5 Ways to Embrace Progress Over Perfection
Perfectionism is a familiar foe.
Nearly all of us have experienced it in some form or another—whether it’s a trait that defines our behavior, one that shows up from time to time, or is something experienced second-hand through those close to us.
As children, many of us were taught to value and strive for perfection. Remember the old mantra? Practice makes perfect.
The more we dive into it, the more we discover the dark sides of perfectionism. Real perfection, in humans, doesn’t exist. We are nuanced, unique, and complex beings who are constantly learning and growing. Everything we do can be improved upon, from writing that report for work, honing our skills on the sports field, to expanding our artistic talents.
Renowned researcher and writer Brené Brown highlights an important distinction. “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best,” she writes. “Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.”
Healthy achievement and growth come from a different place—a progress mindset.
Choosing progress over perfection is a way to enhance our lives, promote positive learning and performance, and foster healthier connections with those around us.
WHAT IS A PROGRESS MENTALITY?
A progress mentality is rooted in the idea of growth. Growth is often defined as gradual development. We see the development physically as we grow from children into adults. We see it in other areas as well, from learning hard skills and critical thinking, to developing emotional maturity, improving relational connection, and everything in between.
In order to live with a progress mentality, we have to prioritize that concept of growth. Many of us have been taught a fixed mindset, which claims that certain traits we have are innate, and therefore unchangeable. “I’m book smart but not street smart,” is one example of a fixed mindset, as is “I’m bad at directions.” Believing that with work we can progress and improve our intelligence, or that we can learn to develop a stronger spatial awareness, is evidence of a growth mindset.
Why is it important? It can free us from perfectionism, and its side effects. And, according to research from the Harvard Business Review, developing a growth mindset can give individuals “a richer sense of who they are, what they stand for, and how they want to move forward.”
UNDERSTANDING AND REWRITING OUR PATTERNS
Changing our mindset is not like flipping a light switch. Our mindset, and our views of the world, are deeply engrained. In order to take on a new mindset, we have to identify, understand, and then rewrite the beliefs that drive our patterns.
IDENTIFYING BEHAVIORAL PATTERNS
Perfectionism can show up in hundreds of different ways, and each flavor is unique. It’s not enough just to know that we have perfectionist patterns. Once we find the patterns, we need to identify why we have them.
Most often, an addiction to perfection is tied to the emotion of fear. Are you spending tons of time writing and rewriting a two-sentence email? That’s perfectionism, spurned by a fear of failure, or a fear of disapproval. Do you procrastinate on important tasks? That’s likely coming from the fear of not being smart enough, talented enough, or informed enough to do a perfect job, so you put it off. Having tight control over personal relationships or situations and becoming a workaholic are signs of perfectionism. On the flip side, becoming apathetic and never starting anything or taking any risks is also connected. The list goes on.
In order to shift our mindset we first need to identify our own perfectionist behaviors, and discover why we do them.
BEHAVIORS COME FROM BELIEFS
While our behaviors may feel like they’re random, springing up out of nowhere like a person popping out of a giant cake, they are anything but. Our behaviors are tightly tethered to beliefs that we hold about ourselves and the world around us. These beliefs are stories we tell ourselves. Like many stories, they have power, but are not inherently true.
Discovering those beliefs and stories can be challenging. As children, we all take on various beliefs in order to make sense of the world around us, and find our place in it. We become high performers to please parents with high standards. We become people-pleasers to make sure that people around us like us. We become aggressive in order to defend boundaries that were violated or threatened when we were younger.
Perfectionism is tied to a belief. If we believe that we can and should be perfect—our behavior will reflect that belief. And when we inevitably fall short of perfection, we don’t question the validity of the belief—we blame ourselves for not being good enough. “There’s something wrong with me.” “I should have been better.” “I am not good enough.”
Regardless of what our stories might be, they are just stories. Nothing more. And every story can be rewritten.
REWRITING OUR STORIES
Once we identify those beliefs, we can decide what we want to do with them. We don’t have to be tethered by a fear of failure, or judgment. We can rewrite our beliefs.
Rewriting beliefs is hard work, often done with the assistance of a therapist. If I’m going to rewrite an unwanted story about myself, and my life—I need to know what story I’m replacing it with. One of my old stories is, “I’m bad.” My whole life, I’ve tried to hide this “truth” by being the person that everyone likes. Ultimately, and repeatedly, I neglect my own needs and wants, because I focus not on being who I want to be, but being the person that I think everyone else wants me to be.
For me, that was a brutal revelation. Once I uncovered it, I saw it everywhere in my life, in all of my behaviors—including my own perfectionism. That belief sabotages my life. I don’t want it anymore. But if I get rid of that story it, what story goes in its place?
