The problems with perfectionism
“Some time when the river is ice / ask me mistakes I have made.”
– William Stafford, “Ask Me”
You’re still reading? Good. So I’m not alone. The topic, mistakes, is not an easy one. We can be defensive about our glitches and errors and blunders. But if we’re human, mistakes are inevitable.
One of my mentors, now retired, wrote an almost-glowing letter of reference for me after I volunteered in his office. In paragraph three: “She learns from her mistakes.” Oh no… what kind of recommendation is that? Yet I knew he was often annoyed with individuals who felt they were perfect from the outset. He felt it easier to get the best out of someone who took feedback. Older and occasionally wiser now, I think “Describe a mistake and how you rebounded from it” could indeed be a good interview -- or daily reflection -- question.
A friend once called me a perfectionist. That was an unwelcome comment, too. No one likes a perfectionist – so unrealistic and annoying – and I thought my inner demon was not apparent to others. But in the light of his insight, I remembered tearing up my drawings in early childhood because they were not as good as I wanted. Last November I resisted my urge to throw my new phone out the window afraid of pushing the wrong button even on a touchscreen, impatient with my own mistakes.
Nevertheless, I suspect that if one is not making a few mistakes on campus or off, a learning curve may not be steep enough or one is staying within a comfort zone, avoiding risk. An even bleaker possibility: One is oblivious to the truth about oneself. This is a hazard of those bolstered in their work by many others. Even as “do no harm” is an imperative in many fields, “minimize the fallout of your mistakes and learn from them” could be a close second.
In this column, one of two, it would be sheer folly for me to claim I have a foolproof method of mistake prevention. But I’ve identified some errors I’ve observed on campus that detract from kindness. In the second column, I’ll share research leads that colleagues and students helped me assemble on mistakes and perfectionism. There is much advice available. And in so vast a field, the easy mnemonic MISTAKE may help us stay on course – avoiding extremes of hypervigilance or nonchalance.
Make a really big deal about others’ mistakes. (That’s a mistake.)
I almost walked off a job once because a client threw a screaming fit about an inserted comma in a company name. I had a reason for doing that, though: I had been told to do so by an employee of the very company who, in fact, had been wrong. On the other hand, I had a boss in the same position who believed that the important thing when a blunder happens is to preserve the confidence of the mistake-maker(s), or so he told me when he asked me to explain a major printing mistake to a client. That time, I was not the mistake-maker, and as it turned out, the client was not too upset at all. I learned as much from his extraordinary gentleness as from the other client’s unbridled outrage.
Tip: Equanimity is O.K. when striving for a solution.
If you catch a mistake: bark and bite. (That’s a mistake.)
I remember being admonished in a lunch line for not “knowing” that the short line was for beverages and the longer for food. Signage was lacking. A newbie, I was not only scolded, but “Can you believe this woman?” seemed to echo behind the counter. Maybe I’m at my most shy and distracted when hungry or thirsty.
Tip: Have some mercy on the befuddled.
Shhh…. never “fess up” to anything you might have done to prevent the error. (That’s a mistake.)
Own your part in glitches in our busy and interdependent world. It might be there. A little oversight – one unfulfilled book order, for example – does affect a fair share of people. On one campus, hearing from my students that required texts were not on the shelf the first night of classes, I could have thrown my own fit without investigation. Instead, I heard myself saying to students: “I’m trying to balance my awareness that this oversight saves you money with the fact that it creates more work for me, more week-to-week handouts, online links, and so on.” The error reminded me that my abandoned habit of going to the bookstore to check for shelved books was not a symptom of OCD – it made sense. And as it turned out, there was a happy ending: the books were in boxes, just unpacked.
Tip: If you can, catch the ball before it is dropped.
Take credit yourself for everything that goes right and ignore the rest. (That’s a mistake.)
Most of us know what it feels like to lack recognition for our part in a team effort we contributed to, whether increased enrollment, improved retention, fund-raising goals, or a redesigned curriculum. Even “simple” day-to-day operations from fixing computers to keeping the campus infrastructure running involve many correct decisions and well-implemented functions. It is a serious management mistake to ignore collaborative efforts throughout an organization – in other words, what’s going right. For those on the fast track: It is also a human relations error to “manage up” while never looking around. Those without recognition or a high profile may indeed be service-oriented but should never be taken for granted. Most people know the necessity of maintenance under the hood, but sadly some seem more attentive to cars and their own careers than those of their employees. Showing appreciation boosts morale and can promote productivity.
Tip: Find ways to acknowledge what is going well – don’t wait for mistakes to have your presence known.
Abstain from noticing frequent foibles of others. (That’s a mistake.)
If mistake-makers are subordinates, perhaps they are insufficiently trained. If that’s the case, a larger mistake is not being thorough in paving the way to help them succeed. Equally important is offering enough reinforcement for doing things the right way: People need feedback. What if coworkers are stumbling on the job? Inquire about fatigue or overload. You may be able to help the person troubleshoot. Be a colleague. If mistakes abound, there is a root cause to be explored. Don’t wait until a snafu to begin remediation.
And what if one’s superior is floundering? A position of power is not mistake-proof. A friend of mind, a skilled accountant now retired, used to “sweat bullets” (as she put it) when she found errors of her supervisor time and again. Though she dreaded pointing them out, her sense of responsibility to the profession bolstered her.
Tip: Opening communication may be a risk, but it may be the lesser evil than ignoring errors.
Keep a mental ledger of everything that goes wrong for the purposes of beating yourself up. (That’s a mistake.)
We all know, or know of, people who seem to lack a conscience. And at the other end of the spectrum are others who can’t let go of their own perceived errors or missteps, small and large, and sow seeds of self-recrimination designed more to self-punish than to grow or change. If one of your faults is self-attack, work on it. You may be planting the seeds for depression or burnout if your thought cycle continues.
Tip: “Forgive yourself for your faults and your mistakes and move on.” - Les Brown, via BrainyQuotes.
Explore the potential of humility. (Not a mistake.)
Recently, I was asked by a contact for my definition of humility. She had lived most of her life thinking of it as groveling but wanted to reconsider the term. To me, humility is knowing that, “There are three sides to every story: the side I don’t see, the side you don’t see, and the side that neither of us sees,” to quote an adage I dutifully typed out though its attribution was vaguely “Chinese proverb.” There is always more in a scene than we can fathom. In a sense, as Niels Bohr put it, “an expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a narrow field.”
Tip: It is only by ongoing practice, with all the trial and error that entails, that a wider field of vision on campus might be attained. It takes courage to acknowledge our own limits.
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.
Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
– Scott Adams