People come in a number of varieties… but perfect isn’t one of them

December 16, 2018

My green thumb came only as a result of the mistakes I made while learning to see things from the plants point of view.

H. Fred Ale


My name is Ian Henderson. I am a recovering perfectionist! I say recovering because it never really goes away; it lurks in the shadows occasionally just waiting to pounce. I’m not sure where my desire for constant perfection came from, but it’s been with me as long as I can remember. I do know through education and learning, practicing focus and awareness, and a lot of positive self-talk, it has become quite manageable. I also have flaws and faults! And, being a continuous work in progress and a person committed to ongoing personal growth, I make mistakes.


Jim Donovan writes in his book, Handbook to a Happier Life: “Somehow in growing into adulthood, we have developed an insane belief that we should do everything perfectly. That’s nonsense. If you have a small child and he or she is learning to walk, how many chances do you give the child to succeed? After a couple of tries, will you tell the child he is stupid and say “Okay, that’s enough. You’ll just have to crawl the rest of your life. I guess you don’t have what it takes to be a walker.” I doubt that you would react in this manner. Let me ask you then, why do it with yourself? This type of behavior is another reason people fear trying new things. Fear of failure is one of the biggest obstacles to human progress. Again, we have this idea we must be perfect right from the start. Think about anything you know how to do. Were you born able to do it? Somewhere along the way, you had to learn. I’ll bet you were not very good at first, but with practice, you improved.”


I want you to establish in your life a culture that not only allows for mistakes, but actually encourages them. If you are not making mistakes, you are not trying anything new and you do not have a growth mindset. Ed Land, the inventor of instant photography, kept a plaque on his wall that read: “A mistake is an event, the full benefit of which has not yet been turned to your advantage.” If you choose to be a lifetime learner, you have adopted a growth attitude. This growth attitude focuses on learning from mistakes, thus, the only way to learn or improve at something is to try, fail, and try some more. Drew Barrymore adds, “I am not someone who is ashamed of my past. I’m actually really proud. I know I made a lot of mistakes, but they, in turn, were my life lessons.” Most of us think of a mistake as bad or a failure. However, because we are all human beings, there WILL be mistakes. The question becomes not, “Will there be any mistakes?” but rather, “When we make a mistake, how will we handle it?”


A young apprentice applied to a master carpenter for a job. The older man asked him, “Do you know your trade?”


“Yes, Sir! The young man answered proudly.


“Have you ever made a mistake?” the older man inquired. “No, sir!” the young man answered, feeling certain he would get the job.


“Then, there’s no way I’m going to hire you,” said the master carpenter, “because when you make one, you won’t know how to fix it.”


Peter Drucker adds, “I would never promote to a top-level job a person who was not making mistakes, otherwise he is sure to be mediocre.” And we were not born to be mediocre! 


Oprah Winfrey, on the occasion of receiving the Ladies Home Journal One Smart Lady Award in February, 1995 stated: “If you heed all of life’s lessons, by the time you get to this age, you should have learned a few things. And I think I’ve learned a few things, but there are days when I don’t think I’m very smart at all. That’s why I am glad to have the award, so I can pull it out and say, ‘But they said I was some smart lady, so why am I in this situation?’ There are days when I’ve made the same mistake fourteen times, and I say, ‘Do I have any sense?’ Now I have an award to prove that I do. So every time I’m in the mistake pit, I am going to say, ‘One day I was one smart lady-and I had four hundred witnesses.’”


Somehow in growing into adulthood, we have developed an insane belief that we should do everything perfectly. That’s nonsense.


Let’s look at some perfectionistic tendencies?


  • Do you feel horrible when you find out you made a mistake?

  • Are you constantly second guessing yourself?

  • Do you mull over outcomes if they do did not turn out as planned?

  • Are you overly judgmental of others?

  • Do you have a need to control everything around you?

  • Do you feel that you must work to your best potential all the time?

  • Do you beat yourself up over the smallest thing that goes wrong?

  • Do you obsess over little things-even when you know they should not matter?

  • Do you get defensive if someone points out your errors?

  • Have you set unrealistic expectations and standards for both yourself and others?

  • Do you spend an excessive amount of time to perfect something even at the expenses of your well-being?

