Un-Learning Perfect: A Quest for Courage

PerfectGiven the choice between perfection and courage, choose courage. Perfection is easy because there is often a measure of safety involved. There’s no great unknown, no proverbial leap. No net needed. As someone who has strived for perfection for nearly three decades, I haven’t only mastered the art of playing it safe, I’ve relied upon it as a default setting.

Of course, there have been brief experiments. I’ve dabbled with the unknown. But every time I push off the wall out into the uncharted waters, I find myself clawing my way back, desperate for the familiar. The terror has little to do with the new experience and everything to do with the unrecognizable. I can tame what I understand.

As a high school student working part time, my dad taught me how to open an IRA. From the time I was fourteen until the time I was twenty-seven, I kept my money in that same bank certificate of deposit. Occasionally, I’d roll it over for a longer length of time. Once, I even tried to move banks, but my local bank decided to match the competitor’s interest rates. For thirteen years, I played it safe. On the surface, my plan seemed perfect. Each year, I had more money than the last. Up, up, and away. How many fourteen-year-olds do you know that can explain the benefit of an IRA? How many twenty-year-olds understand the importance of maxing out a Roth? Oh, the savings. Oh, the financial literacy.

But the cowardly thing is also, of course, the costly thing. By leaving my money locked in a bank certificate of deposit, I’d never lose my money. I can’t tell you what a relief that embossed FDIC-Insured sticker on my paperwork was. I also never really made any money. In fact, my savings were not keeping pace with inflation, not by a long stretch.

I finally got up the courage to move my money — all of my money — over to a Vanguard Retirement Account. I was in uncharted territory when the bottom fell out. Twice. To say that I’ve failed at investing is grand hyperbole. In fact, I’d argue the only way to truly fail at investing is to not invest. To say that I failed at timing the market — were that ever my intent — would be an understatement. But from this single leap, this momentary act of courage came confidence. Courage begets more courage.

Growing up, I tracked my grades like my life, my intelligence, my entire future depended on every tenth of a percent. The front inside cover of every notebook for every subject area had a chart that listed the assignment name, the points possible, the points I’d earned, and my running grade in the class. Right-brained tendencies momentarily forgotten; not even weighted grades and final exams could stand in the way of me knowing every grade down to the exact point.

Looking back, a lot of good came from this pursuit of perfection. I was placed in a gifted program in the third grade. By college, I completed an honors program, earned a grant to research in Mexico, and graduated with summa cum laude emblazed on my diploma. Perfection unlocked doors.

Perfection also cost me a great deal. My junior year of high school, math got hard. Honors Precalculus with Trigonometry engaged my mind but it threatened my GPA. Instead of pursuing another calculus class senior year, I opted for statistics instead. That Spanish endorsement that I was two classes shy of in college? I didn’t get around to completing them until after graduation, after I was summa cum laude. When I think back to many classes, I remember grades. I don’t remember the learning. In fact, when students ask me for help with their math work now, I wonder why I don’t teach math. The equations dance like little riddles on the page, promising an answer, begging to be solved. The truth is, it is only exciting now because I can work the logic, I can manipulate the formulas, I can solve for the variables without any consequence. My answer may be wrong. But then I can try again. Life isn’t about perfection, it’s about the courage to explore.

This evolution will be gradual, perhaps even lifelong. The recognition that I am about to step into the possibility of a mistake, that I am contemplating the long way, the wrong way, or a dead end is unsettling. It is counterintuitive to the safety that I’ve embraced. It is painful. But it is something that has taught me a great deal.  

Today, when I teach, I teach courage. I encourage my students — and their families — to celebrate learning, not just grades. As I fast approach my thirtieth birthday, I’m pursuing courage in all aspects of my life. Of course, I want to do things well, but I also want to do things differently. Life does not have to perfect. Life will never be perfect. Now that I’m slowly opening myself up to the unpredictability, the uncertainty, the utter chaos, I am learning and I am living. And it’s great to be alive.

So Tell Me…How do you combat perfectionism? Care to share a recent act of courage?

Un-Learning Perfect: A Quest for Courage

14 thoughts on “Un-Learning Perfect: A Quest for Courage

  1. I am extremely Type A, and there are times when it is very annoying. I combat perfectionism every day of my life, along with a compulsion to work or be productive every day of my life. No acts of courage to share here – I’m just trying to survive myself and my own crazy expectations!

