Given the choice between perfection and courage, choose courage. Perfection is easy because there is often a measure of safety involved. There’s no great unknown, no proverbial leap. No net needed. As someone who has strived for perfection for nearly three decades, I haven’t only mastered the art of playing it safe, I’ve relied upon it as a default setting.
Of course, there have been brief experiments. I’ve dabbled with the unknown. But every time I push off the wall out into the uncharted waters, I find myself clawing my way back, desperate for the familiar. The terror has little to do with the new experience and everything to do with the unrecognizable. I can tame what I understand.
As a high school student working part time, my dad taught me how to open an IRA. From the time I was fourteen until the time I was twenty-seven, I kept my money in that same bank certificate of deposit. Occasionally, I’d roll it over for a longer length of time. Once, I even tried to move banks, but my local bank decided to match the competitor’s interest rates. For thirteen years, I played it safe. On the surface, my plan seemed perfect. Each year, I had more money than the last. Up, up, and away. How many fourteen-year-olds do you know that can explain the benefit of an IRA? How many twenty-year-olds understand the importance of maxing out a Roth? Oh, the savings. Oh, the financial literacy.
But the cowardly thing is also, of course, the costly thing. By leaving my money locked in a bank certificate of deposit, I’d never lose my money. I can’t tell you what a relief that embossed FDIC-Insured sticker on my paperwork was. I also never really made any money. In fact, my savings were not keeping pace with inflation, not by a long stretch.
I finally got up the courage to move my money — all of my money — over to a Vanguard Retirement Account. I was in uncharted territory when the bottom fell out. Twice. To say that I’ve failed at investing is grand hyperbole. In fact, I’d argue the only way to truly fail at investing is to not invest. To say that I failed at timing the market — were that ever my intent — would be an understatement. But from this single leap, this momentary act of courage came confidence. Courage begets more courage.
Growing up, I tracked my grades like my life, my intelligence, my entire future depended on every tenth of a percent. The front inside cover of every notebook for every subject area had a chart that listed the assignment name, the points possible, the points I’d earned, and my running grade in the class. Right-brained tendencies momentarily forgotten; not even weighted grades and final exams could stand in the way of me knowing every grade down to the exact point.
Looking back, a lot of good came from this pursuit of perfection. I was placed in a gifted program in the third grade. By college, I completed an honors program, earned a grant to research in Mexico, and graduated with summa cum laude emblazed on my diploma. Perfection unlocked doors.
Perfection also cost me a great deal. My junior year of high school, math got hard. Honors Precalculus with Trigonometry engaged my mind but it threatened my GPA. Instead of pursuing another calculus class senior year, I opted for statistics instead. That Spanish endorsement that I was two classes shy of in college? I didn’t get around to completing them until after graduation, after I was summa cum laude. When I think back to many classes, I remember grades. I don’t remember the learning. In fact, when students ask me for help with their math work now, I wonder why I don’t teach math. The equations dance like little riddles on the page, promising an answer, begging to be solved. The truth is, it is only exciting now because I can work the logic, I can manipulate the formulas, I can solve for the variables without any consequence. My answer may be wrong. But then I can try again. Life isn’t about perfection, it’s about the courage to explore.
This evolution will be gradual, perhaps even lifelong. The recognition that I am about to step into the possibility of a mistake, that I am contemplating the long way, the wrong way, or a dead end is unsettling. It is counterintuitive to the safety that I’ve embraced. It is painful. But it is something that has taught me a great deal.
Today, when I teach, I teach courage. I encourage my students — and their families — to celebrate learning, not just grades. As I fast approach my thirtieth birthday, I’m pursuing courage in all aspects of my life. Of course, I want to do things well, but I also want to do things differently. Life does not have to perfect. Life will never be perfect. Now that I’m slowly opening myself up to the unpredictability, the uncertainty, the utter chaos, I am learning and I am living. And it’s great to be alive.
So Tell Me…How do you combat perfectionism? Care to share a recent act of courage?