Finding the perfect Christmas tree was a significant event throughout my childhood. My parents would load me and my little brother and sister into the car, and we would venture to what I then referred to as the “Christmas Tree Park.” The park smelled of crisp pine, a scent that I still associate with hope and excitement. My parents would let us choose the tree, unless my Dad noticed our selection resembled the one in Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Dad would then strap our tree to the top of our Toyota station wagon. During those tree excursions, I didn’t feel the 10-degree weather of South Dakota Decembers; my excitement fueled me for the entire day and kept me warm. Once home, we would have to wait an excruciating amount of time for the tree to “fall out.” While waiting, we would haul the Christmas tree ornaments from our basement, and Mom would prepare hot apple cider and cookies.
One year, after carefully removing the tinsel from its package, I began placing each piece precisely on the tree. My brother, three years younger, had a different approach. To my horror, he began to hurl chunks of sparkly tinsel with abandon. “Ryan, that’s so messy! You have to put the tinsel on one at a time!” He looked at me, laughed, and continued throwing the shiny strings. The tinsel flew through the air, landed haphazardly on the tree, and created a significant amount of stress in my 9-year-old brain. My tree was no longer perfect.
Perfect. I have used that word a lot throughout my life. My perfectionist tendencies have often benefited me, helping me to detect copyediting errors, verify facts, and discover missing content. However, perfectionism has also deterred me. When I inevitably do make a mistake, the effect is much more distressing than it should be. I ruminate, trying to determine exactly how I could have made the error.
I am not alone. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, author of The Confidence Code, discovered that an astounding number of women pursue perfection, which ultimately suppresses achievement. The authors describe a Hewlett-Packard study which determined that female employees only applied for promotions when they were sure they met 100 percent of the job requirements. Conversely, men applied for promotions when they felt confident their skills aligned with 60 percent of the job requirements.
Learning this, I thought of August 2005, when I had moved to Monroe, Louisiana from Rapid City, South Dakota and accepted the assistant publications director position at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. This job appealed to me because I possessed significant editorial experience. A few months later, however, the university administration offered me the media relations director position, which was both a promotion in salary and responsibility. What did I tell the Vice President offering the job to me? I said, “I’m not qualified. I do not have public relations experience. I only have journalism experience.” My immediate response was to remove myself from consideration because my skill set did not perfectly align with the job description. When explaining to my mother why I was not an ideal candidate, she gave me a succinct response: “You’re smart. You will create your path. Go for it.” I followed her advice. Today, I still consider that job to be one of my most fulfilling professional experiences, although I almost talked my boss out of giving it to me.
What is the anecdote to perfectionism? Action. We must start by accepting small, brave tasks outside of our comfort zones, tasks which will build our confidence until we are bold enough to run half-marathons without worrying about not being professional athletes. When we make mistakes, we must show ourselves the same compassion we would show a friend. Once we let go of perfection and fear of failure, we can achieve what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi describes as the “almost euphoric state” when our skills align with our tasks and our self-doubt dissipates.
So, let go of “perfect,” and seize adventures, both large and small. Mirror my little brother’s approach: fling the tinsel and see where it lands.
Originally published in Bayou Life Magazine.