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Somewhere in my 30+ years as a lean, mean, caffeine-requiring machine, I picked up a nasty case of perfection.

When I was younger, I encouraged this condition by boasting about this trait during job interviews. Assuming that is what every employer what’s to hear from a prospective candidate; someone who takes pride in perfection.

As I’ve collected rocks in my rotors, I realize perfectionism is a chronic condition.

Sky-high expectations turn into foul moods when they can’t be met. Perfection expectations fold into procrastination too, because if I can’t do it perfectly, then what’s the point in trying. My superhuman expectations then leech into other human relations, like when I get disappointed when others don’t conform to my anticipations.

A toxic merry-go-round that needs adult supervision and a handful of Tums.

Per my typical route to reflections, I was reading about the harmful effects of perfectionism. As a way to combat my perfectionist addiction, I tried 14-days of journaling about why mistakes are useful, not to be confused with useless.

I learned, laughed, and found it an exercise worth the effort.

A Journey, Not a Destination

The entries started with easy fluff about why mistakes are useful:

  • Mistakes are where stories are made. Nobody wants to hear about the perfect dinner, vacation, or another day at work. The best stories are how obstacles were overcome, challenges survived, and cats were corralled.
  • Mistakes are where learning happens. If I knew everything, I would learn nothing.
  • To error is to human.
  • Mistakes are a way to practice apologizing and humbling my humanity.

As the days progressed the entries became more interesting, insightful, and witty.

Real Realizations

Around day four is when I start to go off the rails with why mistakes are useful. I asked myself, do you know anyone who has never made a mistake.

My response, no. Welcome to the league of champions.

This realization was simple, logical, and everyday obvious, but it was a funny lesson too. Everyone from the Dalai Lama to Beyoncé has made mistakes, probably often, like me.

I gurgled up my harsher mistakes like financial ones. Those lessons forever fueled my finances like warped fusion technology of regret. The searing highlights were don’t cash out a 401(k), roll it over. Being slightly knowledgeable is better than any advice from a customer service agent. They said it and I didn’t believe it, but investing is easier than it seems.

Kindling Kindness

As a decades-long member of the customer service industry, humanity needs to practice kindness and the best sacrificial candidate is me.

I’m my most vocal critic, judge, and executioner of mistakes except for that one time I was a camp director, then a handful of parents were much better at those roles.

If in my lowest moments, I can find kindness for myself, I can cash it for others too.

Kindness for myself is harder than other forms of kindness. I can easily find kindness for other people’s struggles, dilemmas, and shortcomings; their human with human faults.

But when I look at my struggles, dilemmas, and shortcomings, my mental filter is different from everyone else’s. Instead, the standards are higher, like a special test for no one but me where the correct answers are worthless and the wrong answers are worth more.

Worst. Test. Ever.

As an adult who needs adult supervision, if I can develop a kindness habit, it’s a gift I can give to others too. That’s a test I prefer to take.

Per Courtney Carver at Be More with Less, “Happiness isn’t waiting for us, it’s within us.”

Motivation, Not Stagnation

Nothing ignites self-motivation faster than a mistake.

No coffee, naps, or snacks are needed!

I try to ease the pain of a mistake or calm my flailing nerves by correcting it.

During my furlough, I had one day where I was a pile of sugar, doom scrolling, and more sugar. I made the mistake of starting the day with sugar and when I gorge before lunch, I have a hard time controlling that persistent beast. I want to devour more sugar. The rest of the day, I’m like a kid who found the cookie jar and couldn’t stop until caught.

That unwise choice led to a cascade of others, including doom scrolling and social media binging. The whole day was mired in poor choices that made me feel like a useless blob by the end. The next day, the mistakes were there to greet me but with a fresh start and extra caffeine, I had 8-hours’ worth of motivation to make better choices.

Few things lead to a burst of self-motivation than guilt-induced motivation.

Rearrange & Change

Why are mistakes useful? They are an opportunity to try the unexpected.

Success is easy. Once the steps of success are achieved, rinse and repeat for easy dopamine release. When a mistake crops up, a mandatory shift is crafted. A merge with something different and usually outside the comfort zone, but it’s an opportunity for a bigger, better success.

Similar to my transition as a receptionist to an art and science instructor.

Being a receptionist felt like a mistake that I couldn’t break. It was a job with benefits but lacked people and passion. It was a simmering sort of discomfort, not enough to quit but enough to create a lifetime of apathy.

My motivation comes in waves, so after one particular lackluster day that I don’t remember, I finally got the courage to apply for a part-time art and science instructor position.

I was uneasy because I didn’t know anything about art, let alone the confidence to teach it, and I hadn’t worked with underserved students.

My fearful thoughts kept me from applying for years.

Eventually, I applied and was hired. It was only one day a week, but it became the highlight of my week. I was a stronger educator because of that role and the lessons learned has increased my range ever since.

A slow-simmering mistake blossomed into one of my best career choices. If I had instant success, I would be a lesser educator for it because I never would have applied.

Why Mistakes Are Useful

I’m a recovering perfectionist. 14-days isn’t enough to change a lifetime of habits, but it’s enough to shift my mindset.

I have already noticed a change in my inner dialogue. Instead of tensing for an anticipated mistake, I feel relaxed because if a mistake comes (which isn’t a guarantee), I would rather handle it relaxed than as a tight ball of snakes ready to strike. Lately when I’ve stumbled, I find myself chuckling over it or finding the bright side.

I hope to keep up this momentum, but if I don’t, that’s okay. I can always prescribe another two weeks of journal entries. There is little to lose and a lot to gain.

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4 thoughts on “Why Mistakes Are Useful: A Recovering Perfectionist’s Reflections

  1. Hey Hank, it’s tough to nail down specifics but I’ve always had nervous/anxious tendencies (bouncy leg, pen clicking, biting unruly skin by my nails). It seemed to ramp up during the military and after my discharge. If I had to guess, it’s a twisted coping mechanism for preventing pain. If I do something perfect that means I won’t get yelled at, in trouble, etc. A flawed mindset doomed for failure.

  2. Howdy! Do you know where you “…picked up a nasty case of perfection.”?

  3. Thanks, Sam! I’m happy to hear I’m not alone in this dilemma! 😅

  4. I’m also a recovering perfectionist. I was lucky enough to hit rock-bottom years ago and am now on the other side. Although I have to say that from time to time I also get sucked into a perfection loop. Congratulations on the self reflection and movement to change!

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