  • Do you feel the people around you expect you to excel at whatever you do?


What are your standards that you measure yourself and others against? Are you using the same standards on yourself as you are on others? Are you expecting more from yourself than from anyone else? The standards we often set for ourselves are a lot higher than the standards we set for everyone else.. When we expect perfection from ourselves and others, we are always going to be disappointed because no one can live up to our standards. When nobody around you seems to measure up, it’s time to check your measuring stick.


Establish in your life a culture that not only allows for mistakes, but actually encourages them.


Over 40 years ago, after I decided to become a full-time trainer/facilitator in training and personal development, I created a few standards for myself. One was, I will never miss a workshop due to illness; that I would never get sick. Is that a reasonable expectation? I’m very proud that I have missed less than 10 workshops over that 40 plus year career. But oh, that first session, what guilt! What a bad person I was! Would my clients think less of me? Could I ever forgive myself? That’s where guilt comes form. Guilt is not imposed on us by others. It results when we do not meet our personal expectations of ourselves.


The following is an exercise I have been using for well over 30 years in my workshops on Communication and Managing Conflict. I have participants look around where they are sitting, really observing their environment specifically searching for everything they see that is red. Then, I ask them to write down everything they saw that was green. With a red mind set, you’ll find that red jumps out at you, red in the painting on the wall, and so on. You will tend to ignore the greens and any other colors. In like fashion, you’ve probably noticed when you buy a new car, you will promptly see the make of the car seemingly everywhere. That’s because people find what they are looking for. If you are looking for flaws you will find them. It’s all a matter of setting your mental channel.


In a Peanuts cartoon strip, Linus had his security blanket and his thumb resting safely in his mouth, but was troubled. Turning to Lucy, who was sitting next to him, he asked, “Why are you always so anxious to criticize me?” The response was typical Lucy. “I just think I have a knack for seeing other people’s faults.”


Exasperated, Linus threw up his hands and asked, “What about your own faults?”


Without hesitation, Lucy explained, “I have a knack for overlooking them.” Lucy is not the only one who believes their knack or calling on life is to point out and correct the weaknesses of others. Unfortunately, these same people are customarily blind to their own shortcomings. Some people find fault like there’s a reward for it. 


When nobody around you seems to measure up, it’s time to check your measuring stick.


Let’s now look at how do we deal with other people’s so-called imperfections.


One thing I’ve learned about people is they can look at the exact same thing and see something totally different. An archaeologist, a clergyman, and a cowboy were looking down into the Grand Canyon. The archaeologist exclaimed, “What a wonder of science!” The clergyman said reverently, “One of the glories of God!” The cowboy commented, “A helluva a place to lose a cow!” You only have control over yourself and how you choose to be as a person. As for others, you can only choose to accept them or walk away. If there is one lesson I wish I learned earlier in life, it is that you can’t control someone else’s behavior. Other people are just people. But so many of our communications both at work and at home revolve around trying to get other people to behave differently. Whether or not a person changes is entirely up to him or her. I’ve often questioned myself: “Did Mister Rogers adequately prepare me for the people in my neighborhood?"


I like to spend a week every February at Sanibel Island in Florida. Sanibel is a go-to location for shell collectors. Some shells that wash up on the beach were once very strong and beautiful. You don’t know what kind of journey they took to get there, ending up extremely fragile and broken. People are the same. Everyone out there is fighting a hard battle at times. There is a story behind every person. There is a reason why they are the way they are. Think about that, and respect them for who they are.


David Grayson writes: “Commandment number one of any truly civilized society is this: Let people be different.” We need to respect and value differences. Too many people go through life thinking everyone else has the same style they do but that others are defective. Bette Midler adds: “I didn’t belong as a kid, and that always bothered me. If only I had known that one day my differences would be an asset, then my earlier life would have been much easier.” Great relationships are about two things, find out the similarities, and second, respect the differences. Strength lies in differences not in similarities. A wise person knows there is something to be learned from everyone.


