The Problem with Perfection

Principals Pen Thursday, 18 June 2020

Perfection is a dangerous concept to aim for or to claim.

Firstly, perfection puts a ceiling on things. It suggests we reach a certain point and then we’re done. Secondly, outside of God’s awesome creation, does perfection even exist?

The First and Second Industrial Revolutions seemed to change everything. Amongst a myriad of advancements, this era galvanised the shift from unique hand-made items to the mass production and standardisation of goods. With this shift came the new expectation that goods would be predictable, identical and consistent – in other words, flawless and… perfect.

Do we allow our familiarisation with predictable, identical and consistent goods, to influence the expectations we place on ourselves and on our children? Have we become conditioned to believe that, just like a product from the assembly line, humans should be perfect?

Organisational Psychologist, Dr Jim Bright, recently wrote, ‘We place demands on people and the universe to be consistent. We like to draw straight lines because you know where you are with a straight line. What’s gone before is what is going to happen. It’s linear. … [But] humans are not straight lines.’ He goes on to write, ‘If learning comes from trial and error, then it seems pretty fundamental you have to accept there has been an error.’

When perfection becomes an expectation – either an expectation we impose on ourselves or an expectation imposed on us by another person – dread can overwhelm us, unrelenting stress can imprison us, and procrastination or rebellion can set in.

Perfection is unattainable.

Improvement, however, is a concept everyone can aim for and claim. Improvement is achievable and it has no ceiling and no endpoint, giving rise to the notion that anything is possible.

Improvement accepts that there will be mistakes and errors along the way. A child learning to walk, for example, will fall over again and again until one day – voila! But it doesn’t stop there. Building upon that improvement, the child will learn to change direction, to run, to jump, to hurdle; to sprint short distances, to endure long distances; to leap high and to leap long. And in learning these skills, a child will persistently make errors and experience failure and setbacks. It will not be a perfect journey, but every attempt will ultimately lead to improvement.

When improvement becomes an expectation, motivation can be high as we compete against ourselves to do better than we did last time. As we experience the sense of accomplishment that comes from the first steps of improvement, we develop and maintain self-belief, become stronger and more resilient, and we own the fighter within. Setbacks become minor bumps in the road that only add to our determination and spur us on further.

So, how do we support children in aiming for and claiming improvement?

  • We role model improvement in ourselves. As adults, we allow children to witness our own mistakes, our errors and our setbacks. We help children to see that we view our own setbacks not as frustrations, but as a catalyst for growing our determination. We speak aloud our thinking in relation to our mistakes, demonstrating how we learn from them and showing children how we try again, perhaps with refined preparation, a different strategy or improved focus.
  • When a child makes an error we do not reprimand. Rather, we step back to see if the child recognises the error and sets themselves on a path to try again. If not, we engage in relational dialogue using questioning techniques to assist the child in discerning the error, acknowledging what they have learned through the error, and developing the resolve to make the necessary changes and have another go.
  • We normalise mistakes, errors and setbacks. We intentionally do not eliminate the potential for mistakes, errors and setbacks, knowing our goal is to prepare children for the reality that setbacks exist throughout life. We speak about the benefits of having a go regardless of the possibility of failure.
  • We celebrate improvement. We help children to reflect on the setbacks and perseverance that led them to improve, and use this as a catalyst for the tenacity required for ongoing improvement.
The hunger for improvement is a characteristic that exists from birth. It is observed, for example, in the child learning to walk. But this hunger can be crushed by the expectation of perfection. Our aim at Living Faith is to nurture in students their hunger for improvement, knowing it will carry them well beyond their schooling years, driving their success later in life.

- Jane Mueller, Principal