Perfectionism, Failure, And The Growth Mindset

Hi, my name is Lillian, and I’m a recovering perfectionist.

Perfectionism has been my public enemy number one for as long as I can remember. (Y’know, insofar as something can be a public enemy for one person…thus making it not public at all, but that’s not the point.)

To wit: when I was in first grade, I came in third for a handful of events at my school’s track and field day — and I was a close third behind two boys whose athletic prowess was already busting at the seams at the tender age of seven — but instead of being happy, I wept bitterly at the end of the day.

My mom couldn’t figure out why I was upset, since a gaggle of third place ribbons seemed pretty darn good. Awesome mom that she is, she pulled me onto her lap, gave me a hug, and gently asked why I was so upset. I distinctly remember saying (between heaving sobs, since I’m a champion of the ugly cry) “Because they’re not good enough! Third place means I lost to two people! Only first place is any good!” She tried valiantly to explain that, actually, they were awesome things that I could be proud of, but I was having none of it.

Yuuuup, that pretty much says it all.

When I was in school, anything other than an A was cause for the kind of mourning generally reserved for abused war orphans or victims of horrific tragedies. If (God forbid!) I got a B, there’d be gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.

Every time I did or produced something that was less than perfect, I took it as a personal failure. I’m not sure where this deeply embedded perfectionism came from, since my parents never once did anything to foster it — but deeply embedded it was, and it turned me into one twitchy, miserable cowgirl for a very long time.

I’d been trying to overcome my perfectionism for ages, but my big breakthrough came over the course of the last year.

The first step in this process came last spring, when I was a particularly unhappy camper: I was deeply unhappy in the career I’ve worked towards my entire adult life, and I felt like a total failure. All that education, all that money, all that hard work: I was wasting it all by wanting to do something else with my life. I felt like an epic failure and a total waste, and I was kicking myself — hard — for my perceived failure.

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Around that time, my mom came to my rescue when she dug up a whole series of articles about perfectionism and the importance of seeing perceived failures as opportunities for learning and growth.

One article in particular — “Next Time, Fail Better,” from the Chronicle of Higher Education — hit the nail on the head. When I read this portion, I felt like the author had been hanging out in my head and recording my inner monologue:

Humanities students are not used to failure. They want to get it right the first time. When they are new to the game, they want to get good grades on what are essentially first drafts. Once they learn how much work it is to write and edit a really good essay, their goals shift—from getting A’s on papers written the night before to getting A’s and making the difficult process look effortless. Because it’s embarrassing to have to admit that you had to throw away two drafts before you got to your thesis. They feel silly admitting to spending three days researching a topic that just didn’t pan out. How could they have been so stupid? Surely the other English majors found their topics right away and then turned out beautifully coherent papers.

Yes, yes, and yes. This has been my MO for…like…the entirety of my existence. The author’s end point was spot-on, though: it’s not about failure, it’s about what you learn. Failures don’t mean that all is lost — they mean that you know where to start from next time. Failures build the foundation for future successes.

In a superbly shocking (by which I mean not the least bit surprising) turn of events, I quickly found that this approach makes me feel a whole lot more warm and fuzzy than endlessly berating myself for not being perfect or getting something exactly right on my first try. (You’re stunned, I’m sure.)

mmm! Beautiful! ♥ Another way of sayin.... there are no mistakes, just opportunities for learning and growth!

Mind: blown.

Once I started putting this into practice, I saw a dramatic shift in my perspective. Ok, so I want to do something different than the field for which I went to school. When I was looking at this as a failure, I was stuck — and there I sat, spinning my wheels and stewing in a toxic cocktail of perfectionism and self-inflicted derision.

Once I started seeing it as a learning experience, though, two things happened: first, I stopped treating myself like I was the the poster child for failure. Secondly, I got un-stuck and was able to move forward in figuring out what I do want to do.

By looking at my situation as an opportunity to learn something about myself and to then use what I learned as a sort of GPS for taking my life in a more satisfying direction, I began to feel a lot better.

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Not surprisingly, this has made a huge difference for me — and it has improved more than one area of my life. Instead of kicking myself when I have a few days in which I can’t seem to get my shiz together, I’ve started looking at it as an opportunity to figure out what I can do differently in the future. Instead of berating myself when I don’t get to the gym as often as I’d like, I started seeing it as an opportunity to learn about how I manage my time and how I might change things up to make life flow a bit better.

And with all that in mind, now I’d like to hear from you!

Are you a perfectionist? If so, do you think this approach to failure and perfectionism would help you feel better and put less pressure on yourself?

22 thoughts on “Perfectionism, Failure, And The Growth Mindset

  1. Robin March 26, 2013 / 10:21 am

    so glad you are starting to believe all the great advice you are have recieved over the years and that you are moving forward! I have a 8 year old perfectionist son, and wow, it’s tough, because even at this young age the self-esteem is so affected by this not-good-enough-has-to-be perfect view. And the thought that when you do something wrong, it’s bad, and I must be a bad person…..I do hope these are lessons the immature mind can grasp if we keep repeating over and over…thanks for your enlightening post.

    • Lillian @ Seize the Latte March 26, 2013 / 10:45 am

      Thanks, Robin! I’d love to hear about your perspective as the mother of a perfectionist child, because I often wonder how my incessant perfectionism affected my mom. She’s helped me through many bouts of this, and I think it must be wrenching to see your child be so hard on themself. On a related note, one book that has helped me a lot — and which gives tips for parents — is Mindset by Carol Dweck. I’m not sure if it would be helpful in your situation (you could very well already be doing the things she recommends!), but it might be worth checking out.

