There’s no point.
It will be terrible.
Don’t do it at all.
Don’t do it at all?
I’ve seen this so many times – in myself, in clients, in former students…
I had a student many years ago in a World History class. We were studying Medieval Europe and I had asked them to draw a castle. The castle had to have a list of features labeled and explained, the point being to understand the true military function of castles and let go of romantic ideas of what castles were all about. I got a variety of products (as was always the case). The artistic students went to town. The less artistic students focused on the parts of the assignment that appealed to them (detailed descriptions, adding architectural features, 3 D effects). One of my students didn’t turn one in.
It wasn’t a huge surprise. He was not a stellar student. He frequently missed assignments and struggled on exams. I was working with him on these things, suspecting some reading issues. I was disappointed that he didn’t turn the assignment in because he’d been making progress. In my mind: “Here we go again.” I pulled him aside and asked what happened. He said he wasn’t done with it. I told him to bring it to me. He reached in his backpack, where he apparently was carrying it around all of the time. He had a piece of poster board carefully rolled and tucked into the corner. He pulled it out gingerly, careful not to catch the edges on anything.
He then unrolled the board, revealing that he had burned away the edges to make it look like parchment. And as he lay it down and carefully placed books on the edges to hold it flat, I was astonished. It was beautiful. The artwork was amazing – pen and ink and so detailed. The features were carefully rendered and labeled. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t turn it in, and then I noticed the size of the stones he was drawing. They were so small, a sort of pebble castle. And there was a big section that he hand’t completed. I can’t imagine how much time he had put into this piece of work. I wanted to frame it.
“Why didn’t you turn it in?” “I didn’t have time to finish it.”
“But Tommy, it’s amazing.” “But it isn’t finished, and it’s not all that good anyway.”
We went on to have a conversation about grades and how some grade is ALWAYS better than a zero, even if the grade reflects being turned in late. I told him I wanted to hang it up; he made clear that that was not an option he would be comfortable with.
It took everything I had in me to get that young man to let me grade his work. I don’t remember what he got, but I know it was WAY better than zero. I also know it was probably the only time he ever saw a teacher (besides an art teacher) be amazed with his work. It was probably one of the longer conversations he’d had with a teacher who wasn’t threatening to prevent him from playing football, his other great love. He talked me through the work he had done, so I got to see how much of the material he really was taking in at a deep level – and he got to demonstrate mastery. So much he and I both could have missed out on had I let him go through with his plan of simply bypassing the deadline. In his mind it was better to get the zero than to turn in something that was not perfect. It became clear to me how much strength he showed when turning in other assignments, especially given what I suspected about his reading ability. What a risk he took every time he gave me his work. He wasn’t playing to his strengths, though, and maybe that’s why he could tolerate the imperfection in those other assignments. And he knew he had to keep his C to play football.
These are the corners perfectionism puts us in. We don’t even try, or we try but give up before anyone can benefit from our efforts. We don’t invite people over because our house isn’t clean enough. We don’t host holidays because Pinterest pictures make us think we need homemade napkin rings (Homemade?! Napkin rings?!) We don’t take the solo because what if we mess it up. We don’t take the risks because we might not get it right. We see every family gathering as a nightmare because of the amount of preparation we will do to get things just right. We believe that if we don’t do it perfectly, we might as well not do it at all.
And that right there? THAT is a thought. And it’s a b.s., life-stifling, procrastination producing, gift-hiding, intimacy preventing, joy avoiding bummer of a thought.
What would you do if you didn’t have to do it perfectly? Who would you see more of? What would you be less nervous about? What risk would you allow? What could be good if you didn’t need it to be perfect?
Maybe it’s just me, but it’s always nice to have a little more of the good.
All we need is a new thought. How about this one: I and the things I produce are good enough, and that’s pretty great.