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An Imperfect Look at Natural Law #19

Honoring our inevitable imperfections

John O’Donohue wrote, “The primary world that each of us has to do with is the world that is invisible, that is the interior world within us.” He reminds us, “No one else sees your life in the way that you do.”

Here’s a glimpse at a small snippet of mine: I really like working on this enews. It pushes me to get clear on my thoughts, and to share those thoughts in a moderately coherent form, all on a very strict (by my choosing) schedule. I’m very happy I do it and it’s taught me so much over the past three or four years. I hope it’s done some of the same for you. That said, each week when I work on it, my anxiety increases. It’s the same sort of experience, I would imagine, that an athlete goes through before a game, or a musician when they’re going out on stage. The timing is always tight. I turn it in Monday afternoon, we go through three rounds of edits and a fair few proofs, and then it hits your inboxes some time on Wednesday afternoon. En route, my anxiety, again, rises and falls regularly. I frequently want to stop. I worry about how bad it will be, how it might not make sense, how I’ll have made mistakes. I hear the same from pretty much every friend who does similar work. Nearly all of us have the fear that we don’t really know what we’re doing, that we aren’t good enough to get it done, and/or that others will realize all that. I try to remind myself what Stephen Pressfield said in The War of Art: “If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), ‘Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?’ chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”

Over the years, I’ve taught myself how to steer clear of the worry before it completely overtakes my work. Seth Godin describes all this well in his newest book, The Practice. The point, he makes clear, is to push ahead, to get your work out into the world. Which, by definition, makes us vulnerable, in the best possible ways. Still, every Wednesday afternoon I wait, anxiously, to see what will happen. Nearly every week, nice comments start coming in that somewhat diminish my self-doubt. But all that said, I wouldn’t say that doing this is an exercise in equanimity.

Last week the first email that came in was the kind I have angst about. I’d made a mistake. The note I got wasn’t long, and it was quite polite. The problem? I’d attributed the quote at the top of the piece to the poet Bessie Anderson Stanley. It was apparently from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ugh. That sinking feeling. Maybe you know it. I’d found the quote somewhere online and liked it a lot. I diligently looked up Ms. Stanley, who seemed to be an interesting and insightful late 19th and early 20th century poet from Kansas. I’m not sure anymore where I’d gotten it attributed to Ms. Stanley. Either way, I looked quickly online and saw that I’d screwed up.

The good news is, that although it used to take me days to talk myself off the emotional ledge, after years of practice, I can calm myself now pretty quickly. Last week, I did what I often do when I’m stressed. I went for a run. I was about ten minutes out when all of a sudden I burst out laughing. The beauty in the imperfection suddenly came clear. Like all good mistakes, there was a lesson to be learned and built on. I had to laugh. I’d already been thinking about the following week’s piece (which you’re reading right now), planning, perhaps to write about another of the new list of Natural Laws:

Natural law #19: Everything—and every one of us—is imperfect.

We all know it’s true. The ironic, or maybe it’s just interesting, thing about this Natural Law is that while nearly all of us will quickly agree intellectually, most of us—starting with me—still have deep roots of perfectionism that pull us back in the other direction. As Tarthang Tulku writes, “Changing patterns formed early in life is one of the most difficult lessons to teach and to learn.”

What is perfectionism? Brené Brown, in her insightful book The Gifts of Imperfection, says,

Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.

Perfectionism is nothing if not persistent. We’ve all heard a hundred times that “Everyone makes mistakes.” We’ve surely said, to ourselves and others, many times, “We’re all human.” And yet, underneath those oft-repeated statements, many of us—like me—still have the roots of perfectionism deeply anchored below the surface. As sous chef Chris Chiapelli at the Roadhouse often says, “I’m not gonna lie.” It’s not an easy struggle.

A couple years ago I had what Stas’ Kazmierski taught us to call “a belated glimpse of the obvious” that helped me to embrace the concept more meaningfully. Nature, I realized, is also imperfect. And if nature was imperfect, then perfectionism is the pursuit of the unnatural. Working against nature, we know, is NOT a good idea. The whole point of understanding the Natural Laws is to work in harmony with nature . Because as Masanobu Fukuoka wrote, “If we throw mother nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.” The pitchfork of perfectionism is pain, increased stress, reduced creativity, diminished joys, an erosion of effectiveness. As Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way, “Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough—that we should try again.”

