Why You Shouldn’t Strive for Perfection

A course I went through recently had an interesting twist on a standard approach toward teaching. For each attempt we made at writing a paper or article, the instructions were as follows:

  1. Write something that is just “so-so”
  2. Do some research or get some feedback from a mentor or a teacher
  3. Try again to make it better.

The course argued that just following these simple steps would take the fear and paralysis out of writing that stops most students from being able to write well. I think this is an excellent way to approach any new skill you want to learn.

Seeking perfection is a sure way to meet with failure; you can never achieve “perfect” anything because when you’re learning, you won’t get there right away and when you’re a pro, you inevitably see how much more there is to learn. Instead you should strive to improve. Incremental improvement is a much better goal.

The beauty of this strategy is three-fold:

1.When you work toward making something just “so-so,” it takes all the anxiety and fear out of the experience. Learning a new skill can be so frustrating. Let’s take bread baking, for instance. If you want to learn to bake bread but you have never done it before, you will be overwhelmed with the amount of advice, the variety of ingredients, and the terminology you will encounter. It’s all enough to make you want to pack up and go home. If you have visions of a perfect loaf of bread in your head, with a lovely brown, crackly crust and luscious chewy inside, you will surely be disappointed after your first try. You will think, “How can anyone ever manage to do this properly?”

 

But if you instead admit to yourself that your first loaf probably won’t win any prizes but that you’re going to try anyway, you are setting the bar for initial success much lower. It’s attainable to make an “OK” loaf of bread. Maybe the first couple won’t be edible, maybe they will be disasters, in fact, but that’s alright, because you didn’t expect a whole lot at the beginning. Each time you will learn something else that will help you improve.

 

You make adjustments along the way, hopefully get some good bread-baking advice from a friend or a good cookbook, and after a few more tries, your bread is getting better. You’re seeing progress!

 

2.Once you’re not worried about failing, you can concentrate on your task. Strangely, it’s only when you’re not afraid of failing, that you can have the confidence to take a risk and try something new. It’s at this point that you have the highest probability of seeing some success. If everything is on the line, it’s much, much harder to take a risk.

3.As you work toward step #3, “make it better,” you are acknowledging that there’s plenty to learn. True experts (of bread-baking or just about anything else) will always be honing their craft, looking to learn more and produce a better product, or give a better performance. By working toward continued improvement, you set yourself up for greatness.

 

What’s so bad about perfection?

Of course there will be plenty of times when you do achieve a level that you are satisfied with. You can make a “perfect” loaf of bread, play that piano piece exceptionally well, or write the “perfect” sales letter. There’s nothing wrong with that. The key is not to make perfection your goal at the outset. And if the skill is something that is central to your life, you probably will find that you need to be continually learning and growing in that area.

 

In summary:

  1. In learning a new skill, don’t focus on perfection.
  2. Make your goal to produce something “ok”, then get some help, and then make improvements.
  3. Rinse and repeat until you are satisfied.

I do know how to make what I consider a pretty darn good loaf of bread. I’ve gotten as far as I wish to go in this area. But I’m glad I know not to focus on perfection when I’m tackling other new skills. It takes off a lot of the pressure and frees me up to focus on learning.

Do you think focusing on perfection when learning is a recipe for failure?


Sarah Mueller is a busy mom to 4 boys and blogs at Early Bird Mom about how to increase productivity at home and in home business.


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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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