Perfectionism, failure, growth

Wouldn’t it be nice if life were. . . perfect?

Wouldn’t it be nice if that article you are writing, that room you are renovating or that resume you just laid out was . . . perfect? Not just good enough. But perfect.

There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.
— Aristotle

Intellectually, we know perfection isn’t possible. Yet, we try. One more rewrite, one more coat of paint, one more tweak because, well, it’s just not ever good enough. Will it ever be good enough? Aiming for perfection can be excruciating. More to the point, it can get in the way of you becoming the best version of yourself.

Please don’t misunderstand. Striving for excellence and striving for perfectionism are not the same thing. Working hard, paying attention to detail and being your best when you show up for work or family is very different than trying to be perfect all the time.

Ultimately, perfectionism leads to failure. It rarely, if ever, leads to almost perfect or even pretty darn good. Why is that? For starters, it’s because you are working under the stress of trying to achieve a near impossible goal.

When you are trying to be perfect, chances are that you are not going to show up at all—you will struggle to live up to your own expectations. The inability to show up, to make yourself visible or to accept feedback can be huge roadblocks. You are failing yourself.

And it’s exhausting.

The fear of failing or of being judged—the very heart of perfectionism—can be paralyzing. How are you going to learn from your mistakes if you are stuck in neutral because of a fear of failure to move forward?

My daughter, the teacher

As adults, we have not only shut down our own creativity because of a fear of failing, but we have also trained ourselves to not take chances for fear of being judged.

My daughter—she’s eight—taught me that.

I was watching her the other day as she pulled up to the dining room table, paper and pencil in hand. Without the slightest hesitation, she began to draw. Within two or three minutes, you could identify the subject of her drawing. Was it perfect? No, but you could certainly tell what her intention was. And she was very proud to show it off.

Think about an adult—we’ll call her Anna—doing the very same thing. Paper and pencil in hand, Anna sits down at the dining room table. What’s the first thing Anna does? She talks.

“Well, I’m not very good at drawing—I haven’t done it since I was a kid.” (This both gives her an excuse and sets the stage for failure.)

Then, she sits and stares at the blank page. A few minutes later, she takes her pencil and makes a couple of short strokes. Despite her best efforts, it’s unlikely anybody can identify her subject.

Kids are authentic, they show up, they are fully present, and they have no fear of being judged. Armed with a keen desire to learn, failing just isn’t on their radar.

Put your fear in a box

One of my favourite coaching questions is, “What would you do if you could not fail?”

Imagine taking your fear of failing, putting it in a shoebox and taping the lid shut. No sunlight gets in and no fear gets out. You are free to experience and enjoy success! So, what are you going to do now that fear is not lurking around the corner? What are your next steps?

Can you commit to doing this? Can you fully appreciate that you are in charge, not fear? Once you are ready, you can look at fear, try to understand it, even accept it’s here. But don’t give in to it. Don’t let fear run the show.

Remember, the fear of failing and the fear of being judged are the drivers of your perfectionism. But failure and feedback are also gifts that will support your learning and fuel your growth. Tony Robbins says, “I’ve come to believe that all my past failure and frustration were actually laying the foundation for the understandings that have created the new level of living that I now enjoy.”

On the business front, the art of failing is important, as well. Businesses that allow their employees to experiment without worrying about judgement will experience accelerated growth.

“The secret of getting ahead,” said Mark Twain, “is getting started.”

Don’t let fear stop you from experimenting. Be authentic, be present. If you fail, accept it for the lesson that it is, one that will push you forward. And, even when you succeed, keep experimenting. Have fun. Live your life fully.