This is certainly not an isolated issue. The Harvard Business Review reports that:

There is growing evidence that the increase in psychological ill-health of young people may stem from the excessive standards that they hold for themselves and the harsh self-punishment they routinely engage in. …Young people are seemingly internalizing a pre-eminent contemporary myth that things, including themselves, should be perfect.

So what does all this mean in everyday organizational life?

1. When we accept our inevitable imperfection, we can stop beating ourselves up for making mistakes. As Ram Dass (who I respect for both his humor and his wisdom) once said, “Your problem is you’re too busy holding onto your unworthiness.” Making peace with ourselves, is—I would suggest from personal experience—one of the hardest challenges we’ll ever undertake. It’s also one of the most important. As the Dalai Lama said, “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”

2. If we make peace with ourselves, our energy improves. The way we talk to ourselves will be manifested in the vibrational energy others pick up from us. If I’m berating myself for falling short, that critical voice is what others will “hear” even if I don’t say the words.

3. We can stop pushing our own pain onto others. Making peace with our own imperfections is a perquisite for meaningfully treating others with the dignity we know they deserve. Honoré de Balzac said, “Nothing is a greater impediment to being on good terms with others than being ill at ease with yourself.”

4. We can make peace with the past. This was one of the biggest learnings of my life, and one that many of us have gone through. Realizing that our parents were just flawed humans who didn’t really know what they were doing. Once I accepted that reality, I could let go of a lot of anger I had been unwittingly holding onto for far too long.

5. We can make peace with our peers. When people ask what has helped make my partnership with Paul work so well over all these years, I usually start by citing shared vision and values. On top of that, we have both worked hard, in our own ways, at improving—imperfectly, of course—our self-management. In the process, I believe, we have both worked to accept and embrace the inevitable, lovable, if at times annoying in the moment, imperfectness of the other. Being true to ourselves while letting our partners—or peers—be themselves is easier said than done, but I’ve come to believe it’s essential to making any long term relationship work. As Sam Keen said, “We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.”

6. We can let go of looking for “perfect leaders.” Peter Block writes:

We are fascinated with our leaders. …The agenda this sustains is that leaders are cause and all others are effect. That all that counts is what leaders do. That leaders are the leverage point for building a better community. That they are foreground, while citizens, followers, players, and anyone else not in a leadership position are background. This is a deeply patriarchal agenda, and it is this love of leaders that limits our capacity to create an alternative future…

The attention on the leader makes good copy; it gives us someone to blame and thereby declares our innocence. In its own way, it reinforces individualism, putting us in the stance of waiting for the cream to rise, wishing for a great individual to bring light where there is darkness. It is possible to admire and be inspired by great leaders, even bosses, but we need to resist the projection that they can produce a change in the conditions that concern us. Each of us is accountable for our small piece of creating better conditions. When we project that on a leader, power gets abused and disappointment is inevitable.

Once I understood that those in charge—of the country, big companies, athletic teams, or whatever—were just flawed humans with huge jobs trying, imperfectly, to figure out what to do, my own stress went down. And I could focus much more effectively on taking care of what needed to be done. It’s not about being better bosses, it’s about simply starting to work on the issues at hand. As Howard Ehrlich explains, “Who will make the anarchist revolution? Everyone. Every day in their daily lives.”

7. We can more meaningfully include others. When we honor the natural reality that none of us have all the answers and that we stand to gain greatly by including others who see and understand what we don’t, then it becomes clear that bringing more and more people into our decision-making processes is a good way to go. None of us have all the answers. We all need help. As Peter Block believes: “This is a core quality of a hospitable community… to bring into play the gifts of all its members, especially strangers.”

8. We will stop “finding fault” as our default and learn to begin with beauty. Instead of starting by “fixing what’s wrong,” we can focus instead on what Peter Block calls our “gifts.” As he says, this “is in no way a denial of our limitations, just a recognition that they are not who we are. I am not what I am not able to do. I am what I am able to do—my gifts and capacities.” (The Appreciative Inquiry process is all about this—it’s a “search for the best in people, their organizations, and the strengths-filled, opportunity-rich world around them. …to ‘inquire’ into that system’s strengths, possibilities, and successes.”)