I have found two replacement stories; “I am good,” and “I have everything I need in order to heal myself.” Those are the stories that I want to define my life, and who I am. I am working on replacing my old beliefs with these new stories.
Do the old stories show up? Yes, they do. Do I still people please? Yes, but less and less often. Every day I work at it is forward progress.
5 PRACTICAL TIPS TO EMBRACE PROGRESS OVER PERFECTION
Rewriting beliefs and embracing a progress mindset does not happen overnight. Behaviors do stem from beliefs, but we can work in reverse, and help instill beliefs by reinforcing behaviors. These behaviors are ways to help instill a progress mindset.
1. EXPECT AND EMBRACE FAILURES
Let’s face it; failure doesn’t feel great. We tried something, we put in the effort, and despite the effort, it didn’t go the way we wanted. That hurts.
But failure is an inevitable part of trying. It’s a stepping-stone to growth. If we try at anything, of course we are going to make mistakes. Renowned filmmaker Charlie Kauffman views failure differently. “Failure is a badge of honour,” he writes. “It means you risked failure.”
Risking failure is a bold action. It takes courage. That courage deserves to be recognized. By expecting and embracing failure, we are shifting focus onto the effort and progress we made, and reinforcing a progress mindset.
2. TAKE IT SLOW
In Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life Anne Lamott talks about the importance of moving one step at a time. Her example, and the book’s title, come from her younger brother, who in grade school had to do a research report on dozens of different birds. It was the night before, and he hadn’t started.
Their father sat him down, and gently told him that it was going to be fine. All he had to do was take it one at a time—bird by bird. Lamott uses this example as a way to coach writers through the daunting task of writing. Sentence by sentence. Page by page. Bird by bird.
The same mentality can be applied to our mindset. We can choose to focus on our progress rather than looking at the daunting end goal. Our single steps, one after another, will take us where we are aiming to go.
3. CELEBRATE SMALL VICTORIES
Those single steps are important—and it’s essential to recognize their place in the whole puzzle.
As a writer, it’s easy to get focused on finishing the book I’m writing, and never celebrating until I’m there. But staying up that extra half hour to finish a chapter is a victory worth celebrating. Nailing that scene, after trying it four times, is a milestone worth remembering.
For Lamott’s brother, every bird he finished was progress, and a reason for celebration. The celebration doesn’t have to be a party with all of your friends. Just taking time, for yourself, in your own way, to recognize and appreciate the small victory is enough.
By celebrating the small steps, we can shift our mindset away from perfectionism, and this binary succeed/fail mentality, and calibrate towards a progress mindset. Did you finish writing a chapter? Celebrate! You applied to five new jobs this week? Celebrate! You stood your ground in a hard conversation? Celebrate it!
4. SHITTY FIRST DRAFTS
If we are going to start at something, we need to actually start. We all know aspiring entrepreneurs who never start their business, and aspiring writers who never actually start writing.
The first draft of just about everything isn’t very good, whether it’s a novel, a business proposal, a rough sketch of a painting, or the very first chords of a new song.
Lamott, once again, has a phrase for this. She calls it the shitty first draft. A perfectionist mindset tells us our first draft should be impeccable. A growth mindset tells us that most first drafts are going to be a mess—and that that is a great place to start.
Doing something imperfectly is the best way to learn how to do it better. We learn from those mistakes, and we move forward.
5. TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK
Progress is often viewed linearly, like walking up a staircase, up, up, up, at a steady pace. But it rarely goes that way. Often, we stumble. We fall. We slide backward, and then backward again. Those backsteps are not something to be ashamed of. They are essential to moving forward.
I work as a rock climbing routesetter, where I bolt hard plastic holds to climbing walls, and create routes for people to climb on. Four years ago, right as I was progressing out of being an apprentice, a climber ripped the final hold off the wall on one of my routes. It was 55 feet in the air, the hold was heavy and had sharp screws sticking out of it. It hurtled down to the ground, which was full of people.
Luckily, no one was injured. But I was devastated. It was a step backward, and in the moment, it felt like a huge one. I could have killed someone! I thought I was going to be fired. For weeks, my manager double-checked all my work practices, and I felt the progress and respect I had been earning slip backward.
But because of that slip backward, I studied what went wrong, and why it had failed. I learned the principles behind safe installment and dynamic force on a whole new level. And now, as I’m in a leadership role, I use that example to teach better practices, and show that we can move on from mistakes. That ‘failure’ has become one of the most useful tools in my toolbelt.
The steps backward, aren’t fun, but they are often gifts in disguise. Embracing them, rather than fighting them, is welcoming a progress mentality.
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