... The Difference Between Perfectionists & High Achievers
Have ever read one of the Little Miss or Mr Men books? If so, you’ll recognise the characters Little Miss Perfect and Mr Perfect. If you had a choice, what would ‘perfect’ look like for you? We all have our own definition of perfection.
Whilst many people describe themselves as perfectionists, perfectionism isn’t actually a positive trait. Perfectionism is striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations, and worrying too much about what other people think of you. Doesn’t sound great, does it?
Perfectionism drives people to attempt to achieve an unattainable ideal, and when perfectionists don’t reach their goals, the consequences are negative. Ironically, the pursuit of success actually keeps the perfectionist focused on failure, completely undermining what we understand as success.
If the Learning Habits we have at St Olave’s School (Collaboration, Curiosity, Empathy and Flexible Thinking, Initiative, Creativity, Persistence and Risk Taking) are characteristic of what enables us to thrive, then perfectionism does exactly the opposite, it rigidifies our habits and our behaviour.
I’m not referring to high achievers. High achievers excel at some things, but they don’t believe that they need to be the best at everything. High achievers value constructive criticism because this offers them the opportunity for growth and self-improvement. They work hard with commitment and resilience, reflecting on their disappointments with honesty. Failures are merely temporary setbacks which they might overcome with greater effort. We know that the most successful of lives have had their share of setbacks, disappointments and failures.
Michael J Fox, the actor, said “I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for; perfection is God’s business”.
In contrast, perfectionists consider themselves unacceptable unless they reach impossibly high self-imposed standards. They are not resilient because even mild setbacks are seen as catastrophes. Chris Coleman, the Welsh football manager, said: “Don’t be afraid to fail. I’ve failed more times than I can count, but it’s the failures that lead to success”. Tiger Woods’ remarkable win at this year’s US Masters is a recent example fo someone who has suffered huge obstacles in recent years but has persevered and overcome them.
The push for perfection is undermining exactly what our young people need to succeed and be happy. We want to launch our pupils into young adulthood, poised to be successful, not perfect. They need to be inspired and nurtured in equal measure; curious about a world we don’t even know about yet, equipped with the creativity and innovation for solutions and strategies for that not yet imagined.
We know from the work of Carol Dweck that our children can’t stay perfect; life changes and rewards taking risks, setting challenges, seizing opportunities and sticking with them, and mindsets are at the heart of this. Some mindsets make us afraid to try and end up keeping us trapped in perfectionism. For someone with a fixed mindset, effort may sound like ‘imperfection’ or ‘inadequacy’, because perfection requires them to look and feel accomplished all the time, at all costs. However, with a growth mindset, effort is what activates ability, and setbacks are a natural part of learning because they have the courage to take on challenge.
In our culture we move relentlessly toward greater emphasis on achievement, but as educators we need to resist this and ask our children what they have learned and not what their grade is; we do this because otherwise we measure their lives only in terms of achievement and lose perspective on what it may mean to live well. This tendency for achievement ruptures any sense of meaning or balance in our lives and we lose the capacity for wonder and awe.
Imagine looking at a rainbow and complaining that the width of one colour was narrower than another? Ridiculous, and yet that is exactly what we do when we judge ourselves for our imperfections.
Effortless superiority and perfection is prevalent, but the people I most admire are usually those who have worked harder than everyone else, for something they value, rather than those who have been effortlessly propelled somewhere.
The potentially devastating consequences of perfectionism on mental health are now well documented. We must work to prevent perfectionism developing during childhood. Even mild cases of perfectionism can interfere with a child’s quality of life, affecting personal relationships, education and of course health.
Magazines and advertising have long been criticized for upholding dangerously unrealistic standards of success and beauty, but at least it’s acknowledged that they are idealized. The models are just that: models; made-up, retouched, and photo-shopped.
Today, however, the impossible standards are set much closer to home, not by celebrities and models but by classmates and friends. With social media, we can curate our lives; resulting feeds reading like highlights, showing only the best and most enviable moments, while concealing efforts, struggles, and the merely ordinary aspects of day-to-day life. We compare other people’s polished, edited final-cut movies to our own behind the scenes, unedited, fly-on-the-wall documentaries. And there’s evidence that those images are causing distress for many of our children.
On Instagram or Facebook everyone looks like they’re having the best day ever, all the time. You upload your photograph, add a filter, and you can remove all your imperfections. These picture-perfect images can be especially difficult for our young people to grapple with because they’re often very conscious of measuring up to their peers. It’s a tender and critical stage in life — a time for forming an understanding of who they are.
Part of the way we develop a strong sense of self and identity is by being appreciated, accepted and authentic. This way we are seen for who we are, and valued for who we are, including our flaws. Curating photographs is making our children dissatisfied with their bodies, as well as pushing a message that they are modifiable.
We must help our children to be comfortable with imperfection because we are not going to protect them from failure; we are not going to make everything easy; we are not going to praise them for coming top or being the best. We want them to feel accepted for being imperfect; for trying their best; for risk taking; for persisting when it would be easier to give up; for being independently minded and vulnerable.
We must show our children that they will be accepted not for being perfect but for being imperfect.
Authenticity and courage are what we strive for. Effort and difficulty are how we learn. Working hard for something we value is how we commit to the learning zone. We are not perfect because we are a work in progress; striving, failing and bouncing back, applying our effort into the journey of becoming ourselves. Perfection is unachievable, unimaginable and undesirable.