The Problem with “Perfection”

The Problem with “Perfection”

The Problem with “Perfection” – A reflection on perfectionism by a perfectionist. Something I’ve known for a very long time is that I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Not a big surprise to those that know me well, but it made me think recently how this idea of perfection within our own work, or within the work we do with kids, can hold us back from making real progress.

This article begins a little bit of a new phase for my blog writing. I’m intrigued on how the multimedia effect of podcasting and blogging together on the same topic can enhance each other as a tool for learning. Getting over this idea of “perfection or nothing,” I started the adventure of podcasting recently. The podcast episode, also titled, The Problem with “Perfection,” is now included in my new Podcast. Find it anywhere you listen to them online. It’s also embedded at the end of this article. You can listen to it pretty much anywhere you listen to podcasts. 

The push for perfection both helps me obsess over details to improve projects in my life, but of course, at times costs me with relationships and anxiety. This isn’t something that I can just see happening and turn off and on. No, it’s not that simple. It’s a part of my personality that I was born with, my DNA that drives almost every action I make. Like many of our other personality traits, they can can be both a blessing and a curse.

Guillermo del Toro stated, “In the end, perfection is just a concept – an impossibility we use to torture ourselves and that contradicts nature.”

Gloria Steinem says it another way, “Perfectionism is internalized oppression.”

Both are totally true, yet even knowing this, I feel powerless to stop it. Most of the time I don’t even know I’m being a perfectionist until I’m hours into a project or realizing that I’m isolating myself away from others, hyper-focused on minute details that probably most won’t even notice. 

The real problem with perfection is that it is a trap. There can be great success in the obsession towards perfection. Being obsessive compulsive on getting something done has its rewards. Past success further engrains the push for perfection even further into our psyche. 

Perfectionism is not all bad, though, no matter what others think. It can be the drive that helps you push through obstacles and adversity where others may falter. Some of the very best in their fields had this desire to achieve things that others thought was impossible. 

But being extreme towards chasing perfection comes with a cost, and at times, the cost can break the bank. That looks like in the real world strained relationships, stress to the point of getting sick, and a complete loss of perspective on what is important in our lives.

Psychology Today really puts it out there: “What makes extreme perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, resulting in a negative orientation. They don’t believe in unconditional love, [instead] expecting others’ affection and approval to be dependent on a flawless performance.”

High expectations can be a good thing. Goals that are hard to reach can be effective motivators. Hard work towards things you want to accomplish is what does drive success. 

But what is success? This imaginary place of success doesn’t really exist, and even when we get there for a brief, fleeting moment, a reflection of the time and energy spent shows that it may not have even been worth that extra effort to begin with.

Suzanna Reeves explained, “There is a difference between obsessive perfectionism and taking time to create something that is the best you can offer. Knowing what needs to be better and stretching to improve yourself is what separates the mediocre from the marvelous.” I love that. Stretching to improve yourself vs being a perfect individual.

How does this related to education and the work we do for our kids? The short answer is this: We can’t be perfectionists when it comes to reaching and teaching our most challenging students. They need our patience and compassion, allowing them to celebrate progress over perfection.

Let’s break it down.

Reflect: Reflection on our own personalities is so very important. Everything we do and say has an impact on our students. Whether we realize it or not, our personality traits need to be kept in check before they interfere with building relationships and motiving our kids. 

Plan for Planning: Planning on how we plan and do our work can help us be more efficient and effective. When we are working together in school to create a behavior plan, so many times we just quickly throw something together, but then later get frustrated when it doesn’t work. Or we meet, with no clear plan or protocol, but then get upset when we feel like we wasted out time. Consider implementing time limits, clear success criteria, using a clear process for collaboration, and pre-meetings. 

Individualize: Be careful comparing kids. Success for one student is not the same success as for another. Kids develop at different rates and their benchmarks for what success means to them are accordingly different. Just because many students understand how to act and behave appropriately does not mean that every child was blessed with that intrinsic skill, let alone the support needed at home. Compare kids only with themselves and their own progress.

Appreciate Progress: Even educators who are not perfectionists in their own lives, can possibly act in this same sort of way when helping to improve the behaviors they see in their students. Just like in a football game, every play does not get a perfect result. Some plays are one-yard dives down the middles. Others are a 15 yard out-route to the sidelines. We cheer much louder for the big plays, but really they all get you to the goal, even the sack of the quarterback losing 8 yards backwards. It’s all part of the touchdown drive, and each yard should be hard fought to earn and then celebrated. When you have a setback, consider it for what it is and keep your head up for the next play. This happens all the time – a student struggles. We put some things in place to help. Out of nowhere, boom! Another bad day. Frustrated and feeling like we are failing, we tend to want to change everything again, but what is really needed is to just think about the very next day and how we can help that child. The long game is what matters. Improvement over time. Progress, not perfection.

Be Brave: Don’t be afraid. If you are fighting this battle in your own head, stuck in the mud because you are afraid to get started, only thinking of the ways you can fail or how your students won’t make progress, don’t be afraid, you have others to help you. Life is not perfect, it’s messy. Appreciate the struggle that makes life both fantastic and suspenseful. If we knew how it all would go from the beginning, life would be miserable. Enjoy the ride, but put your foot to the gas pedal to get moving! 

Accepting: Acceptance is the key. It’s ok for you to be who you are, as long as we find little ways each day to improve ourselves. Forward momentum, not stressing about the end goal, but instead about just being better people. That same thing could be said for our students. Accept them for who they are. Help them make small improvements in their lives every day. Celebrate any forward progress they are making. Understand that they will never be perfect. Neither will you. And that’s ok.

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