This article is written by Truth for Teachers writer Lisa Edinger.
“Done is better than perfect” is a quote on my vision board for 2021, but accepting that truth has been years in the making for me.
When you think about it, there are many phrases and sayings that we’ve heard throughout our lives that are at odds with that statement. For most of my life I didn’t believe that done was better than perfect, but I’ve come to understand some things that have changed my mind.
Since adopting a different mindset, I have made more progress toward my professional goals as an educator and have attained a greater level of fulfillment than when I demanded perfection of myself — and that has been huge in my personal growth.
Much of achieving our potential has to do with getting rid of limiting beliefs and damaging judgments that we don’t even realize have been holding us back. As many of us are reflecting on our progress toward reaching the goals we set for ourselves, it’s a great time to address what Jon Acuff calls “secret rules”. Listen to this quote from his book Finish:
“At the core, perfectionism is a desperate attempt to live up to impossible standards. Perfectionism promises us that we just need to follow some secret rules. As long as we do that, perfect is possible. So over the years, as you chase goals, perfectionism quietly adds some secret rules to your life.”
Perfectionism ends up limiting our potential if we play by the secret rules. As teachers, we are well-acquainted with the importance of clearly stated rules that help students function in the learning environment, but secret rules are entirely different.
Maybe you can relate to some of these examples that have been challenging to me:
1. Only difficult goals count.
This rule makes us feel guilty if something comes naturally or we have fun while we are working on it. Which translates to, “If I’m not miserable, I’m not doing something productive.” When you consider the rule in the light of what we know about productivity, you realize the inaccuracy of such a statement. But that’s why it’s a secret rule. When it is a belief hiding in a dark corner of your heart, you don’t talk about it and you don’t think about how untrue it is.
2. If it doesn’t come easily, it’s not worth doing.
This belief from the other extreme keeps us from trying new things. We are afraid to fail. It also keeps us from persevering, because if we don’t experience immediate and overwhelming success by our own standards, then we give up on something that could actually be part of our mission or deepen our impact. Just because there’s a learning curve, that shouldn’t stop us from doing it. We always learn from failure and mistakes more than we do from immediate success.
If you’re like me, you are good at reminding your students of this, but find it much more challenging to embrace the concept yourself. There’s an equipping and an empathy born from learning from mistakes that serves us well if we are accepting of it.
3. If it’s not worth doing right, it’s not worth doing at all.
This used to be my mantra. My convoluted spin on it was that I should be giving 100% of my best to everything I do, and if there is a chance that it won’t turn out exactly like I want, then it’s best to just not start in the first place. I’ve had to accept the reality that not everything deserves 100% of my time or effort.
As Angela Watson likes to remind us, some things can be “just fine” when we’re done instead of “just right”. Not everything gets to hold the same level of value in our lives, and it is truly freeing to own this belief.
4. I’m just not qualified to do this.
Whether it’s implementing new strategies, taking a greater role in leadership, investing in a side hustle, or any host of other things we want to pursue, we can get bogged down thinking about our shortcomings or perceived inadequacies and end up missing out on tremendous opportunities to make a difference.
I remember when I first became passionate about sharing strategies I’d found successful in building positive connections with the families of my students, but deep inside, I felt like I wasn’t qualified for anyone to listen to my ideas because I didn’t have a Masters degree.
My principal at the time called me out on this secret rule and encouraged me to submit a proposal on the topic as a professional development workshop. She knew there were teachers out there that could use those ideas and that my lack of another degree shouldn’t keep them from helpful information that could strengthen the connection between school and families, and ultimately improve their students’ educational experience.
Ridding myself of the notion that I was unqualified because of a limiting belief I had about myself allowed me to enjoy a very rewarding experience in my career when I was chosen to present my workshop at a statewide education conference. Meeting with teachers for professional development and helping them problem solve was a new level of fulfillment for me.
Do not let your fear have the final say by deciding your qualifications. Push past imposter syndrome. You are worthy to pursue your passions. The world needs what you have to offer.
5. I need to do this all on my own.
This rule is dangerous because it can lead us to believe that getting help is a sign of weakness. Perfectionism can be very isolating if you let it. As a veteran teacher of twenty-three years, it feels like I should know how to “handle” every type of student, curriculum change and technology update, but that’s another version of this secret rule.
While I have spent plenty of time mentoring younger teachers and find it very enjoyable, I have also discovered an amazing resource in approaching other new educators and asking for their insight as well. The life experiences and background of other colleagues — both rookies and veterans — can be the key to finding solutions to the challenges that have us stumped.
Resist the temptation to go it alone just because you think others will perceive you as weak. Actually, you are being courageous!
In addition, if there is someone else who is an expert at what you want to learn from another field or can help you make progress toward your goal — “borrow their diploma” as Acuff puts it — and enjoy the sense of community and wellbeing that comes from reaching out. It’s only going to enrich your life.
There are plenty more limiting beliefs, but I’m sure that there are at least one of these secret rules that you didn’t realize was influencing your ability to reach your goals. When you analyze them in a thoughtful way, your brain says, “That is ridiculous! Why am I following that rule?”
It’s because through past experiences, personality flaws, or false interpretations, these rules are hidden in the heart of our being and have never been consciously evaluated or seen through an objective lens. If you are having trouble making progress in your professional or personal goals, I encourage you to consider whether you have been unconsciously living by any of these secret rules.
The reject and replace strategy offered by Angela Watson in Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching has been a game changer for me. Limiting beliefs and damaging judgments can be rejected for the falsities they are and replaced with intentional and truthful thoughts of empowerment. Engaging your thoughts to shift your mindset is key in winning the battle against the self-sabotage of perfectionism.
One thing stands out to me as I think about what these rules have in common — it’s fear. I found this quote from Acuff to be particularly impactful to me as I confront my secret rules:
“Perfectionism is just fear wearing a tuxedo. It masquerades as a character trait, as if it’s an asset, but it’s not. It’s a poison that pretends to be a vitamin.”
Wow! That has challenged me in the very best way to call out the fear behind the limitation or judgment I’ve placed on myself and exchange it for the truth that I am able to reach my potential.
I hope you’ll decide with me to dismantle the myths holding you back and move forward toward your goals. Since perfection isn’t possible, let’s celebrate progress over perfection instead. I promise you that it is worth your effort and intention to abolish your secret rules … because done is better than perfect.