Hi! My name is Janet and I’m a recovering perfectionist! I say recovering, because like some of my other afflictions (anxiety/ eating disorder) I feel that urge for perfection is something you live with always quietly in the background, waiting for the opportunity to pounce!
The old version of me, which ironically is the young(er!) version of me was on a constant quest for perfection, It wasn’t until at the ripe old age of 32 that I began to learn the importance of failure. In an effort to replace unhealthy behaviours with healthy ones I was advised by my counsellor to take up a sport, this horrified me to be honest, like most girls I stopped doing PE in my early teens and I NEVER got into team sports so I had no basis to start from, sure I went to the gym occasionally I liked to walk, but those things weren’t going to cut it this time!
We settled on olympic weightlifting, (solo sport, indoors and pretty clean) there’s numerous studies out there that link the act of becoming physically stronger with the ability to build mental resilience (I don’t have any links, this is not that kind of article) and so there my recovery from my perfectionist tendancies began!
Weightlifting is an incredibly complex, and dynamic sport requiring full mind body commitment. If your body or your mind isn’t in it you won’t make the lift. There’s a moment of zen that you find in each lift, nothing else can or does exist, you do the moves in sequence and in those few minutes it’s just you and the bar, opening position, pull, clean, elbows up, short dip, long drive, hold and down.It’s in that zen that we learn to fail. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood on that platform and failed, hundreds, possibly thousands, it doesn’t matter really because you reset, pull, clean, elbows up, short dip, long drive and that’s it, that’s the metaphor really. I started this sport as a perfectionist, with some control issues, but in weightlifting not failing is not an option, and actually not failing means not progressing. If you don’t fail if you don’t learn how to move forward you don’t highlight the small imperfections in your own performance that unchecked could lead to bigger issues down the line, – “next time faster in the pull, slower in the drive”. “Ok! Lets go” Every little failure is another brick building you up to success.
There’s no real room for ego when you learn weightlifting, you have to abandon your ego and your fear of failure at the door. When you start you’ll begin like everyone does with the training bar (5kg) and all the while you’ll be surrounded by seriously impressive athletes that are younger than you, faster than you and (much) stronger than you. It’s very tempting in those early days to look around the room and compare yourself, to think, well she’s my age, my height, has the same colour shoes as me, whatever, I should be as good as her! But what you don’t see is that she has failed too, she’s done this part of the journey already, she has already failed countless times to get this good. (and yeah sometimes she is just younger, faster, and stronger than you and that’s fine too!)
This is a lovely story Jan but what’s the relevance?
Well dear reader, I was just getting to that! I don’t know why it is, I suspect it’s because I’m female, but risk taking and failure aren’t behaviours that were encouraged in girls/women of my generation. We were good, and quiet and did what we were told while the boys were out making messes and jumping off walls, getting dirty, taking chances and risks.
“Don’t do that you’ll mess up your hair” (it’s important that my hair isn’t messy)
“Don’t do that you’ll ruin your dress” (it’s important that my dress is neat)
“Don’t do that you get your face dirty” (it’s important that my face is pretty)
The lesson – perfection is important!
So as I grew up I never learned to try and fail. Which meant when I went to work, I didn’t know how important failure was for success. I would go round and round in circles trying to perfect everything, doing everything the way it has always been done for fear of it not being perfect. I became excellent at putting processes in place to manage day to day work operations (I’m still excellent at that) but I became a slave to the processes, unwilling to compromise and maybe a little unwilling to see that perhaps there was another better way. “This is the way that makes sense to me, so this is the right and only way!”Until slowly over time I learned through my sport what it is to fail, what it is to park your fear of failure, take the chance that’s been handed to you and throw it up in the air over your head with all the force you can muster.
So now I take a different approach, I look at the problem I am facing get my head clear on what I’m looking at. Clarify the objectives, and take feedback from others on the team on what they want to see in a resolution, and work it through. If that doesn’t work or doesn’t go down well, I’ll reset, and try again, elbows up, short dip, long drive.
When organisations allow perfection to become the goal, they’re making this same mistake. They mimic the voices of parents, discouraging the risk of trying new things for fear you get your Sunday best dirty. The conversation pivots from collaboration, and innovation to blame. Blame is toxic in an organisation because blame creates an environment where failure is not acceptable at any level, and that stifles creativity and innovation. Why would you put forth ideas about new initiatives, new products or services, new markets if you’ll shoulder all the blame if it doesn’t go well, so instead of a culture of innovation organisations establish a culture of fear, and well we all know that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and that ultimately leads us to the darkside. Organisations are re-creating that little voice telling their teams not to play outside, jump, or take risks and are thus stifling the creativity of their teams.
The best thing I ever did for myself, as a woman, as a professional and as a leader is to let go of perfection and embrace the possibility that lies on the other side of failure.
There is not room for ego or a fear of failure in weightlifting or in the boardroom. The only true failure is the failure to try.