One of my favourite activities with my kids is to paint, draw and fill colouring books together. It’s fun to let our imagination go wild and paint orange dolphins, pink rainbows, and purple leaves.
One day when I sat with my kids (three and six) to colour, I noticed my daughter getting quite frustrated with her younger brother for not colouring within the lines. I found her getting agitated with herself each time she thought she had made a mistake. At one point, she was so disappointed with the overall “lack of quality” of performance of her fellow-colourers (my son and I) and her inability to colour ‘perfectly’ that she decided she should no longer go on and started to cry. With tears in her eyes, she said, “This picture is ruined. I don’t want to finish it.” I hugged her and said, “Perhaps it’s not turning out how you wanted it to be. But it still looks beautiful, and it would feel great to finish the task.”
When my husband returned home that evening, she proudly showed him our team effort with a beaming smile and said, “Look how beautiful the picture is.”
I felt relieved as a parent that day. If I could teach my kids to embrace imperfections as part of growth, creativity, work, and life in general, I know they will grow up to be kinder and braver human beings.
Perfectionism is tricky and lets us believe that it’s not possible to complete a task until we feel we have it ‘exactly right’. The truth is that chasing perfection is like chasing a mirage. The closer you get, the further it moves, and you can keep chasing it your whole life. Perfectionism drains our energy because we constantly feel the desire to do and be better. It stops us from being grateful and appreciative of what we have accomplished. Worst of all, perfection prevents us from putting our ideas and our work out in the world. That is not just self-sabotage; it is downright cruel. It stops us from expressing ourselves and the right to be the imperfect, work-in-progress humans, which is who we all are at the end of the day. As a writer, an aspiring artist, and an executive coach, I have experienced the dark side of this mindset many times in my life.
Some ways the need for perfection holds us back:
- It prevents us from starting something because we are not sure if the idea is good enough. So we quit even before we start.
- Reduces our productivity because we end up investing more time in perfecting a single piece of work.
- We don’t finish projects we have started because our work doesn’t feel up to the mark.
- We judge ourselves harshly for our work, even if we are doing our best and performing at our highest levels of efficiency.
How to move on from perfectionism to productivity:
These are the strategies I find helpful in embracing our imperfections and not letting ‘perfection’ come in the way of moving forward.
- Colour outside the lines. It’s something I tell my kids often. What colouring outside the lines means is not to confine your ideas or work to an established norm. Sometimes it takes thinking outside the box and doing things a little differently to make an impact.
Give yourself a similar challenge to embrace imperfection in a relatively low impact, low-stakes area of your life. Don’t re-read and edit that next LinkedIn blog five times before posting. Just once should be enough.
- Shift your attention from perfection to appreciation. People are often too hard on themselves. One often forgets to pause and celebrate what we have already accomplished in a drive to achieve more. Pause, step back, reflect and appreciate your efforts.
Find three things to appreciate about yourself from this week. Write that on a simple sticky note and put it somewhere where you can see it. Use this note to quieten the inner critical voice the next time it makes a guest appearance.
- Ask yourself: “What’s the worst that could happen?”
What’s the worst that would happen if you went ahead and made this presentation, or what’s the worst that could happen if you applied for a job you are not fully qualified for? What’s the worst that could happen if your blog does not have the perfect title?
Often when we challenge and question our irrational fears with a simple logical question, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and we realize that many of our fears are just our imagination, assumptions or insecurities. Being aware of the worst-case scenario and then taking a small step to move forward can alleviate some anxiety about getting things wrong or imperfect.
Next time you feel stuck in a suffocating grip of perfection and are unable to move forward, ask yourself: “What’s the worst that could happen?”
You cannot achieve what does not exist. Perfectionism is a myth; it doesn’t exist in the natural world and should have no place in ours either.
Remember that the world is not made beautiful by perfectly curated things and designs. The world is made beautiful by imperfections and by imperfect, bold and brave people who are not afraid of experimenting, trying, stumbling and standing up again.
Let everything that nature does remind us that it is alright to colour a leaf pink and not green. Not every sunset is yellow and orange, and it is okay to colour outside the lines.