A few years ago on a college campus, a ceramics professor decided to try an experiment on one of his classes. At the start of the semester he divided the class into two groups and explained that each group would be graded differently.
Group 1 would be graded on the total number of pots they could create throughout the semester, with a minor importance given to quality.
Group 2 would be graded on just one pot. They had all semester to work on just one pot so they better make it impressive.
At the end of the semester, the students all turned in their work for grading. To the professor’s amusement, the 5 highest quality pots all came from the group who was focused on quantity over quality. In fact, most of the pots from Group 2 were terrible. They just looked like over-worked lumps of hollowed out clay.
Why did this happen?
It happened because there is enormous value in working at something over and over until you learn from your mistakes and gradually improve. Failure can be an amazingly effective teacher if we allow it to be.
There is also something detrimental to trying to be perfect all the time. Perfectionism can cause us to be overly critical of ourselves and our work. Sure, it can produce great results from time to time but more often than not, leaves a person feeling frustrated and unsatisfied.
From Psychology Today, “For perfectionists, life is an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. A one-way ticket to unhappiness, perfectionism is typically accompanied by depression and eating disorders. What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure.”
As stated above, perfectionism isn’t so much a valiant yearning for higher quality as much as it is a misunderstanding of the value of failure. When we are totally focused on failure or avoiding it, we lose perspective about the big picture of life and learning. We focus on our faults and shortcomings and see them strictly as barriers instead of opportunities.
While many perfectionists accomplish a lot in life in some aspects, a vast majority of them are suffering on the inside. They will never feel good enough or at peace.
I don’t know what the exact solution is. I tend to be too much of a perfectionist and I see myself falling into negative thought patterns of inadequacy from time to time. I seem to magnify my shortcomings and minimize my successes. I’ve struggled with it my whole life and didn’t realize it until the last few years.
For the other perfectionists out there, my advice would be that we start to embrace the enormous value of failing. And that we give ourselves permission to fail from time to time. Paradoxically, the more we fail, the closer we will come to perfection because of what we learn.
Lastly, I actually hate using the word “fail.” I think that the events we call “failures” are only really failures if we allow them to be. Every one of these failures is an opportunity and learning experience. We can step back and say, “Wow, that really did not work out how I wanted it to. Next time I’m going to do it differently.”
We are not perfect. We will never be perfect in this life…and that’s okay. So let’s just do our best and learn from the opportunities.
When we approach it this way, we can truly say that we are “failing forward.”
Who knows, in the end we may just fail our way into perfection.
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