fix vs grow watering plants

Special Announcement!

Dear readers,

Last year, I started my own business, Chris Loper Coaching, offering one-on-one coaching and group classes for adults and Seattle-area businesses. This is relevant for you because I’ve recently launched a blog for my business called Becoming Better.

My new blog is all about, you guessed it, becoming better. I’m passionate about science-based self-improvement, and I love helping people become healthier, happier, more productive, and more creative. If you’re interested in learning how you can change your own life for the better, just click here, input your email, and then click “Subscribe.”

There will be a fair amount of linking back-and-forth between Northwest Educational Services’ blog and my own because there is a great deal of philosophical overlap between the two blogs. However, Chris Loper Coaching and Becoming Better are otherwise unaffiliated with Northwest Educational Services. The ideas and opinions expressed there are entirely my own.

Thanks for reading,

Chris

fix vs grow watering plants

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a major source of two widespread problems: procrastination and unhappiness.1 Sometimes perfectionism causes just one or the other, but it usually causes both. Perfectionism also hinders self-development and behavioral change.1

Perfectionism is as widespread as it is harmful. Many people admit to being perfectionists, and most know that it’s not helpful, and yet few people change their ways. Let’s explore why this is such a sticky problem and what we can do about it.

First, I should clarify what I mean by “perfectionism,” which is a multifaceted concept with a four-part definition:

  1. Perfectionism is an all-or-nothing mindset.1 Perfectionists believe that there is only total success or complete failure; you’re either somebody, or you’re nobody.
  2. In addition to seeing the world in this black-and-white manner, perfectionists also view the abilities and characteristics of people as essentially permanent. Thus, a perfectionist sees herself as a finished product that cannot be changed.1 Not surprisingly, perfectionism is associated with having a fixed mindset, which is the belief that you are stuck with whatever your current ability levels are.2  
  3. Also inherent to perfectionism is the belief that the perfect ideal actually exists and can therefore be achieved.1 Hence, anyone who fails to live up to that perfect ideal is open to judgmental criticism.
  4. Lastly, perfectionists believe that they cannot pursue excellence without maintaining their worldview.1 They believe abandoning perfectionism means settling for mediocrity.

Although it’s easy to see how someone might adopt these beliefs, each element of the perfectionist mindset is both unhelpful and illogical. Here’s why.

  1. The world isn’t black-and-white; success isn’t all-or-nothing. Nearly everything falls on a spectrum, including nearly all human traits. The world is complicated. People are complicated. There are many shades of grey.
  2. People are not finished products awaiting judgement. People are dynamic, ever-changing, and very much improvable. The growth mindset, as opposed to the fixed mindset, is the factually accurate view of human ability.2 Our brains change and grow throughout our lives because the brain is like a bunch of muscles.
  3. Furthermore, perfect doesn’t even exist. There’s no such thing. It is unrealistic to believe that anyone or anything can ever be perfect.
  4. And finally, giving up on perfectionism does not mean giving up on the pursuit of excellence. In fact, you stand a much better chance at succeeding in the pursuit of excellence if you abandon perfectionism.1

If perfectionism isn’t helpful in striving for excellence, then what is it for? Brené Brown says that “Perfection is a tool to protect ourselves.”3 Perfectionism, she argues, is a defense against vulnerability, and her research shows that being vulnerable is required for both success and happiness.3

Why it’s Harmful

Let’s take a closer look at why perfectionism causes procrastination and unhappiness, and how it hinders growth.

Growth

Perfectionism is debilitating.1 It manifests as a fear of criticism, a fear of mistakes, and a deep fear of failures. It makes you unwilling to take risks, unwilling to try new things, unwilling to admit you don’t understand something, and unwilling to ask for help when you need it. Hence, perfectionists miss out on the benefits of asking questions and the learning that comes from examining mistakes and failures.

When constructive criticism is viewed as an attack on your permanent identity, it’s difficult to even listen to the feedback. Plus, it’s difficult to even receive accurate feedback about your work as a perfectionist because you’re so worried about judgment that you don’t allow your true self to be seen. In order to avoid vulnerability, perfectionists maintain a carefully curated presentation of self. Eager to show the world that you’re perfect, you highlight your good traits and hide your mediocre ones, seeking the reassurance of praise and avoiding the sting of criticism.

Can you see how perfectionism would be detrimental to a student’s growth, or anyone’s growth for that matter?

