Four Swaps to Help Students Deal with Perfectionism

In our work with students each year, I meet a disproportionate amount of teens and twenty-somethings who are perfectionists. They are students who are dissatisfied with any outcome less than perfection. This shows up in:

  • Their grades.
  • Their sport.
  • Their projects.
  • Their relationships.
  • Their identity and self worth.

I recognize certain personalities are more prone to be perfectionists, but my experience tells me that a greater percentage of kids today suffer from this predisposition than at any other point in our history. While high standards can serve a real purpose, perfectionism can be destructive. Some believe it’s due to the looming parental push for children to perfectly reflect them. After all, children are mirrors of parental success. Children are report cards for moms and dads. Others see perfectionism as the result of a target they’ve embraced to get into a chosen university, to make the traveling team, or to win a scholarship.

I just spoke to a parent whose son struggles with perfectionism. She said he experiences a “feast or famine” life. He will sign up to play multiple sports, enter contests or make commitments, and then grow frustrated if he can’t be the best at each one of them. In fact, once he realizes he’s performed imperfectly he either goes into a rage or sulks in depression—and often will quit if he sees no resolution.

This tendency to be satisfied with nothing short of perfection is akin to the fear of failure I’ve written about in earlier blogs. We want to be the best and nothing else. In today’s world, if we can’t be the best, we don’t want to play the game.

Helping Them Distinguish Between Perfection and Excellence

photo credit: Chemistry via photopin (license)

photo credit: Chemistry via photopin (license)

I worked under John C. Maxwell for over two decades. He taught me this lesson over and over again. It’s about distinguishing between perfection and excellence. In fact, in his book, Failing Forward, he illustrates the freedom that comes from removing this pressure. It’s the story of an art teacher who performed an experiment with two classes of students. It provides a parable of the benefits of beating perfectionism:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work produced, while all those on the right side on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B” and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an “A.” Well, at grading time a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

How interesting. The students who didn’t have to worry about a perfect project were not paralyzed by turning out imperfect work. In the process, they actually created some of the most brilliant work of all.

Barbie Dolls Now Have a Variety of Shapes

You’ve probably heard that Mattel, the creator of Barbie, announced the iconic doll will now come in four different body types. The original was perfect. She looked like a fashion model—unlike most us. The three new body types will come in a variety of skin tones and hairstyles. Some are tall, some petite and some larger and curvy. In addition, the dolls can come with flat feet, instead of the perfect pointy toes for high-heeled shoes. Much less perfect. Much more like reality.

I love how our culture is finally attempting to help kids push past their delusions of perfection. The sooner they get past them, the sooner they can move on to a healthy, more well-adjusted emotional state. So, what are some steps we can take to help? 

Four Swaps Perfectionists Can Make: 

  1. Can you swap out progress for perfectionism?

This is a healthy trade off. What if our report card was continual improvement, not perfection? It’s a game that’s challenging but winnable. Ask them: Are you OK with who you are, but becoming the best version of you?

  1. Can you swap out excellence for perfectionism?

Excellence is a fantastic goal, because we all can excel in some area of strength. Help students find and focus on their gift, and remind them: You can get fired from a job, but you cannot get fired from your gift. Find your gift and you’ll always have work.

  1. Can you swap out comparison to others for comparison to you?

If we must play the comparison game, it’s safer to compare your performance today to one of your former performances rather than someone else’s. This way growth, not perfection, becomes a win. Striving for growth resolves the performance trap.

  1. Can you swap out conquering others to adding value to others?

If life has become about competing with and conquering other people, why not shift your perception of others. What if your “report card” was about adding value to people, not being better than other people? Suddenly, we can all make straight A’s.

Sometimes—I even recommend the most simple swap of all. What if we swapped out perfection for action? Since perfectionism can cause people to say, “If I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t even try at all,” one great exchange may be to celebrate one action step; taking initiative, even when there’s no guarantee of achieving perfection. The long journey to success…begins with a single step.

In our office, we have our share of perfectionists. We commonly smile as we use the phrase: “We strive for perfection but we will settle for excellence.”

Four Swaps to Help Students Deal with Perfectionism