“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” (Anna Quindlen)
The incomparable Neil Gaiman usually posts a New Year’s message as one year closes and another opens. I love those annual wishes. They are inspiring messages of hope and optimism for the year ahead. You can read many of them here. I was thinking recently about a few lines from his 2011 New Year’s edict: “I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes . . . . Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.” (Read the full message here.)
I think we often undervalue our mistakes. We try hard not to make them, and when we do make one, we often avoid thinking about it and perhaps even deny that we’ve erred. Do we fear others will think less of us if we are not perfect or if we admit our imperfection . . . or will we think less of ourselves?
Perfectionism is a terrible burden—and not something we should strive for. Gaiman further says, “…if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world….”
Let’s make it clear, however, that neither of us is advocating for surgeons to be sloppy or airline pilots to be careless. Nor does rejection of perfectionism grant permission to be lazy or slipshod. There’s a time and a place for everything.
Over the years, when interviewing potential employees, there were many who boldly stated that among their many other sterling qualities, they were proud to be perfectionists. I would ask what they meant by that and hear responses like, “I can’t be happy unless a task is done perfectly,” or “I will do whatever it takes to make sure there are absolutely no errors in any of my work.” Admirable sentiment on the surface, but let’s dig a little deeper.
If we always strive for perfection, how willing are we to try something new? Whether it’s speaking a foreign language, implementing a new software, or cooking a complex meal using new and unfamiliar methods or ingredients, there’s a very good chance we won’t get it right the first time. But that doesn’t mean we won’t learn valuable new information to put to use the next time. That doesn’t mean we won’t get better and grow.
We once had an employee, a delightful woman in her early 30s. Let’s call her Janet. She was smart and caring, and well-liked by her colleagues and our clients. There was one big problem, though: she consistently missed deadlines. And ours was a deadline-driven business. If a report was due to a client on a certain date, Janet wasn’t ready. If the newsletter deadline was looming, she needed more time. Meeting minutes were delayed because she just had to proof them a couple more times. We had several conversations about this and she would promise to try harder to make her deadlines, but still she missed them, and I could see this was causing her more and more stress. Finally, we sat down and had a long talk. She admitted that she was terrified of making a mistake—of leaving something out of the minutes, of making an error in the report, of a reader finding a typo in the newsletter. I reminded her that other people would be seeing all of these documents, too, and that they would likely catch any mistakes.
“But, I don’t want them to catch my mistakes. That’s my job. I want to get everything right.”
The longer we talked, the clearer it became that she was often paralyzed by fear of making a mistake. And me telling her that mistakes were not only okay, they were both essential and welcome, fell on deaf ears. Finally, I gave her an assignment:
“Tomorrow morning, send me an email—about anything—and deliberately include an error. Leave a word out, misspell a name, get a date wrong—any mistake you want to make. I’m the only person who will see it. It’s not going to matter in the slightest. You just need to see that the world doesn’t end if you make a mistake.”
She couldn’t do it. The next morning she came into my office in tears. She said she absolutely couldn’t hit “send” on a message that she knew contained an error.
“Even if you know I’m the only one who’s going to see it and that I asked you to do it?”
Yep. Even then.
I was at a loss. She had the knowledge and skills for the job, but she was self-sabotaging in her relentless pursuit of perfection. I didn’t want to give up on her, but a big change was needed—one she didn’t seem prepared to make.
It wasn’t too long after that she came to me to let me know she’d decided to move back to the Midwest to be closer to her parents. I later heard that she found a low-stress job in her home town. We maintained communication for a bit and then lost touch. I still wonder if perfectionism rules her life, or if she’s learned to be fallible.
While Janet’s paralyzing perfectionism was quite extreme, are there perhaps elements of it you can relate to? How many of us hesitate to undertake something new (a sport, a musical instrument, a new assignment…) because we fear looking inept or getting it wrong? Julia Cameron wisely said, “It’s impossible to get better and look good at the same time.”
Which is more important to you?
I know I’m guilty sometimes of worrying how I will be judged, or how clumsily I will mangle something before I finally master it. I don’t take enough risks in my writing, or in my attempts at kindness. This year, I plan to take Neil Gaiman’s advice and make some new mistakes. Some whoppers. And when I do, I hope I’ll pause and think about what I learned from my latest gaffe. Then, I hope I’ll laugh and try again.
That’s my wish for all of us.
“Your past mistakes are meant to guide you, not define you.” (Anonymous)