      • Robin March 26, 2013 / 12:31 pm

        Thanks Lillian, I put Mindset on my “wishlist”, I haven’t looked into it yet. We did talk to a specialist and he told us to check into some books on “giftedness” as well, and I haven’t yet, but evidently the smarter you are the more aware you are of the good and the bad sometimes–not always the best! Anyway, thanks for your suggestion. As a parent, it’s tough. I worry his self-esteem will be bad and anxiety will take over, and just don’t want that to happen.. This is all a bit new to us. Love your blog and enjoy the discussion.

  2. cookingfortheotherhalf March 26, 2013 / 11:42 am

    I am definitely a perfectionist and it’s good and bad. On the one hand, I feel like setting high standards for myself allows me to work really hard, which is a good quality, but I’m definitely too hard on myself at times. I love this post and your new outlook!

    • Lillian @ Seize the Latte March 26, 2013 / 9:49 pm

      I can relate! I liked the picture I found about how striving for excellence is good, while striving for perfection can drive a person bonkers — it’s so true, and I’ve found that there’s a thin line between the two. Now it’s just a matter of staying on the right side of that line!

  3. cleaneatingveggiegirl March 26, 2013 / 1:20 pm

    I am most certainly a perfectionist. Has it helped me succeed in a lot of ways in life? Yes. But has it also caused me to experience a lot of unnecessary stress/worry? You bet! I am definitely working on finding a balance in there somewhere. I know that I am not perfect and I do not HAVE to be!

  4. cjoye7 March 26, 2013 / 2:43 pm

    WOW this was just what I needed today!! I particularly loved the “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection demoralizes you” quote. Thanks my friend!!

  5. Alex @ therunwithin March 26, 2013 / 2:49 pm

    gosh I can relate to every single thing you wrote here. I am a perfectionist that is trying so hard to break those ways, the pressure I put on myself is unreal sometimes. I really like this though, I need to save this for later to read over and over.

    • Lillian @ Seize the Latte March 26, 2013 / 10:09 pm

      It can be really hard not to put too much pressure on yourself — I’ve done that for years! Remember, though, that you don’t have to be perfect in order to be awesome. The adage that nobody’s perfect is overused to the point of being borderline meaningless, but it’s true — nobody, anywhere, in the history of humankind, has ever been perfect. For me, when I realized I was holding myself to standards that are simply unattainable, I started putting a lot less pressure on myself.

  6. chasingchels March 26, 2013 / 6:30 pm

    Oh yes. You described me perfectly ha. I like the idea of using supposed “failures” as building blocks for the future, but I get frustrated with myself for not knowing what I want that future to look like…I know that I don’t want to be a nanny for more than a year (two at most), but I have no idea where I want to go after this. And I’m not used to feeling this way and “not knowing”…I’ve ALWAYS had a plan haha and now I really don’t. I think that’s part of the reason I’ve been all over the place recently, but I’m not quite sure how to let it all go either

    • Lillian @ Seize the Latte March 26, 2013 / 10:12 pm

      Girl, I feel your pain. The first time I found myself without a plan — and not only without a plan, but without even an *idea* for what I wanted my plan to be — I had a one-way ticket on the express train to Freak Out City. We’re raised within a straightforward structure where our next steps are all charted out, so the first time you find yourself without one, it’s profoundly unmooring. There’s an email coming your way with some reading material that will hopefully help you with this!

  7. daynagryphon March 27, 2013 / 6:47 am

    I’m so unbelievably happy to read this! You are such an amazing, kickass woman, and it has always been difficult to watch you beat yourself up for not meeting impossibly high standards. Lurves!

    • Lillian @ Seize the Latte March 28, 2013 / 11:52 am

      Thanks, dude! After all, you’ve been telling me this for *years* now…ok, decades. But that’s not the point. 😉

  8. jessielovestorun March 27, 2013 / 9:55 am

    1. I’ve come to the conclusion that you NEVER write a bad post, and they are always awesome.. just like you
    2. I am a perfectionist as well, so this was very helpful & informative. Thank you
    3. I wish we lived closer, so we could actually meet
    4. Have a great day


  9. aftertheivyleague March 27, 2013 / 7:04 pm

    Loving everything about this post, especially this right here: ” I was deeply unhappy in the career I’ve worked towards my entire adult life, and I felt like a total failure. All that education, all that money, all that hard work: I was wasting it all by wanting to do something else with my life. I felt like an epic failure and a total waste”

    That is me. I feel stuck in my career choice and don’t really know what I want to do…or I do know what I want to do but it makes my education and hard work seem like a bit of a waste..and it is such a tough place to be in. I can’t even explain how comforting it is to read about someone else in the same boat. And that first grader you described? That was me too. Now if only I could channel my perfectionism for good…something to work on for sure.

    • Lillian @ Seize the Latte March 28, 2013 / 11:56 am

      Hon, do I ever feel your pain on this. It’s scary as hell to contemplate doing something different than what you trained for. What I’ve realized, though, is that working in your chosen field can be incredibly enlightening: enlightening in the sense that you learn that it’s a) totally different than how you’d thought it would be, and b) something you don’t like. You never could’ve learned that if you didn’t try it, and the experience of having worked in a career that you thought was the right path allows you to say “no, this isn’t right for me” with total authority. Any experience that you learn from is not a wasted experience. 🙂

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