Furthermore, because perfectionists believe that perfect actually exists, they believe that personal improvement has a finite upper limit. The reality is that you can never get to perfect, but you can continuously head in that direction. Thus, if you are not a perfectionist, you are free to believe in unlimited improvement. I, for one, don’t believe there is an upper limit to what our species can do.

For everything from music and athletics to academics and self-development, the belief in unlimited improvement provides motivation to keep working, even if you’re already very good. By contrast, perfectionism is demotivating. Perfectionists who are already very good believe that there isn’t much more room to grow, so why bother?

This helps explain why perfectionists often respond poorly to coaching and are resistant to self-improvement ideas. Usually, this is understood as the result of their unwillingness to admit that they’re not already perfect, which is certainly true much of the time, but now I understand another way to see it: Some perfectionists think that they’re already so close to being perfect that there’s no reason to put any more effort into improving. This explains why many young athletes who are much better than their peers get lazy about practicing and wind up average players when they’re older. And students who do very well at math in 5th grade often fall behind in middle school because they believe they’re too smart to need to practice.

On the other hand, growth-minded individuals accept coaching readily because they know that there’s always room for improvement and they’re eager to keep growing. This is true even for those who are incredibly high-performing and arguably much closer to perfect than their perfectionist counterparts. Despite their incredible level of skill, they don’t believe they’re anywhere near the upper limit, so they keep working to improve. They know that the mastery path is a lifelong journey.

Procrastination

“If you can’t make a mistake, you can’t make anything.” –Marva Collins

Because perfectionists see mistakes and failures as terrible, life-shattering events, they try very hard to avoid them. Well, the surest way to avoid doing something wrong is to simply do nothing. So it’s no surprise that perfectionism is one of the most common sources of procrastination.1

“Perfection means paralysis.” –Winston Churchill

When we have a project to do and we’re in perfectionist mindset, we imagine that we have to do it perfectly. But then, when we think about what we’re going to produce, everything we come up with isn’t perfect. So we think that we can’t start. The only way to take action on anything is to accept that whatever we make isn’t going to be perfect and that we’ll surely make mistakes along the way.

“Hesitation” by Pete Hobden

Creativity requires risks. The creative process involves repeated failure. Putting something creative out into the world will always result in criticism from somebody. So perfectionism hinders creativity and leads people with creative ideas to procrastinate on them for so long that they wind up never pursuing their dreams or truly expressing themselves.

“Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity.” –John Updike

Unhappiness

Now, it should be noted that while many perfectionists procrastinate or never start at all, some perfectionists actually get a lot done. They are often relentless workaholics who produce excellent work. Their behavior can look identical to that of non-perfectionists who are pursuing excellence.

The key difference is emotional. The high-achieving perfectionist doesn’t enjoy himself while he works.1 He feels enormous pressure to perform. He does a good job, not out of a love for his work, but out of a fear of criticism. When he finally finishes, he criticizes his own work severely, even if it is magnificent. Indeed, he judges himself harshly every step of the way. In short, the high-achieving perfectionist is deeply unhappy, despite the success he appears to have.1

The high-achieving perfectionist doesn’t accept himself because he doesn’t accept his inevitable shortcomings. He sees himself as a failure, even if he has achieved excellence. His mind may be filled with an army of gremlins, all carrying signs that read “NOT GOOD ENOUGH!”

“Not Good Enough” by Saku Takakusaki:

Overcoming Perfectionism

Let’s quickly look at how to overcome perfectionism.

To begin with, it bears repeating that the four elements of the perfectionist mindset are neither empirically valid nor helpful. Acknowledging this is probably an important first step.

Secondly, perfectionism, like nearly all psychological traits, falls on a continuum. Most people have some degree of perfectionism. “Overcoming” perfectionism is really a process of gradually shifting away from it.

And remember, shifting away from perfectionism isn’t about shifting towards mediocrity. Because of the debilitating nature of perfectionism, Tal Ben-Shahar places it on one end of a psychological spectrum, with “the pursuit of excellence” on the other1:

Perfectionism <—————————————————–> The Pursuit of Excellence

Next, please know that it’s difficult to shift away from being a perfectionist if you’ve been in that mindset for years. So be patient about the process, and don’t be a perfectionist about not being a perfectionist.1 All anyone can do is move in the right direction.

