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July 01, 2022 4 min read

Perfectionism is a familiar foe.

Nearly all of us have experienced it in some form or another—whether it’s a trait that defines our behavior, one that shows up from time to time, or is something experienced second-hand through those close to us.

As children, many of us were taught to value and strive for perfection. Remember the old mantra? Practice makes perfect.

The more we dive into it, the more we discover the dark sides of perfectionism. Real perfection, in humans, doesn’t exist. We are nuanced, unique, and complex beings who are constantly learning and growing. Everything we do can be improved upon, from writing that report for work, honing our skills on the sports field, to expanding our artistic talents.

Renowned researcher and writer Brené Brown highlights an important distinction. “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best,” she writes. “Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.”

Healthy achievement and growth come from a different place—a progress mindset.

Choosing progress over perfection is a way to enhance our lives, promote positive learning and performance, and foster healthier connections with those around us.

Let’s face it; failure doesn’t feel great. We tried something, we put in the effort, and despite the effort, it didn’t go the way we wanted. That hurts.

But failure is an inevitable part of trying. It’s a stepping-stone to growth. If we try at anything, of course we are going to make mistakes. Renowned filmmaker Charlie Kauffman views failure differently. “Failure is a badge of honour,” he writes. “It means you risked failure.”

Risking failure is a bold action. It takes courage. That courage deserves to be recognized. By expecting and embracing failure, we are shifting focus onto the effort and progress we made, and reinforcing a progress mindset.

In Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life Anne Lamott talks about the importance of moving one step at a time. Her example, and the book’s title, come from her younger brother, who in grade school had to do a research report on dozens of different birds. It was the night before, and he hadn’t started.

Their father sat him down, and gently told him that it was going to be fine. All he had to do was take it one at a time—bird by bird. Lamott uses this example as a way to coach writers through the daunting task of writing. Sentence by sentence. Page by page. Bird by bird.

The same mentality can be applied to our mindset. We can choose to focus on our progress rather than looking at the daunting end goal. Our single steps, one after another, will take us where we are aiming to go.

Those single steps are important—and it’s essential to recognize their place in the whole puzzle.

As a writer, it’s easy to get focused on finishing the book I’m writing, and never celebrating until I’m there. But staying up that extra half hour to finish a chapter is a victory worth celebrating. Nailing that scene, after trying it four times, is a milestone worth remembering.

For Lamott’s brother, every bird he finished was progress, and a reason for celebration. The celebration doesn’t have to be a party with all of your friends. Just taking time, for yourself, in your own way, to recognize and appreciate the small victory is enough.

By celebrating the small steps, we can shift our mindset away from perfectionism, and this binary succeed/fail mentality, and calibrate towards a progress mindset. Did you finish writing a chapter? Celebrate! You applied to five new jobs this week? Celebrate! You stood your ground in a hard conversation? Celebrate it!

If we are going to start at something, we need to actually start. We all know aspiring entrepreneurs who never start their business, and aspiring writers who never actually start writing.

The first draft of just about everything isn’t very good, whether it’s a novel, a business proposal, a rough sketch of a painting, or the very first chords of a new song.

Lamott, once again, has a phrase for this. She calls it the shitty first draft. A perfectionist mindset tells us our first draft should be impeccable. A growth mindset tells us that most first drafts are going to be a mess—and that that is a great place to start.

Doing something imperfectly is the best way to learn how to do it better. We learn from those mistakes, and we move forward.

Progress is often viewed linearly, like walking up a staircase, up, up, up, at a steady pace. But it rarely goes that way. Often, we stumble. We fall. We slide backward, and then backward again. Those backsteps are not something to be ashamed of. They are essential to moving forward.

I work as a rock climbing routesetter, where I bolt hard plastic holds to climbing walls, and create routes for people to climb on. Four years ago, right as I was progressing out of being an apprentice, a climber ripped the final hold off the wall on one of my routes. It was 55 feet in the air, the hold was heavy and had sharp screws sticking out of it. It hurtled down to the ground, which was full of people.

Luckily, no one was injured. But I was devastated. It was a step backward, and in the moment, it felt like a huge one. I could have killed someone! I thought I was going to be fired. For weeks, my manager double-checked all my work practices, and I felt the progress and respect I had been earning slip backward.

But because of that slip backward, I studied what went wrong, and why it had failed. I learned the principles behind safe installment and dynamic force on a whole new level. And now, as I’m in a leadership role, I use that example to teach better practices, and show that we can move on from mistakes. That ‘failure’ has become one of the most useful tools in my toolbelt.

The steps backward, aren’t fun, but they are often gifts in disguise. Embracing them, rather than fighting them, is welcoming a progress mentality.