9. We can normalize mistakes. My friend Rich Sheridan of Menlo Innovations shared that one of the posters they have on a wall at work says, “Make mistakes faster!” As Rich explains, “Making lots of small mistakes and correcting them quickly is far preferable to making big mistakes in secret.” I agree. I err every day, hopefully in smaller ways that can be caught by myself or my colleagues relatively quickly. If we own our mistakes we can help others around us learn from our lapses. As British sports psychologist Pippa Grange says, “Compost what you don’t need, it’s all learning.”

10. We will build resilience. Hiding flaws feeds our fear. Owning them builds strength. If we normalize our shortfalls, then we won’t freak out every time we encounter some failure or frustration. We learn to breathe deep and then move forward anyways.

11. We can stop letting our flaws turn us into “failures.” This was a big one for me. Carol Dweck describes this so well in MindsetThe person is not the behavior. While we fail regularly, we are not failures. When we share that message at work, we help folks feel better about themselves and embrace that we are all imperfect. Their inner peace and self-confidence grow, and along with it their creativity, their collaboration, and the quality of their work. Pippa Grange said, “You knew you’d still be loved whatever the outcome was you’d still be worth something. You wouldn’t be rejected, you wouldn’t be less. You would have had a failure in the moment, but you wouldn’t be less.”

12. Honoring our imperfection increases humility. Imperfection is implicit in the idea of humbleness. Much more about this in the “Humility” pamphlet!

13. We can be vulnerable. Sharing our own mistakes makes clear to others that it’s OK to own—and talk about—theirs. Embracing our imperfection makes it easier to be real. As Rabindranath Tagore tells us, “When I stand before thee at the day’s end, thou shalt see my scars and know that I had my wounds and also my healing.”

14. It lets us be in the moment and take more pleasure in the little things. When we own that we will make mistakes and mess up, then we can stop letting those shortfalls keep us from appreciating the beauty that, even on our darkest days, is still all around us. As Brené Brown says, “The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.”

15. We can get moving. I was just trying to help a coworker who’s writing a response to a customer complaint (which, of course, we get some of every day). She was feeling stuck, she said, and her mind was spinning in circles. She feels responsible for the error. She wants to make it right. Owning that we don’t have all the answers makes it easier to move forward. Ask for assistance. Breathe. Remember that in the same way that we made the mistake in the first place, we aren’t going to write the perfect response letter either. I told her that I could relate, and shared that I’d found it more effective to simply knock out a draft and then get input from peers to move it forward. As Julia Cameron says, “Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead.” The inverse gives us the clearance we need to just do it! A little later in the day she sent a lovely note of apology.

Does accepting Natural Law #19 mean letting go of the pursuit of excellence? Not at all! In fact, it frees us to push towards improvement much more productively. Instead of perfectionism, accepting our inevitable imperfections leads us to the pursuit of mastery. As Dr. Sarah Lewis writes, “Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not the equivalent of…perfectionism—an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. …Mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.” Honoring our imperfections, allows us to make real the Japanese approach of Wabi Sabi—seeing the beauty in the imperfections that we all have, and that, despite our best efforts, will always be there. We can always improve, but we won’t ever, nature reminds us, be perfect. When we embrace our imperfection, we can live a calmer and more rewarding life. We can make more meaningful connections. We can make peace with ourselves and our partners. When we feel cynicism and frustration starting to rise, we stand a much better chance of seeing something good in the situation. My error in accreditation turned into some good new learning.

Here’s this lovely story from one of my favorite musicians, Texas-based folksinger, Sam Baker:

You may recall that last fall I cleared some land with the help of my neighbors. I ordered a Texas wildflower mix, planted the seeds and started to dream about how lovely everything would be in the spring. Well, things don’t always work out the way we planned. The birds enjoyed a lot of the seeds, there wasn’t much rain last year, and then there was the deep freeze in February… it didn’t turn out like I expected. But sometimes that happens. There is still some beauty there, just a different beauty. I enjoyed the exercise, and I might try again. The birds are happy. I suspect that some of the seed went to the wild turkeys.

He then wrote a poem about wild turkeys.

For more on self-management, see Part 3, Managing Ourselves and Part 4, The Power of Beliefs in Business, or check out the ZingTrain session on Mindful Self-Management.

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!