I just threw out the coffee I made this morning. I used these beans I found in my cabinet that I’d gotten for free at a work event. I knew they might not make the best coffee, but I didn’t want to just throw them away.
It’s like that commercial you know, where a bunch of people are sitting around at a support group because they’re becoming like their dads, and one says, “I got this hat for free, what am I supposed to do, not wear it?” That’s me.
Anyway, the coffee was awful.
And since one of my favorite things is to get up first thing in the morning and make really good coffee, it was such a bummer; me sitting there sad, drinking this really awful coffee and wishing I had made my good coffee instead. So I started over and made the good coffee.
But this hasn’t always been how this would go. Other times, I might have gone ahead and drunk this morning’s really awful coffee, and then I would have continued to make it and to drink it every morning until the remaining beans were gone as well.
I hate throwing food away, you see because it’s a waste of resources; mine and the planet’s. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve eaten food that is highly suspect just to avoid throwing it away. And how many times I’ve felt really, really terrible and guilty when I couldn’t avoid it.
I try to be a little kinder to myself these days, however. While I’m drinking the really good coffee, I think ok, next time I’ll offer the free coffee to someone else, someone who maybe won’t be bothered by how really awful it might be, or perhaps I’ll just refuse to take it altogether.
I accept not achieving my ideal and I put a plan in place to do better next time.
But what if, as might sometimes be the case, I hadn’t done that? What if I had drunk the awful coffee and been a really sad and miserable person to deal with all day? It could happen. If you don’t believe me, I think you’re really underestimating how important that first cup of coffee is to my overall, daily satisfaction.
Or what if I had just continued to spiral into feeling terribleness and guilt because I couldn’t be absolutely flawless in my quest to never throw food away? Or what if I had just decided, to hell with it all! - I can’t possibly be doing any good because I’m still throwing food away so I’m just going to give up all together?
I’m just talking about coffee here, but, of course, I’m not really just talking about coffee. This is simply one, seemingly innocuous example of perfectionism at work. But as those of us who struggle with it know, perfectionism doesn’t just stay in this arena of the seemingly innocuous.
All too often, this inability to accept less than perfection leads to the latter what if, where we give up or don’t even try and the impact is far greater than coffee beans in the garbage can.
Ok, you might be saying, I get where you’re going with perfectionism, but striving for perfection is different, right? Surely this is a more desirable endeavor. Just look up Steve Jobs, for instance, whose inordinate success was famously driven by a relentless pursuit of perfection.
This one is tough, I’ll grant you.
I mean, it’s one thing, after all, to challenge ideas on perfection, perfectionism, and success found in an obscure TED talk, but it’s entirely another to challenge those of the founder and CEO of one of - if not the - most successful and influential companies ever.
But I’m not really.
I am totally on board with the idea of striving - striving to be better, striving for excellence - and I like the thought of the relentless pursuit of something - the relentless pursuit of your dreams for one - I just take issue with the word perfection.
I take issue with the word perfection because it’s imprecise and because it is often not distinguished from a realistic, possible outcome. I take issue with the word perfection because of what we can do to ourselves when we get the message that there is something wrong when we can't and don't achieve it.
So while my success is admittedly more modest, my own experience is entirely in agreement. The times in my life when I have pursued something, but let go of the feeling that I needed to be or could be perfect, I have achieved much more. I have taken greater risks with less fear; I have been better able to make mistakes with greater resiliency. I have also felt a greater sense of personal satisfaction than I ever experienced using perfection as an ultimate goal.
I actually think Steve Jobs would totally get this.