Stop being a perfectionist.
How many times have you made a New Year’s resolution and failed to follow through on it? Maybe you just made one and have slipped up already.
I have. My resolution for 2020 was to post an article every 3 days. I failed immediately.
But, it was also completely unrealistic. I have a home renovation underway that is taking away my time and headspace from writing.
You might think, if your resolution meant enough to you, you would have made time for it.
Isn’t this our natural reaction to failure? To blame ourselves, to make ourselves feel like shit, to beat ourselves up over and over again?
Here’s the problem: it won’t help. Even though it feels perfectly natural to berate ourselves for failure, this only sets us up for more failure in the future. This mindset of needing to get everything perfect the first time is a key factor in what’s causing us to fail in the first place.
There is a balance to be struck between wanting to change and needing to get things right. Most of us overshoot this balance.
The question is, how do we find the balance so we can change?
Finding the right balance
Our attitude toward change is complicated.
If we’re honest with ourselves, the thought of changing causes us to feel anxiety, fear, helplessness, anger — all the bad things. We hate changing, and we especially hate it when we try to change but fail to do so.
And when we do fail — which is inevitable — don’t we make a trophy out of the experience and place it on our shrine to failure so we’ll never forget?
Many of us are sent the message at a very young age that mistakes are unacceptable — that we are “bad” for making errors. Since all learning is essentially done through making mistakes, this message cripples us.
What’s worse is that we are expected to improve, by our parents, our teachers, our peers. So, when we do fail, it feels like we haven’t just let ourselves down, but everyone else, too.
This is a recipe for unbridled stress and the feeling that change is impossible.
Our fear of failure and mistakes has been passed down through the ages like a family heirloom. It’s with us whether we want it or not. The question is, what are we going to do about it?
We all know intellectually that change and learning involve failure, defeat, and pain. But, have you actually accepted this truth? Do you keep this truth on the top of your mind while going through change?
Probably not. Instead, most of us imagine ourselves killing it. We imagine effortlessly improving and achieving whatever goal we set out to do. Yet, when has this ever been reality?
When we’re going through change, we’re mostly a ball of nerves. We’re scared, anxious, and losing our minds. We’re not ourselves.
A year ago, I was put on a project leading the creation of a small team. I had never done this kind of work before, yet people were looking to me for answers. I was terrified of screwing up, and my fear crippled me. It was difficult for me to do anything.
It’s precisely at moments like these when we need to remember that change and learning require us to fail. It doesn’t mean that the whole thing will be a disaster, it means that we are going to try to do the right thing but it just won’t work. People won’t like it, you’ll forget a key piece, you’ll misunderstand the purpose— these are natural things when you’re learning something new.
The most important thing you can do in the face of errors and mistakes is to keep moving. Don’t let your embarrassment and shame stop you. That things have not gone smoothly is normal. If something goes perfectly, chances are you haven’t been challenged, you haven’t learned anything, and you haven’t grown.
As author and Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, said, “Fail. Fail Again. Fail better.” She was trying to communicate to us a simple truth that is terribly difficult for us to employ: she’s asking us to have the courage to look like fools so that we may improve.
Are you prepared to look like a fool? Can you put your ego aside and take that risk? Can you get thrown to the ground and get back up again, knowing that you and the dirt are about to become intimate friends?
It’s in this simple truth that we find our balance. If we know that change involves a certain degree of challenge and pain and if we can hold this knowledge in our minds as we change, we can get through it. Then, we begin to see that our journey doesn’t end with the first slip up, or the second, or the third. The slip-ups are part of the journey — an integral part.
People change all the time, right?
You might have one friend starting her own business. You might have another friend learning how to bake. Another might have just quit his job to go backpacking all over the world.
When we see people change, it often seems like it’s happening suddenly, like they just woke up one day and made a huge decision to change their lives. It looks like these people have an impossible amount of willpower, strength, and perseverance, doesn’t it? So, you think to yourself, if only I was as mentally tough as they are, I could change, too.
The trouble with this way of thinking is that we can never know the internal workings of another human being, not from simply observing them, anyway. When we perceive change in others it seems sudden, but it’s probably not.
The friend who started her own business? She’s been thinking about it for years, but has been too scared to commit to it.
The friend who’s learning to bake? She bought 27 cookbooks before finally trying a recipe.
The friend who decided to quit his job and go backpacking? He’s been languishing in his job for years, hating every minute of it, wishing for freedom.
We often think that change happens when we’re fed up with our lives. We think that this should be all the motivation we need to change. But, the truth is that change doesn’t often happen until we’re fed up with being fed up.
When you realize you want to change some aspect of your life you are planting a seed in your mind. With some love and care, that seed will sprout and eventually flower. But, it won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, you will try to change and fail. You will try again and fail. And you will continue to fail until the time is right.
This is how change works. Once an idea enters your consciousness it takes time for it to turn into something real. Our brains prefer to maintain the status quo — they will resist rapid change. So, we need to work with what we’ve got, rather than lament that it takes so much effort to get what we want.
What matters is that we accept the time and effort it takes to change. What matters is that we are kind to ourselves on the journey. What matters is that we don’t give up.
Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author who lived for more than 50 years with Lou Gehrig’s disease, probably said it best:
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the Universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
Thanks for reading!