Terrance Heath

Life Is To Shotr Too Be Perfec

Filed By Terrance Heath | April 19, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: ADD, perfectionist, spelling mistakes

Let me ask you something. Do typos bother you?


OK. Let me ask you something else. Why?

If you’re reading a book, a newspaper or a magazine, and happen upon a typo, a misspelling, or grammatical error, does it drive you crazy? Does it tick you off?

If find a typo at the beginning of whatever you’re reading, do you assume the author’s ideas aren’t worth reading, if he/she didn’t spot the errors you did? Do you stop reading?

Again, why?

My guess is that not many readers of my blog fit the description above, because my blog is riddled with typos. Probably in every single post. Not because I don’t care. I’m always going back and correcting typos when I find them. But because if I took the time to read everything and proof-edit it to perfection, I’d never get anything written, let alone posted.

And because I almost never get anything perfect the first time.

A reader left this comment on the previous post (which was really a del.icio.us-generated post, one that I compiled in a fit of pique):

Let me guess: you have problems with perfectionism.;-)

I have to link to this. Sorry.

To which I replied:

Actually, I do have a problem with perfectionism. But I'm the exact opposite of a perfectionist. I'll post about that later...

The truth is, I’m not only the exact opposite of a perfectionist. I’m probably a perfectionist’s worst nightmare. And yes, the feeling is often mutual.

I think my first real encounter with it was in my first job after graduation, in the science library at my old alma mater. (It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it was the first job I could find.) Just my luck, I ended up with a boss who was both a perfectionist and a screamer. I sense I was in trouble when, after a mistake in my work, she announced “We can’t have mistakes.”

I immediately thought, “Oh shit. Then I’m not your guy. Because I can’t promise that my work will ever be perfect, but I can guarantee that there will be mistakes, no matter how hard I try to avoid them, or catch them and correct them.

It went downhill from there.

I can only imagine what fidgety Philip would face as an adult. Actually, I don't have to. The "naughty, restless" child turns in to the "lazy," "crazy," and/or "stupid" adult who can't live up to expectations, and nobody -- including him or her -- seems to know why. Most of the time employers don't want to know why. A good many of them don't care that you have a problem, let alone what your problem is. They just want it not to be their problem.

(Back when I was being treated for depression, which was likely related to having untreated ADD, I was having a bit of trouble finding the right medication. I tried one that left me feeling lethargic and zombie-like during the day. When my boss complained about its impact on my work, I confided to her that I was being treated for depression and the anti-depressant was making my foggy. She simply said "Stop taking it." I explained that I was working with my doctor to get the right mediation, and simply -- with a bit more irritation in her voice -- "Well, stop taking it." She wasn't concerned about my well being. I could fall apart after business hours as long as I did what she needed me to do. I supposed if I'd committed suicide she'd have complained about my lack of notice and the inconvenience of having to hire someone to replace me. I doubt she'd have come to my memorial.)

I used to get tied up in knots about making mistakes. Excuse me, “careless” mistakes. I’ve never understood the notion that people make mistakes because they just don’t care or aren’t trying hard enough. I’d care very much. I’d redouble my efforts not to make mistakes. But I’d just end up making more of them.

It’s a pattern that I attribute it to my ADD (which is the predominantly inattentive type, not the hyperactive type) and that became problematic when I (finally) graduated from college and entered the working world. The pattern on any job went something like this.

I’d make mistakes; some small some not-so-small. Eventually, I’d make too many of them or make one that was just too big. I’d end up on probation. Which meant that I would be watched very closely and every mistake -- large or small -- would be noted. A supervisor in one such situation told me, “Don’t be so nervous.” But he didn’t know what I knew. And even I didn’t know what was really wrong. I just knew that I just knew that no matter how hard I tried I kept making mistakes.

When I got nervous, I’d make even more of them. And I couldn’t not be nervous. After all, my job was on the line due to a problem I couldn’t name, let alone solve. And when I tried harder -- paying more attention to detail, proofreading everything over and over again, checking lists to make sure I’d covered every task, etc. -- I’d get into even more trouble, because now I was moving too slow. (Evidently, perfect wasn’t enough. One had to be perfect and fast.)