Tal Ben-Shahar also teaches that the perfectionist sees his perfect ideal as a distant shore that can actually be reached.1 Of course he never gets there, so he’s never satisfied. He’s likely to become disheartened and give up. The pursuer of excellence, meanwhile, sees his perfect ideal as a guiding star, something to move towards, but not a place he can actually get to.1 This allows him to enjoy the journey and continue to make steady progress.

One simple way to move away from perfectionism is by removing the word “perfect” from your vocabulary, except when telling yourself “There’s no such thing as perfect,” and “Nobody’s perfect.” Actually, you can take care of that last one without quite using the word:

This is related to perhaps the strongest antidote to perfectionism: giving yourself permission to be human.1

“No human has ever been perfect. You’re not going to be the first.” Brian Johnson

Humans make mistakes. That’s just a fact of life, and no amount of perfectionist willpower will change that fact. If you feel like you need to be perfect, you’re not giving yourself permission to be human.

If you are giving yourself permission to be human, then you’re practicing self-compassion, which essentially means being kind to yourself. Research shows that self-compassion helps people stick to diets and procrastinate less. It turns out that being hard on yourself when you mess up doesn’t work. In fact, beating yourself up over little mistakes makes you more likely to give up completely.4 Perfectionism is a form of being mean to yourself, so do the opposite of that and be kind to yourself.

“Just as you can’t criticize another person to positive transformation, neither can you criticize yourself to positive change.” –Will Bowen5

Self-compassion also helps us listen to feedback and learn from criticism. Since mistakes are viewed as acceptable, we can examine them carefully and learn from them. In this way, giving ourselves permission to be human helps us embrace a growth mindset. In this mindset, mistakes are just data; they’re just information we can use to do better next time.

The opposite of all-or-nothing perfectionist thinking is the spectrum mindset, which views the world, success, health, and happiness in shades of grey rather than as black-and-white entities. Avoid sorting people into binary groups: good writers and bad writers, good athletes and bad athletes, smart people and stupid people, beautiful people and ugly people. Such extreme sorting is, to be sure, absurd and harmful. Instead of categorizing yourself and others in this manner, make an effort to see everyone for the complicated, dynamic people they really are.

Born out of the spectrum mindset is the philosophy of everything counts. Every step we take in the right direction is beneficial and therefore worthwhile. Because of self-perception, the best way to prove to yourself that you’re a work in progress is to work on making progress.

A huge step you can take to overcome perfectionism is to craft a chosen identity that is based entirely on the process of taking action, rather than some end result. If you self-identify as a talented achiever, you may avoid trying because a failure would threaten that identity. But if you self-identify as someone who consistently does the work, you’ll constantly be trying. Swapping out an outcome-based identity or a character-based identity for a process-based identity is the ultimate antidote to perfectionist procrastination.

Here’s another idea: Since mistakes are inevitable, whenever possible, use a pencil rather than a pen.

By choosing to use a pencil, you’re not just making it easy to correct errors that arise, you’re telling yourself that it’s okay to make errors. On the other hand, if you use a pen, you’re subtly telling yourself that it’s not okay to screw up.

Now, an advanced practitioner of imperfection and growth-minded practice might choose to use a pen so he can see his past mistakes. Since he can’t erase them, he must embrace them. His practice contains a record of his errors that serve as a reminder what not to do.

Another way to reduce perfectionism is to reduce our media consumption. We live in a culture where we’re bombarded with photoshopped images of celebrities, carefully curated Facebook profiles, and unrealistic portrayals of life. We can benefit from filtering our environment by limiting the images of “perfect” people displayed on television and magazine covers.1 When we see perfect romance in a movie or hear about it in a song, we need to remember that it’s not real. It is fiction. The movie ends right when the marriage begins and proclaims that they live “happily ever after,” when of course, that’s not how real relationships work.1

 

Lastly, if you’re a parent, please remember to lead by example and demonstrate to your children how to shift away from perfectionism and how to be okay with being imperfect. Please avoid trying to look perfect because, if you pull it off, you’ll set your children up to have the incorrect belief that perfect is possible. Instead, normalize struggles, mistakes, and asking for help. Of course all parents are imperfect, but what I’m asking is for you to make an effort to be more visibly imperfect.

No one can be perfect, but we can all become better, and shifting away from perfectionism is an important step on that journey.

 

Works Cited

1 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.

2 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.

3 Brown, Brené. “The Price of Invulnerability.” TEDx Kansas City, 2014.

4 McGonigal, Kelly. “The Science of Willpower.” TEDx Bay Area, 2012.

5 Bowen, Will. A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted. Harmony, 2007.

Image Credits

Title Image: John D. “Imperfect.” May 12, 2004. https://www.flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0.

