I saw the black leather boxing glove an instant before it landed solidly on my right temple. Although less than full strength, the blow made my knees buckle and sent a shower of sparks across my brain.
I dropped to one knee, hoping to clear my head. I was training with the world champion kickboxer, Philip Botha, who was instructing me on a technique that I couldn’t seem to master. Time after time, I tried and failed. My frustration grew. I slammed my gloves into the ropes, shouted curses into the air, and finally, I did what no fighter should ever do: I dropped my hands in complete frustration.
And that was when he hit me.
Like all great teachers, his intention was not to hurt, but instead, to drive home an important lesson.
“Do you see what you’re doing?” he asked, removing his mouthpiece. He was yelling as he crossed the boxing ring. “You’re expecting to be perfect, and when you’re not, you give up in frustration. Every time you do that, you learn nothing.” He reached down to help me up, and then smiled. “Even worse, you miss all the fun.”
It was a message I would not forget, because it showed me one of the greatest lessons of my life: the high price of perfection.
Are you trying to be perfect?
I’ve been working on this for years, both for myself and with hundreds of coaching clients. And I have a good idea what you’re thinking right now: this doesn’t apply to me. Fair enough. But let’s find out.
When you unexpectedly see yourself in a mirror, do you zero in on what’s most unattractive about you?
When your team at work gives you feedback, and everyone acknowledges the things you do well, but one person offers a critical comment, is that the only thing you really remember?
Do you replay past conversations in your mind, rehearsing things you should have said? Do you revisit moments of great heartache, wishing you had made a different choice?
Of course you do. And while reflection can be a good teacher, thoughts like these are indications of a deeper truth: perfection is your hidden standard.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to learn, grow and get better. What I’m saying is that most people refuse to be utterly happy with themselves, so long as they can find a single imperfection.
You see this quest for perfection everywhere in our culture. No matter what we’ve done – how well we performed or how significant the outcome – we’re never supposed to be satisfied. And if we are, then we’re not really considered a person of excellence.
But is this true? Is an infant a failure for needing weeks to master walking? And when those first stumbling steps are taken, do we immediately say, “Try to be faster tomorrow!” No. We celebrate wildly over every faltering step.
It’s the same when we are young and we play our first tune on an instrument, learn a few words in another language, or hesitatingly step on the dance floor. We have no real expectation of perfection, and as a result, we can just enjoy the adventure.
The Passage to Adulthood
But as we move into adulthood, something changes. The things we don’t do well seem bigger, and more important. And the aspects we like least about ourselves – the shape of our nose, our shyness, our weight – combine to make us unacceptable in our own eyes.
Why are we so critical later in life, when we should know we are still a work in progress? I believe the real answer is fear. Fear of being criticized, rejected, or alone.
We start to believe that if we can just fix all the things that are not perfect about us, we will win the golden ticket. We will be embraced, accepted, and loved – and we will finally be able to love ourselves.
Sadly, for most, that day never comes.
Can you imagine the sadness of realizing on your deathbed that you could have been happy all along - that the real joy was in living every minute, at peace with who you are?
It’s not too late. You can start today, in the smallest and simplest ways possible, to love the person in the mirror. Can you see her strength, her courage, her wicked humor? Could you whisper to yourself, “Great job! You’re awesome,” even if no one else hears you?
If you can, you can slowly learn to love the work in progress that you are.
The price of perfection is too high. Be happy now.