The Unseen Benefit Of Striving (No Perfection Necessary)

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I’ve never thought of myself as a perfectionist. Missing notes in a concert doesn’t bother me. I can (eventually) admit when I’m wrong in an argument. If the house is messy, it’s a house well lived in. I’m far from perfect, and that’s ok.

Through my own personal development and self care journey, I’ve learned I have more control issues than I was aware of. This is my version of perfectionism. I want to take control of things that I don’t understand, label them, put them in a box, and move on. Once I opened  Pandora’s box of control, learning to let go of things I cannot control seems impossible. How can I overcome something I’ve struggled with my whole life?

Perfectionism Is The Enemy Of Joy

Making quantum changes of any kind in your life begins with managing expectations. Too often we expect to be perfect. We expect to succeed in getting up early every day. We expect to stick to our diets with 100% compliance. We’ll never miss a day of practice. Being optimistic is wonderful, but the expectation of perfection is a recipe for disaster.

Simply put, we’re going to stumble in our efforts to improve ourselves. At some point, we’re going to be too tired in the morning to get up. At some point, we’re going to want to say “Screw it” and eat a pint of ice cream. And every musician has experienced days where picking up their instrument is the last thing they want to do.

There are people out there that will say, “Those are the moments where you define who you really are.” Ultimately this is true. When we’re tired, we can still make the choice to get up. We can make the choice to resist the ice cream. But motivation is fleeting and discipline is a learned effort. Expecting perfect discipline from a mind that isn’t disciplined is — you guessed it — a recipe for disaster.

The Solution

Many self help books use different words to describe the same philosophy: true change requires seeing things differently. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to recommend we shift our perspective from the word “perfect” to the word “strive”. Trust me, it’s going to make all the difference in the world.

To help understand the value of this shift, I find it helpful to understand the difference between the two words. The word perfect can be defined as: “To make (something) completely free from faults or defects, or as close to such a condition as possible.” Take a second and think about that. Is that even worth achieving? What do we get when we are free from faults or defects? In many ways, the pursuit of perfection is about proving ourselves to others by appearing to be flawless. We’re trying to find our self worth through objective metrics. But what we do is never the ultimate measure for who we are.

In contrast, the word strive can be defined: “To make great efforts to achieve or obtain something.” It’s not about the end result. It’s about the effort; it’s about honoring the process of achieving something. Instead of being concerned with achieving perfection, we consume ourselves in the process of fighting for it. Becoming consumed with the process of improving allows us to see weaknesses and “failures” as opportunities for growth. We understand that our deepest flaws lead to a story worth being told.

Focusing on the process of striving to improve allows you to see others in the same light. Instead of being imperfect and objectively “bad”, people are seen as imperfect and “striving”. Of course there are people in the world that aren’t aiming to improve their lives, but that’s not for us to judge. Brene Brown’s book “Rising Strong” has a story that paints a compelling story about how most people are just doing the best that they can. They’re striving.

Examples From My Life

Here are two stories that help demonstrate why striving is important.

Story #1: I received a DM on Instagram from someone I’ve connected with a few times online, but haven’t met in person. They sent me a quote picture that said, “Think about your problem as a set of outcomes produced by a machine.” I read this shortly after my morning devotional, so I responded to his message with a faith based tone. He didn’t respond. I spent the entire day worried I had offended him. I couldn’t get it off of my mind, so later in the afternoon I sent another message explaining that I didn’t mean to overshare, it was just on my mind. He responded by saying he shared the same values, so it wasn’t a problem. We messaged each other further, diving into the actual topic of the quote picture he sent. After some time, he said, “I’m glad you were brave enough to share (your faith perspective), you seem to be about most things. Pretty inspirational to see someone with that much courage”. That was the moment I realized the value of striving. I didn’t think of myself as someone who was that courageous at all, but striving to do so allowed me to take the first step. From my view, unfiltered sharing was difficult and caused anxiety, but from his perspective, I was courageous.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter how easy or hard the choices we make are. All that matters is that we try to do our best. If you are striving to be more vulnerable, the result will inevitably be more vulnerability. When we strive, others see us doing it. They just don’t know that it was difficult.

Striving also means we don’t have to be perfect. Making a mistake becomes something to learn from.Our mistakes change into opportunities for growth. Only then can we hop back on the horse and keep striving.

Story #2: My son Patrick is a wonderful kid, and like all children, he has things he struggles with. His biggest challenge right now is understanding and controlling his emotions. When he’s mad, the noises and grunts he makes in place of actual language can be terrifying. When he’s sad, he’s inconsolable. When he’s happy, he’s so silly he can barely sit up straight. There’s very little balance in his life emotionally. At the suggestion of his teacher at the Alabama Waldorf School, we began taking him to an occupational therapist to help him sort through his feelings. Patrick has been going for about 8 months now, and has made huge strides in conquering his demons. When we first began, we were unsure of how to best help him work on control. Whenever he was upset, we would remind him about the tools he learned in therapy, but our efforts didn’t seem to be helping. After many months, we had only noticed a slight improvement. I began to get more and more frustrated with him, as I started to believe he simply wasn’t trying hard enough. When he was frustrated and would get angry, I began having less compassion, probably because I expected that he should have already figured it out. I unfairly expected him to quickly become free of faults and defects. I was fearful that these challenges would follow him forever, and I tried to push him to make more progress than he was capable of.

Then the first story I told you happened, and it changed my view of Patrick’s situation overnight. I saw myself as someone who is striving, and that’s just fine. When I saw myself that way, I could begin to see Patrick as someone who is also striving. He’s doing his best. He’s just 7, and change is hard. I made peace with the idea that I couldn’t control the outcome of this situation, and began to meet him as someone who is striving to be better. And you know what? Everything got better. I spoke to him with compassion. When he was mad, we gave him space to calm down before we tried to help him. He’s doing so much better now, it’s hard to think about what things used to be like. He’s still a wonderful kid, and he’s able to better handle the challenges that life throws at him.

I tell these stories in this order to show that our interactions with others are colored by how we see ourselves. We need to take care of ourselves first. Managing our expectations, our self speak, and our personal development will make striving a much easier process, for ourselves and those around us. If you struggle with perfectionism, take heart. Work to focus on the process of striving, and let the result take care of itself.

“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.” – Michael J. Fox

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