Astronaut on the Moon: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/moon-landing-apollo-11-nasa-60582/.

Guitar Hand: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/guitar-guitar-playing-guitar-player-806256/.

Hesitation” by Pete Hobden: pete.hobden. “hesitation.” February 6, 2011. https://www.flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0.

“Not Good Enough” by Saku Takakusaki: Takakusaki, Saku. “Not Good Enough.” October 5, 2013. https://www.flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0.

Pobody’s Nerfect: Groening, Matt. “Bart vs. Australia.” The Simpsons. Season 6, Episode 16. February 19, 1995.

Pencil and Paper: becca.peterson26. “46/365.” Feb 15, 2011. https://www.flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0.

Wedding: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/wedding-kiss-the-groom-bride-808958/.

fix vs grow watering plants

Your Chosen Identity

Your name was given to you by your parents. Your skin color, your hair color, and your eye color were all given to you by your genes. Chance and circumstance gave you a great portion of your childhood experiences. But who you believe you are and who you will become, those are for you to decide. Your identity is yours for the choosing.

We receive constant feedback from the outside world about how we’re doing, how we compare to others, and who we are. Those outside voices can be so strong that we have a hard time believing anything else. By now, you’ve surely been labeled at least a dozen times over. It’s easy to just live up to whatever labels you’re assigned, to become what others think you are. So if you’re not careful–if you don’t choose your own identity–you might end up as someone you don’t want to be.

This article is about a choice that we must make over and over again, how that choice leads to actions, and how those actions truly make us who we are.

The choice is our identity. We must deliberately choose who we are and where we want to go in life. This choice comes from our values. Those we must choose as well. Others may have told you what to value, where to go, and who to be, but really, the choice is yours.

Self-perception teaches that your own actions have the strongest influence of all on your sense of self. You become what you do.

But how do you decide what you do? Simple. Use your chosen identity. The alternative is to decide what to do based on your current feelings. This is a recipe for disaster or, at least, mediocrity.

We can’t rely on feeling like doing the right things. Too often, we won’t feel like it. How often do you feel like getting out of bed when your alarm goes off? How often do you feel like doing the dishes? Or doing your homework? Not nearly as often as those things need to be done.

We also can’t rely on how we’re feeling because our emotions tend to be unpredictable, unplanned. We can’t become the people we want to become by chance. We have to design our lives, choose our identity, and then act based on our chosen identity, regardless of our current feelings. Now, don’t get me wrong. I said this is simple, but I didn’t say it’s easy. Acting in line with our values in spite of how we feel is hard.

The identity we choose can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: If we consistently act like the person we would like to be, we actually develop that identity. Tony Robbins explains that “If we decide to think, feel, and act as the kind of person we want to be, we will become that person. We won’t just be behaving ‘like’ that person; we will be that person.”1 I mostly agree with him, but I’ll point out that the feeling part comes last. It starts with a decision about who we want to be, and it ends with feeling like that person. In between, there is action.

After choosing an identity, we have to try it out by taking action. As we’re taking actions in line with our chosen identity, we unconsciously observe ourselves behaving like the person we’ve chosen to be, and as a result, we start to feel like we really are that person. This makes it easier to continue to act in line with our chosen identity. The greatest challenge we face is kick-starting this feedback loop:

We’re not going to feel like the person we want to become until we start acting like that person. At first, we will be faking it. It will feel unnatural, we will feel like an impostor,2 and it will be hard. But we can, as the feedback loop shows and as Amy Cuddy says, “fake it till we become it.”2

The corollary to this principle is that if we don’t act in accordance with our chosen identity, self-perception will make us feel like we’re not that person. We might even feel like we can’t be that person. Of course, most of us are, to one degree or another, experiencing exactly that feeling. That’s why the primary hurdle of behavioral change is getting over the inertia of our current identity. And that’s why James Clear says that you have to “Start before you feel ready.”3

And we cannot simply decide, once and for all, to become our chosen identity. We will be faced with countless opportunities to choose otherwise, so we have to re-choose our selected identity, over and over again. But over time, as we stack up “small wins” and prove to ourselves that we are that person, the choice becomes easier.4 Eventually, it becomes automatic.

You don’t have to do what you have always done. You don’t have to be who you have always been. You can change. And change begins with a decision to become someone else.

