“I don’t want to be perfect, I just want to be really good at something”.
D.T., 13 year old teenage male
We are conditioned to lean toward perfection. There’s the old adage “if you are going to do it, then do it right”. It’s not that big a leap to go from “do it right” to do it perfectly. We are expected to achieve and improve. We are told to get better grades all through school, by our teachers and our parents. We are compared either favourably or unfavourably to those around us and determinations are made as to our success or failure. This improvement must be brought about even if the so stated improvement has no personal meaning or payback for us.
Many of us are encumbered by the ideology of perfection. If you have experience with the pursuit of perfection, you may already know that striving for perfection may result in unhappiness, confusion, burnout and possibly a diminished sense of self-esteem. For those of us that routinely chase perfection, it is almost always a disappointing goal. What is perfection, anyway?
According to Dictionary.com, the definition of perfection is: “conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type”, and “excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement”. Broadly speaking, perfection is defined as a state of completeness and flawlessness.
Checking in with some folks, here is what I heard:
“Perfection is something that is unable to be improved upon”.
“Someone who never fails, does everything easily and perfectly, the first time”.
“I know I struggle with perfectionism…”
“I also realize the human race is quite un-perfect.”
“It physically makes me very unsettled, being a perfectionist… “
Four out of five of the comments mentioned above came from people who have ADHD, which I understand. We try harder.
Perfection is definitely getting in the way of reaching my goals. As a person with ADHD, there have been many who are critical of my ways of doing things. All manner of things. The desire to be perfect often results in my doing nothing. Even when I want more than anything to do something.
For example, I really wanted to write this article about perfection. I mean genuinely wanted to express my thoughts on the issue. The internal conversation that has gone on while writing it is oppressive and exhausting. As every word hits the page, it is scrutinized to be sure it’s the “perfect” word for the statement.
I am literally forcing myself to write this and not be concerned with what I think of what I write. Forcing myself to focus on what perfection has meant to me. In the name of the pursuit of perfection, I have done a great deal of procrastinating. Worrying over whether anything I do is good enough and then spending hours massaging the damn thing, editing it, and so it goes, just to be “the best it can be”, I hope. Moreover, there is a constant internal dialogue of “who cares anyhow?” Repeat that about four thousand times. That is my conversation internally as I write. Crazy town, right? How exactly, did I get here?
More importantly, how can I lose the need to be perfect and get on with living a life worth living? Sure, intellectually one can say, “Be yourself”, “Who cares what others think” and all that “rah rah” good stuff! Yeah right!
Well I lucked into something that has provided a springboard for me to revise everything I ever thought about having to have “A”s in every subject. If you haven’t had the opportunity to see Carol Dweck’s; “The Power of Believing that You Can Improve”, you are missing a great presentation on the Power of Yet. Putting our intelligence up for judgement sparks all kinds of peril. Whereas if we think in terms of not failure, but put learning on a path of growth mindset, it changes and illuminates the idea of perfection. Carol Dweck asks important questions about how we are raising our children. “Are we raising kids who are obsessed with getting A’s? Are we raising kids who don’t know how to dream big dreams? Their biggest goal is getting the next A or the next test score? And are they carrying this need for constant validation with them into their future lives?” Dweck goes on to say that one thing we can do is praise our children wisely, not praise intelligence or talent. She says praising intelligence and talent has failed and we ought not to do that anymore. However, praising the process that kids engage in: their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance and their improvement creates kids who are hardy and resilient, and they have a growth mindset, knowing that they are not there “yet” and they can improve.
Professor Dweck’s TED Talks presentation resonated with me, allowing me to reconsider the whole concept of perfection and A’s. The concept of “Yet” was enough that I could exchange my long held beliefs about being perfect to a belief that improvement in areas that are important to me is all I need concern myself with. And bonus: how I measure that improvement is up to me.
I invite you to view Professor Dweck’s enlightening 10 minute talk by clicking here:
Carol Dweck researches “growth mindset” — the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems. In this talk, she describes two ways to think about a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to solve. Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet? A great introduction to this influential field.
Rachel Dale Howard wrestles with ADHD every day. It’s Rachel’s personal mission to eradicate perfectionism one person at a time, while assisting others to be their best self. You can learn more about Rachel and the services she offers by visiting http://www.rachel-howard.com.