Abraham Lincoln wrote: “Too many of us become enraged because we have to bear the shortcomings of others. We should remember that not one of us is perfect, and that others see our defects as obviously as we see theirs. We forget too often to look at ourselves through the eyes of our friends. Let us, therefore, bear the shortcomings of each other for the ultimate benefit of everyone. Also remember, it is not a requirement of being human that we are required to get along with everyone." Heard in an interview: “In every community there is at least one person who drives you crazy. If not, you are probably driving someone else crazy. If neither of these then people are not engaging with each other enough.”


What is stress? It’s the gap between our expectations and reality. Expectations are actually resentments waiting to happen. It’s been said that expectation is a fool’s guide to life; what screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be. You’ll always be frustrated and disappointed when you expect people to act as you would. Accept the fact that some people didn’t intend to let you down. Their best is just less than you expected. Don’t blame people for disappointing you. Never get mad at someone for being who they’ve always been. Be upset with yourself for not coming to terms with it sooner.


There’s a clever six-word story that highlights this so well:


“Who hurt you?”


“My own expectations.” 


Things you should stop expecting from others:


  • Stop expecting them to live based on your standards.

  • Stop expecting them to agree on everything you say.

  • Stop expecting them to be perfect.

  • Stop expecting them to read your mind.

  • Stop expecting them to understand you.

  • Stop expecting them to always support you.

  • Stop expecting them to treat you how you treat them.

  • Stop expecting them to be the same persons they were a year ago.

  • Stop expecting them to always be around.


A traveler nearing a great city asked a man seated by the wayside, “What are the people like in this city?”


‘How were the people where you came from?” replied the man.


“A terrible lot.,” the traveler responded, “Mean, untrustworthy, and detestable in all respects.”


“Ah,” said the sage. “You will find them the same in the city ahead.”


Scarcely was the first traveler gone when another one stopped and also inquired about the people in the city before him. Again, the man asked about the people in the place the traveler had left.


“They were fine people; honest, industrious, and generous to a fault. I was sorry to leave,” declared the second traveler.


Responded the wise one: “You’ll find them the same in the city ahead.”


Do you keep finding people difficult wherever you go? Do people consistently fail to meet your expectations of them? Do the same negative patterns repeat over and over in your life? You are the only person that has actively participated and shared in all your life experiences. You are also the person that you are going to spend the rest of your life with. You are the common denominator in your own life. Could you be your own most difficult person? Sometimes you are the toxic person. Sometimes the problem is you. One of the most healing things you can do is recognize where in your life you are your own poison. If you continually have problems with everyone you come across, more than likely the problem is you.


It’s never too late to change. Keep on checking yourself. Mistakes can be reframed as opportunities. Look at them, own them, learn from them, and move on. Do better. Be better. Madonna sums it up beautifully: “No matter who you are, no matter what you did, no matter where you’ve come from, you can always become a better version of yourself.”


Recommendations for a better version of yourself:

  • Try new things.

  • Put yourself in situations outside of your comfort zone.

  • Allow yourself to have a growth mindset.

  • View mistakes as opportunities for growth.

  • Stop being a control freak!

  • Allow yourself to do things imperfectly.

  • Make ‘good enough’ your friend.

  • Set achievable standards.

  • Do not focus too much on your imperfections or those of others.

  • Realize you will not always be at your best.

  • Do not expect to get things right the first or second time you do them.

  • Accept constructive feedback and don’t take it personally.

  • Stop procrastinating.

  • Do not expect yourself to be excellent at everything you do.

  • Done well and on time is better than late perfect.

  • Stop excessive comparison to other people.

  • Stop trying to be everything to everyone.

  • Not everyone is going to like you or agree with you and that’s O.K.

  • You don’t have to do everything yourself. Delegate and let go.

  • Be careful of taking on too much. There is no need to be constantly busy.

  • Allow time for rest, relaxation and leisure.


Previous month: Decluttering Your Life

Next month:  Failing Well, Failing Forward


If relevant, ask people close to you how your perfectionism affects them.


When was the last time you tried something new?


Stop reliving the disappointments you set up for yourself when people fail to achieve the unattainable expectations or high standards you set for them. Establish more reasonable or realistic goals for them.


What’s a belief that you hold with which many people disagree?


Spend some quality time this month reviewing the quotes. Pick some quotes, share with family, friends or colleagues. Have a quote of the day discussion with co-workers





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