Then there was the factor of my (still) untreated ADD. That meant that even if I “tried harder” to be more “careful” I’d probably miss some of my own mistakes. I could read a document backwards (a technique I learned in college) and forwards. It didn’t matter. I’d still miss something. (On one job, a misplaced comma in a press release that I’d send to my supervisor to review before it went out, the day before I left for vacation, was the “final straw.”

I was fired the day I returned.) I’d lie awake at night wondering what I’d missed and when it would come back around to smack me in the face. There’s an overwhelming anxiety that comes with basically being doomed to fail.

Like I said, there was a lot in her essay to identify with, but it was the end that really hit home.

I live with anxiety, because the world can be overwhelming and people have expectations that I always, sooner or later, fail to meet. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have been told that I am rude, inaccessible or cold, yet I have never purposely tried to harm anyone, nor do I mean to be, well, mean.

I could tell you so much more, but instead let me share one last insight. Don't pity me or try to cure or change me. If you could live in my head for just one day, you might weep at how much beauty I perceive in the world with my exquisite senses. I would not trade one small bit of that beauty, as overwhelming and powerful as it can be, for "normalcy."

That's the big one, knowing that sooner or later you will fail to meet those expectations. And knowing that they're perfectly reasonable expectations, for someone with a "neurotypical" brain. Some of us are very good at compensating. We've had to be in order to survive. But you can't keep "dancing as fast as you can" indefinitely. (Even the most hyper of us are not perpetual motion machines.) The part that hurts is that when you disappoint people, they tend not to have noticed that -- up until the inevitable failure -- you've been really trying. You may, in fact, have tried as hard as you could.

It's just that sooner or later it won't be enough. You'll forget something important, miss some important detail, lose something important, forget to pay an important bill, etc. In fact, you're guaranteed to do so, probably on an almost daily basis. And even if it turns out not to be all that important, the cumulative effect of having done so "umpteen" times can spell the end of a relationship, a job, a career. It's all stuff that everyone does, from time to time. But most people don't do it so often that it disrupts their lives completely.

I don't know that I would trade either. Though sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be one of those people, and to have "neurotypical" brain for a day or two. What might it be like, in my case, to be significantly less forgetful, to catch important details at work that I would usually miss, to lose things less often (like the book I just started reading that got lost somewhere today, during the hour that I was running errands at lunch), etc.

I'm sure there would still be other problems, but part of me would still like to know what it would be like to fit in just a little better; and not just at work or socially, but in the world.

Odd, that people think we make mistakes because we just don’t care. I wish I’d known -- during all that worrying, all those sleepless nights, and the doctor’s appointments made because of the tension in my neck and shoulders that made it hard to turn my head -- that it was all just because I didn’t care.

Just like you were told in school that you just needed to "try harder," "apply yourself" more, "pay attention," and "stop making careless mistakes." The assumption at work will be "If you wanted to do it, you could. So, you must not want to be here." That's almost exactly what a my employee advocate said to me when I was going through the process of being shown the door at my first job in D.C., after the cumulative effect of having an employee with undiagnosed and untreated ADD was too much. I had a problem, which meant they had a problem. I got fired. They, then, didn't have a problem anymore. I, of course, still had an as-yet-unnamed-and-unsolved problem. But it was now my problem. Not theirs, anymore.

I understand it was never their job to figure out what my problem was. It was their job to run a successful enterprise, and if I had a problem that made it difficult to do that, then it was their job to make it not their problem any more. It was just business, that’s all. But there was still something galling about being lectured by the same people on the subject of caring. I cared. I just wished somebody else would.

As a result of the above, I devised a rule that because my fallback coping strategy for a while:

Which is why the article reminded me of something that was an unwritten rule for me during most of the time I lived with untreated ADD, and that still surfaces as a fall-back position:

If I don't do anything, then I can't do anything wrong, and I won't get blamed or punished for failing.

I didn’t say it was a great strategy, but it made sense at the time. Living with untreated ADD, in an environment that demanded perfection and punished errors, it was safer not to do anything. Even if it meant that something didn’t get done, in my mind, that was a little better than getting blasted for doing it wrong.

