Before I continue, let me remind you of the two definitions from my last post:
Perfectionism (n): refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.
Balance (v): keep or put (something) in a steady position so that it does not fall.
The thing about perfectionism is that it is all or nothing. The reality is that either we reach our goals, or we don’t; either we meet our expectations, or we don’t. But a perfectionist attitude counts every “or don’t” as a failure.
A perfectionist sets a goal of losing 30 pounds, but when she loses only 25, in her mind, she has failed. The 25 pounds are meaningless, because she failed to lose the extra 5. A perfectionist expects to get 100% on an exam that she has studied hard for, so a 98% is failure. The constant thought in her mind is “I failed to do what I set out to do.”
Perfectionism eclipses progress.
The perfectionist mantra is “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Let me say it again: perfectionism eclipses progress.
The sad truth about perfectionism is that it will never be satisfied. The life of a perfectionist is a life of always falling short. It is a life of never measuring up, a life of viewing failure as something you are instead of something you do. Sadly, we often live our lives with this “do or do not” attitude. Either I did it, or I didn’t do it. Trying is obsolete.
We’re all just repeating decimals. Yes, I’m going to use a math analogy.
No, you may not stop reading.
Remember learning about repeating decimals? You know, when you turn 1/3 into a decimal and you get 0.33333……?
Those numbers go on for actual ever. And, when you’re doing math, the more of those threes you use, the more accurate your answer will be. But here’s the thing I could never get over: The more threes there are, the closer the number gets to 0.4, but no matter how many threes there are, it will never get there. You can add all the threes you want, but 0.33333……… will never, ever arrive at 0.4. That’s just not how it works.
We are like repeating decimals. The things that we do, decisions that we make, and the ways we spend our lives are like threes. The 0.4 represents that goal of perfection. No matter how many threes we add, we can’t actually ever become 0.4. Why? Because we’re meant to be 1/3, not 2/5. It is impossible for us to reach perfection.
So why even add any threes at all? Because although you cannot reach perfection, you can attain excellence. There is a HUGE difference between being “perfect” and excelling.
Let me put it this way: Life is about progress. Do you realize how long it took you to learn to talk? Go ask your primary caregiver about all the years between when you were a baby just beginning to babble until you got this whole language thing down. I can guarantee that you didn’t catapult from “da-da” right up to forming fully grammatical sentences overnight. Why? Because speaking required progress, and progress happens in stages. Literally. If progress didn’t happen over time, it wouldn’t be progress. In case you don’t believe me, here’s a definition:
Progress (n): forward or onward movement toward a destination.
The thing that sucks about being human is that we never actually reach a destination (perfect). If you are a native speaker of English, then you are considered fluent. In fact, chances are that you consider yourself to be fairly proficient in English. You don’t stress or fret about how much English you know (but if you’re a perfectionist, you might after what I am about to tell you).
Merriam-Webster claims that in the unabridged version of their dictionary, there are an approximately 470,000 words, but according to one study, the average native speaker of English knows between 20,000 and 35,000 of those words. This means that even if you consider yourself proficient in English, chances are, you know less than 10% of all English words (4%-7% to be exact).
All of this is to say, stop freaking out, and stop letting “do or do not” diminish your “try.”
Even if there are some things you’re not good at, even if you fail sometimes, remember that 4-7% of the English language is all you need to excel at English.
When I was learning American Sign Language, I used to ask my professors a lot, “What is the sign for that?” If I didn’t know the exact sign for something, I would freeze, and I couldn’t say anything at all.
Finally, one of my professors did something that changed my entire perspective on ASL, and on life. Whenever I asked, “What is the sign for…” she responded, “What does it mean?” I was looking for something exact, but she pointed me back to the fact that language is all about meaning. If you can convey what you mean, then you’ve successfully mastered the language.
I think that life is the same way. Life, like language, is all about meaning. I often say, “As long as people know what you mean, you don’t have to use real words.” And it’s true.
Instead of focusing on getting everything exactly right, let’s focus on meaning. That’s where the balance is. Even if you fall short of your goal, even if your expectation is not met, ask yourself, “But was there meaning? Did I learn something? Was there value in the experience? What can I take away from this? Where’s the progress? Did I get a little bit better?”
I can guarantee that if you ask those questions, you’ll begin to loosen your grip on perfection, stop grasping for the “right words,” and you’ll begin to see the value in the experiences that make up your life.
It’s time we flip our paradigm upside-down and choose to value progress over perfection.
What can you do today to change your perspective on perfection? How are you already striving for excellence? Where is perfectionism tearing down your ability to progress? Take some time right now and commit to tearing down perfectionism in your life. Think of some concrete, doable ways you can change your habits, patterns of thought, and routines to weed out perfectionism.