegible, half-cursive scrawl. My life mentality, often, is “it’s good enough!” or “it is what it is.” Then, sometime earlier last year, I had the epiphany: I suffer from what I call perfection paralysis.

Perfection paralysis is a condition in which I assess a task or situation and proceed to procrastinate if I don’t think I can do it well and in five minutes or less. By shutting down, I hope to evade the feeling of failure that whack-a-moles me with such force that shame courses through my body in tidal waves. (Yeah, being a perfectionist sucks.)

Last year, however, I realized I had some dreams that I wanted to accomplish. Write a novel. Finish a self-portrait series (I’m a photographer). Learn to dance. And I wanted to do them all without chasing what I have coined the 4Ps: purpose, profit, productivity and pleasing other people. Because I already do this, at a minimum, 40 hours a week. If I removed the 4Ps and did things for the joy of doing them, would that cure my perfection paralysis? I wasn’t sure, but decided, as I proclaimed to several friends, that I was going to give myself permission to suck for a year. If catastrophic, life-ending failure chomped me to bits, then so be it. (All I needed was fingers to continue my day job as a writer, right?)

Plunging Into the Unknown

The first thing I did was sign up for dance classes, specifically Charleston and Lindy hop. Anyone who has seen dance performances across the genres will quickly see that it’s always the swing dancers (and maybe the tappers) who look like they’re having the most fun. And I wanted to be the one having the most fun.

At first, it was weird being in a public dance class that requires you to get up close and personal—really personal. When else would you be in a situation where it was acceptable to throw your arm around a stranger’s waist and pull them close? And then there was the giant mirror in the classroom. Stumbling through the steps, in front of strangers, with the ability to scrutinize my body at all angles (which I do far too often on a regular basis, at home)? Nightmare.

The second thing I did was more last minute. I had casually typed out “take a fiction class” on my list of 2023 goals/dreams/resolutions but had not thought the whole idea through. Somehow, the INFJ in me (read: planner to a fault) was delusional enough to think, “it’ll just manifest itself!”. Shocker, it did. While casually perusing the internet for low-stakes writing courses, I stumbled on an open application for a year-long novel writing workshop at the 92Y three days before the submission deadline. In the spirit of letting go of perfection (and all the planning and organizing that comes with it), I very uncharacteristically said, “why not?”, pulled together a 15-page submission and wrote the artist statement. If I was already OK with things going poorly, then there was really nothing to lose. And before I knew it, I had an acceptance letter and partial scholarship.

Marissa Wu

And all the while, I was plodding along with my self-portrait series, which I had begun at the end of 2022 as a way to chronicle my first year living in New York City. The year of failure (or if we’re being optimistic, experimentation) culminated when I challenged myself to an autumn of Polaroid photography. Anyone who’s shot instant film knows that the only technique is this: Press the button and hope for the best. The perfectionists say, “Now what kind of plan is that?!” And so, I had set myself up for success failure. Here’s what I learned.

1. Finding Friends to Fail with Is Comforting (and Confidence-Boosting)

As we have well established at PureWow, adult friendships are hard to maintain—not to mention practically impossible to create in the first place. My first year in New York was intensely lonely. Lo and behold, though, did you know that if you spend 32 weeks holding strangers’ hands and stepping on their toes and reading their manuscripts, that’s the fast track to intimacy? Friendship wasn’t my goal when I signed up for dance classes or applied to the writers’ workshop, but now I’ve found myself with two friend groups I wasn’t expecting but have been invaluable as we’ve stumbled through broken plot points and jig-walked on each others toes without (too much) shame. In fact, these relationships are perhaps even more valuable than the actual, though questionable, dance skills and manuscript that I have nurtured.

2. Not Doing Something Because You’re Afraid of Failure Is Highly Limiting (Shocker!)

In a way, I guess this was, as Gen Z puts it, my “delulu era,” and the results surprised me. Not because I transformed into a New York Times best-selling author and world championship dancer with an opening night at Gagosian—yes, this is the standard my perfectionist self would set. But because I realized I had accomplished a lot simply by refusing to be paralyzed by the thought of not being perfect. I can look back at my “year of failure” and see new friendships I value, dance skills I feel semi-confident taking out in public and a manuscript-in-progress that will be presented at a reading event in the summer. Are any of these things perfect? Not at all. But they are real, tangible things that are important to me.

Marissa Wu

3. Being Imperfect Won’t Kill You

Writing a novel, executing a long-term art project and a season of instant photography (read: no delete, no Photoshop, every shot costs $1) were all avenues of giving myself permission to suck. This was a muscle that required constant exercise. As an Aries, my strength is the spark of an idea. But it’s quickly overtaken by “I hate this; everything is terrible and I want to quit.” Because I told myself it was OK if things were bad, I managed to push through the desire to throw in the towel, many times. And guess what? Miserable failure didn’t chomp me to pieces. In fact, I think it’s made me more daring. I’m less afraid to throw myself at something even if I’m not sure how it’ll turn out, because I now know there’s genuine delight in the process of doing things, and not simply reaching the end goal.

So, What Happens Next?

While I don’t think I’m cured of perfection paralysis, it's undeniably pushed me out of my comfort zone. So in 2024, I’m doing the only thing that seems logical in an illogical world: I’ll keep plodding forward with these resolutions to try new things, worry less and see that there’s beauty in the imperfections. This year, I have my sights set on a project I’ve sat on for several years but have never taken seriously out of fear of rejection: my newsletter, joyride. Who knows if it will be a “success”? All I know is that I’m looking forward to all the conversations I hope it will lead me to, as I ponder the culture of beauty and how it intertwines with every facet of being alive...failure and all.

88 Quotes About Life That Will Help You Make Sense of the Complexity and Change We All Face