Have you ever played a game that you just couldn’t walk away from even though it nearly drove you to the brink of madness? Well, mine was the game of PERFECTION. The video above explains what we all have to lose by playing it. At the end of the transcript below are links to other resources for overcoming perfection.
Here’s what I said in the video:
This game used to be my one of my favorite games as a kid. It’s called Perfection. You have sixty seconds to find the places where each of these little shapes stick into this game before the tray pops and everything flies in every different direction. And I used to LOVE this game as a kid. I would play it over and over and over. Even though every time that darn tray popped it would scare the crap out of me, I kept playing it.
The funny thing is, even after I outgrew this game, I was playing my own perfection game. It was “check the box.” Every box had to be checked before I could feel like I had done anything of value. The irony is, half the boxes I was trying to check were things that didn’t really need to get done at all. And not only was I trying to check the box, I was trying to get everything done perfectly — only to come to the end of the day or the end of the week when the tray would pop and everything would fly in every different direction and I wasn’t getting anything done.
I was playing this stupid perfection game, which you may have wondered, “What the heck is she doing?” when you saw me. “Doesn’t she have something more important to spend her time on? Maybe she has a little TOO much time on her hands.” YEAH. That’s what happens when you do perfection. You never do anything of any significance. You scare the crap out of yourself because you can never reach that ideal that you’ve been killing yourself for. And you are terrified of the chaos because you have no idea how to navigate through it. You have been so busy trying to get all the pieces in their little places before things break out that you never do anything that’s really important. AND you also never ENJOY anything that you are doing while you are doing it because you are so wrapped up in trying to get it perfect.
When I was playing the game of perfection, I never dreamt about the things that I could achieve. I had trouble staying in the moment. And I was always behind — always feeling like things were churning in my head. Even after work I would be thinking about all the things I needed to do the next day, until the tray would pop and I would terrify myself again and again. And you know what? I’m done with this game. I don’t even want my kids playing this game. It’s going in the trash.
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If you’ve been following my blog for the last few weeks, you may have noticed that many of the posts have been about getting unstuck, overcoming procrastination and overwhelm, and moving forward. That’s because these are challenges I’ve been working through lately. And one of the best ways I know to find answers and solutions to my challenges is, well, to write about them. I think it’s because writing about something requires you to hold a question in your mind that allows you to access answers. Sometimes my answers come through writing, and sometimes they come through in other ways.
One of the insights I received came through watching my nine year old son do his homework. There is a dynamic there that has both fascinated and frustrated me. The kid is really smart. And his homework is really not that hard. He could sit down and finish it in a matter of minutes. But the second he pulls it out of his backpack, something happens that literally freezes him in his tracks. It’s as if a huge mountain has suddenly erupted out of the page and grown into a formidable and intimidating barrier between what he needs to do and his ability to get it done.
He sits and stares at the paper. He complains about the work it requires him to do. He worries that he’s not going to be able to do it right (or at all). And then any little thing that captures his attention suddenly absorbs every ounce of energy and focus he has. A bug. A little drop of water on the counter. The way the numbers on the digital clock change with each minute. Thin air has even captivated him in this state. And hours can go by before he has mustered enough courage and motivation to even raise a pencil to paper.
“Ryan,” my husband and I tell him, “in the time you take to complain and fuss about it, you could have it finished!” “You can easily do this – you are so smart!” we tell him. Amazing. None of that seems to get through.
And then I realized that my son is a mirror image of me when I get overwhelmed.
It’s not that the tasks are all that hard or the obstacles too entirely difficult to overcome. It’s that somehow my mind enlarges them to several times their normal size so that it feels as though I am getting ready to tackle Mount Everest when in reality I only need to take a little stroll around the block. I tell myself stories (sometimes consciously and other times unconsciously) about how difficult things will be – especially things I’ve never done before. And I get sucked into the crazy fallacy I have battled my entire life that has me believing I need to get everything perfect. Before I even realize what’s going on, I feel totally fatigued – can’t even think straight. And then I need to just sit for awhile – or go find something to do that is easy, so I can check a box and feel as though I have accomplished something, anything.
So now I know where my son gets it. Instead of trying to teach him. I have decided to allow him to be my teacher. In addition to showing me what is standing in my way, he has reminded me that all the words in the world don’t make a difference when you are trying to teach someone to do something you have not yet mastered. Kids learn through action, not words. And so do adults.
So if I’m going to do even a lick of good for this kid, (and my other kids, and my clients, and anyone else I might want to help), I have got to get busy working on myself. But how do you overcome a lifetime of perfectionistic patterns that keep you from taking the action necessary to achieve your grandest visions and goals?
With this question at the top of my mind, I went for a run. As with just about any of my runs, the first fifteen minutes was hard. I was tired and stiff. It wasn’t fun. But I powered through it. And then I got into my zone. My legs felt lighter. My breathing evened out. My head began to clear. I started to enjoy myself. And I ran a little faster and a little harder. It felt good.
And then I had a second, equally powerful insight. To break out of the perfectionism trap – to get out of overwhelm, to free myself from my own self-created prison, I simply need to get into action. To take even one small step toward my desired goal – with the knowledge that at first it may be uncomfortable, stilted, far from pretty, less than perfect. And then to take another, and another and another. Until finally I reach my zone. I have a feeling the more diligence and effort I put into those initial steps, the more quickly I will get through that “warm up” period and into a place where I can actually make headway – and – dare I say it – even have some fun?!
So that’s my simple plan. And I’m sticking to it. And when I need a little more motivation and inspiration, I’m going to go hang out with my son for awhile.
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
~ Albert Einstein
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