A Note On Perfection

Once upon a time, I worked a lot in the alpine ski industry. I was working through the coaching and instructing levels. As I was working to improve my skiing, I received one of the best pieces of advice. I was trying to get better at skiing in moguls, those large unpredictable mounds of snow, or sometimes ice, and on some rather steep terrain. Each and every time I felt myself falter I would come to stop. My friend, and the person trying to help me be a better skier, told me I had to learn to work through the mistake to move forward, and inevitably, get better. Sandy Gardner, you don’t know how often I’ve heard that voice when I have wanted to stop when I have faltered; you taught me to keep going. 

Perfectionists set a bar, usually, one that we would say is quite high, but it is limiting. Carol Dweck’s work mindset first opened my eyes to this, how being a perfectionist is really a fixed mindset compared to a growth mindset. Which is confusing, because generally, we might associate perfectionists as high achievers. Dweck has a great talk framing perfectionism that shows us how limiting being a perfectionist can be.

As a recovering perfectionist, we do, in fact, want to be high achievers. Here is where we get let down. When we falter, fail, or fall down we see ourselves as the problem, it elicits shame. Instead of learning, we tell ourselves we are not good enough and we usually quit whatever we are attempting to do. It’s less painful and easier to not have the ‘right gene’ than to admit we need to work hard.

As the work of Brené Brown shows us when you can turn ‘that was a mistake’ (guilt) from ‘I’m a mistake’ (shame) you’re ready to start to get up, to be resilient, and to learn from what happened. This is the difference between shame and guilt, and while shame cannot survive empathy we alone can learn to work through our guilt. As Brown says, perfectionism is also a way to armour up, which I discussed yesterday. Being resilient is not about correctness, it is not about being perfect. Being resilient is about moving through when you falter and fail. It is about those mirror moments of reflection as you move forward so that when you stumble again you no longer stop but you keep moving forward. It’s about being open to challenge. It’s about asking for help. It’s about letting go of what we thinking is right and opening our hearts and our heads to the opportunity.