Here’s how:

Choose a Process-Based Identity

The tempting thing to do is to choose an outcome-based identity or a character-based identity. Here are some examples of outcome-based identities: College graduate, CEO, state tennis champion. Here are some matching character-based identities: smart student, savvy business leader, talented athlete. As goals and ideals, these are fine things to strive for, but as chosen identities, they don’t work.

The only version of a chosen identity that works is an image of yourself that is defined by taking action. That means choosing a process-based identity, also known as an action-based identity. When you choose to be someone who consistently does the necessary work, then success is a natural byproduct of your identity. In other words, your focus should be on the action, not the outcome. You don’t climb a mountain by believing you’re a mountain climber and visualizing yourself at the summit; you climb it step by step, move by move.

For example, someone who wants to become an author might wrongly believe that he needs to believe in a character-based identity, such as “I’m a good writer.” He might even go a step further in the wrong direction and believe that he needs to visualize the outcome he wants: “I’m a successful novelist. I’m a successful novelist. I’m a successful novelist.” Since he hasn’t written a novel yet, this is just fantasy, and fantasy gets you nowhere. A process-based identity, such as “I’m someone who writes every day,” will actually get him where he wants to go.4 The beauty of this is that if he writes every day, he will become a better writer and will stand a very good chance of becoming an author. This is another example of the benefits of redefining success.

James Clear points out that it is critical “to start with incredibly small steps. The goal is not to achieve results at first, the goal is to become the type of person who can achieve those things.”4 The purpose of a process-based identity is to establish the habit of taking actions that drive you toward your goals.

A desire to get in shape will be most fruitful when it is accompanied by a process-based identity, such as “I exercise every other day, no matter what.” Nobody gets in shape overnight, but someone who works out three or four times per week is bound to get in shape. The goal of getting into a good college is much more likely to be achieved if it is accompanied by a process-based identity, such as “I study for every class, every day.”

Having a process-based identity is neatly aligned with having a growth mindset. The practice of becoming better through consistent action is a powerful way to prove to yourself that you can become who you want to be. The belief that you can improve incrementally gets you to take all the tiny actions that move you forward, and it gets you to capitalize on the many opportunities there are for little bits of growth. Everything counts.

Rejecting the identities given to us by others and instead choosing our own values and our own path are fundamental elements of independent self-esteem.5 Am I living up to the ideal of my chosen, process-based identity? If so, then I should feel good about myself, and feeling good about my actions will inspire more action. This helps explain why praising students for their effort is more helpful than praising them for their results or their intelligence:6 Process-based praise helps shift students toward a process-based identity.

The One Role We Should Always Play

We all have multiple overlapping identities:

You may simultaneously see yourself as a friend, a brother, a student, an employee, and an athlete, and these are just a handful of the many roles you might find yourself playing during your life. Because each of these roles comes with its own set of objectives, you may find it useful to adopt several chosen identities, one to match each of the main areas of your life.

But there is one, overarching identity that we all must choose.

The most important identity to choose is that of the active agent rather than that of the passive victim.5 An active agent is a player in the game of life; a passive victim is just a spectator. The active agent takes whatever action is necessary to make the best of every situation. Regardless of who is responsible, he is response-able, so he gets to work.7 The active agent knows that it is up to him to make something of his life.

Circumstances change. Feelings are fickle. But a chosen identity is firm. The desire to live up to the identity you’ve chosen is a powerful motivator. Choose wisely.

Works Cited

1 Robbins, Anthony. Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny! Free Press, 1992. Pg. 432.

2 Cuddy, Amy. “How Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” TED Global 2012.

3 Clear, James. “Successful People Start Before They Feel Ready.” http://jamesclear.com/successful-people-start-before-they-feel-ready.

4 Clear, James.  “Identity-Based Habits: How to Actually Stick to Your Goals This Year.” http://jamesclear.com/identity-based-habits

5 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.

6 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.

7 Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Fireside, 1990.

Image Credits

Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/mask-poppies-field-red-nature-1083605/. Text added.

Cat/Mirror: Holmér, Christian. “Mirror cat #2.” July 18, 2010. https://www.flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0.

Chosen Identity Feedback Loop: Loper, Chris. 2017.

Mountain Climber: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/matterhorn-h%C3%B6rnligrat-cold-climb-968/.

Overlapping Identities: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/silhouettes-communication-banner-639116/. Image Cropped.

Doors: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/doors-choices-choose-open-decision-1767562/.