But eventually I got treatment, and learned a bit more about ADD -- including the fact that treatment can reduce the worst of my symptoms, and improve my focus, but it doesn’t cure ADD. I still have ADD. I always will. But now I’ve reached a point where the value I add in the workplace outweighs the mistakes I still make sometimes, and still make with more frequency than those around me.

I eventually developed another way of looking at mistakes, both my own and those of others, and became … well … the opposite of a perfectionist.

Which brings me back to typos.

Not everyone with ADD deals with it in the same way, as I discovered when I talked to an ADDer who responded to it by actually becoming a perfectionist. The subject of typos came up, and our response to them was completely different.

My fellow ADDer is among those who become irritated upon finding a typo in a newspaper, or magazine (even in email, etc.).

By contrast, typos make me smile.

Tom found a typo in Time magazine. Like him, I’m kinda glad to see it. But, then, I’m one of those people who smiles with relief when I come across a typo in a book or an article I’m reading, mainly because it’s a reassuring reminder that I’m not the only person in the world who makes small mistakes like that. And because I know there’s another person who’s cringing over that mistake, has had it brought to their attention several times by different people who think they’re the first person to spot it and rush [to tell them about it], and who may also be filled with dread right now because he or she works for one of those people for whom there’s no such thing as a small mistake. Because nobody’s perfect, but that doesn’t stop people from demanding perfection

For me, a typo is a reminder that there’ a human being behind that typo, who isn’t that different from me. Or, that different from any of the rest of us -- perfectionists included.

If anything, I empathize with the person responsible for the typo, for either making it or missing it. Because I know that person is probably cowering under the glare of a “no-small-mistakes” perfectionist, being dressed down by someone who “can’t have mistakes,” or being told to pack up their desks by … well you get the picture.

I empathize because even if the person ultimately responsible for (or blamed for) that typo, even if he or she doesn’t ADD, not only has to deal with his or her mistakes, but also with a surprising number of people who have a great deal of intolerance for the condition of being human.

Imperfectly human, that is.

So, no offense intended if you’re among those driven crazy by typos, or who takes typos as a sign that the writer is either careless or doesn’t have much going on upstairs. But if you are, you probably didn’t read this far.

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The occasional typo doesn't bother. What makes or breaks it for me is how certain typos disrupt the flow of my reading.

The misplaced comma getting you fired was absurd, unless you were an editor-- and such is your job, to catch these things. But even then, who would die because of a misplaced comma?

But that's the issue with the business world. It's all about maximizing efficiency. Quite frankly, you'll have to deal with the fact that our culture isn't much into empathy.

nobody can write without making mistakes. that's impossible. first you write and when it's all written, the very last thing you do is edit spelling, with your spell check, doing your spell checking and correcting your spelling is just showing respect for your own work, like putting your brushes and oils away, and like serving food in clean dishes, on a neat table. no the flowers don't change the taste but it changes the taster.

The occasional typo (or any other small mistake) is fine. I read quickly, and don't even notice them - I don't think I've ever noticed one on this blog. And people who nitpick are simply being idiots. It does bother me, though, when the 'typos' are persistent and common. When they interfere with the meaning, it makes me think that the author didn't really care enough to write well.

Getting fired over a misplaced comma is idiotic.

well, i am definitely not an idiot.

i cannot help but notice typos, grammatical errors, etc. i have a very sharp eye and i can't even complete a misspelled word myself without going back to correct it immediately. that doesn't make me a perfectionist, by the way. i used to work in a bank, and as a teller, was short or over funds on occasion. mistakes happen, and everyone knows that - even perfectionists. the majority of mistakes are correctible, however; the issue doesn't usually linger.

i have a small (way too small) editing business, and i take great pains to do that work. what many people fail to notice is that the tiniest error on a resume, for example, can make a difference between someone becoming employed or continuing to hunt for a job. there's a need for being correct.

as for spellcheck, well...my attitude is that unless you know how to spell correctly, spellcheck is a worthless tool. it cannot tell the difference between (for example) "plane" and "plain."

so much for this. thanks for listening and let me know if you're writing books or far lesser material that might need some editing.