Is Perfection the Enemy of Progress?

Perfect is good, right?

When it comes to learning, I‘m not so sure. Making mistakes is an important part of both learning new information and retaining it. Fear of appearing anything less than perfect may squash a learner’s willingness to ask questions and experiment with new ideas. If you are a perfectionist, you may even find yourself afraid to take on new challenges or use what you have learned because… what if you fail? Spoiler alert: if you fail, you will pick yourself back up and keep going.

What is interesting is how vastly our self-assessment varies from the way that we view others. While providing genuine encouragement to others through the normal ups and downs of their education or career, we may be simultaneously criticizing ourselves for our own stumbles. A perfectionist’s harshest critic is herself.

Illustration by Beth Evans. Visit her Instagram or Twitter for more.

I argue that we should be a little kinder and give ourselves some grace. Mentally belaboring our mistakes or shortcomings is a waste of energy and unproductive (perhaps even harmful) to learning. Allowing perfectionism to pervade our studies or work is a quick way to become so discouraged that we lose all confidence and motivation to continue.

So, how can we protect ourselves from our critical nature?

  1. Give yourself the same benefit-of-the-doubt that you give others. This is kind of the flip side of the golden rule. It’s likely that you would not have even raised an eyebrow if your coworker or classmate had made the same mistake that is currently making you feel completely inadequate. Be as forgiving of yourself as you are of others.
  2. Find the lesson in each mistake. Then make like Elsa and let it go. Mistakes are important and we shouldn’t dismiss them completely. There is a lesson to be learned each time we falter. Digging that lesson out of a negative experience can turn it into a positive experience and make us better. The important thing here is to discard any negative feelings and not dwell on the mistake itself .
  3. Strive for excellence, not perfection. Know that perfection is unattainable. Then try to achieve the next best thing. Excellence in learning may not look like anything close to perfection. At times, excellence may just mean doing your own personal best and embracing the bumps along the way.