  2. I am a perfectionist, and I’ve had to cope a lot recently with trying to be more productive – something that’s hard to do when you want to spend all of your time on one thing alone.

    To cope, I’ve had to decide what things are worth being perfect, and what things are OK being only partially done, or not at all. If I’m going to send a blog post I’ve written to a client, I will spend more time making sure that is perfect. I am one of those people that can get lost easily down Internet rabbit holes doing research – I’ll spend all day doing research for a $50 blog post. At some point though, it isn’t worth it, so I’ve just accepted that I can’t learn everything there is to know on one topic and still be profitable. I have to accept that maybe it’s OK that my one little blog post won’t shake the grounds of human knowledge, not for $50.

    I also have two research articles that I’ve been meaning to edit and publish from work I did on my master’s thesis…a year ago. I really should have gotten them out by now, but it’s a HUGE undertaking to do so, and for no financial benefit. So, for now, I’m not working on that. Same with doing household chores – I’ve got a messy house, because I don’t always have the time to clean it. And that’s OK – it lets me do other, more important things.

  3. I can relate to this so much, Penny! I have been afraid to try things because failure seemed so devastating. My recent act of courage has been more personal in nature, but I agree that the best things in life are worth risking failure for!

  4. I am not enough of a perfectionist, probably. Oh, I like to be “right,” and I don’t like to be called out on “wrong.” But I’m mostly okay with “good enough” and “got it done.” I don’t think I was always like that. I remember getting teased for crying if I didn’t get 100 on a spelling test. But life became easier when i learned to move on and accept that not everything will always be 100%.

  5. Much depends on your emotional consitution. Many of us, including me, are attracted to the familiar. I feel like I can relax when I know what to expect. When it comes to something new, I want to know how to do it before I actually do it. So yeah, I have the perfectionist thing going.

    I had a friend who wanted to be an art director at a major NYC ad agency. He was a good artist but knew nothing about advertising. He lied through his teeth to get in the door, learned on the job, and made quite a career out of it. I could never do that.

  6. I hate to say that I have no concept at all of this perfectionism thing. But I do see it in Mr. T and my oldest daughter, Penny. They are so precise, so careful, and so calculated, everything they produce is a masterpiece. This is not me and I struggle to have both the patience and the encouragement for caution when it comes to Penny. If you figure out a good balance, let me know how I can parent it. 🙂

  7. I so relate to this, especially your note about perfection costing a great deal. One of my major regrets is not taking more chances with the subjects I studied in college. Thinking (somewhat correctly) that my GPA would determine my career prospects, I was determined to have it as high as possible, which meant avoiding classes in which I didn’t think I could get an A. If I could do it over again, I would take more foreign languages, history, philosophy, art… not just more courses in my areas of strength.

  8. Yes to all of this! I’m definitely the perfectionist in our relationship, so I’m sure Mr. ONL would agree with very little of this. 🙂 But yeah, I was definitely the textbook overachiever in school, and that has done a lot of great things for me. But it means I’m in completely uncharted territory as we plan to leave our careers… what will my status be with no gold stars?! How will I define myself without a title and something to strive for? I think about this stuff a lot, though fortunately ER takes years to achieve, so I’ve had a lot of time to come to terms with the idea of living with no marks of achievement, and I think I can handle it. Oh, and definitely yes to missing out on investment gains by playing it too safe. I was the young 20s person who was investing… but in bonds. :::face palm::: 🙂

  9. I have always been one to take risks, and I have had good and bad results. Some of the risks I took placed me deeper in debt, but provided me with rich experiences. Other risks, like joining the Air Force, have given me huge benefits and allowed me to pay for the risks that didn’t turn out so well. I think, in the end, it all evens itself out. More often than not, I’m glad I took the risk. Life is too short to play it safe. 🙂

    On that note, I just love your blog.

  10. I love this message. I too struggled with the concept of always being perfect. It has held me back in so many aspects of life and I have finally realized through personal development mostly, that I need to let the perfection mentality go. Thanks for this great read.

  11. I remember realizing that life would never be ‘perfect.’ What an epiphany! There would always be something–car trouble, sickness, a bad roommate, something broken. I thought that if I could tackle my to-do list aggressively enough, life would be perfect and would stay that way if I worked really hard and worried enough. Ha! Realizing that some things are just part of life was sad yet liberating all at once.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only person who thinks this is bittersweet. But as long as we keep aspiring, working, trying, and experiencing, I think we’re all on the right paths.

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