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Appreciating the imperfect

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

When being the worst is simply the best

(Written while listening to Turning Point by Lonnie Smith and a lot of Nina Simone)

One part of living abroad that immediately becomes clear is that transition is messy baby. Simple things that you may have perfected over the years, don’t come quite so easily in new environments. For someone who is always trying to “get it right” this can be a huge adjustment to thinking, expectations, time management, etc.

But there is also a freedom in not expecting things to be perfect. And going a step further by accepting that most things will be imperfect has allowed me to let go of my own ego and instead to enjoy things that I never would have tried before.

I feel like I am back in the learners seat. Going after new skills, hobbies, experiences, relationships with the kind of reckless abandon that I had when I was a kid.

Why do we cling to the idea of perfection when it’s so clear that’s mostly unattainable?

I really don’t know when this obsession with perfection started, but when I look back it’s easy to understand how it sunk in deep.

Some of my earliest memories are of my older brother and I trying to have as much reckless fun as we could without getting into serious trouble…or at least I was trying to avoid punishment. It’s not like we didn’t understand the rules. It was VERY clear from the start what my parents expected of us, what would garnish a bad reaction and what we would be able to do without the fear of a reprimand.

Did I say that I was a rule follower? Oh yes, I watched them carefully. I wanted to know all of the rules, parameters and watch outs. I wanted no part in the punishments my older brother experienced almost as often as he showered.

And I truly didn’t understand why he was having such a hard time navigating childhood. It was relatively easy to understand what my parents wanted us to do and not do, so why wouldn’t he play along. It took me a long time to understand that he really didn’t look at life the same way that I did. He didn’t care about getting punished.

He saw punishments as a necessary evil for getting to do what he wanted, but certainly not a reason to act differently. He was focused on the fun not on being the “perfect child” (although he would tell everyone he met how he was so smart and right about mostly everything)

So this was the breeding ground in which I grew up. I saw the path to perfection as a way not only to avoid the negative attention of the adults around me but as the way in which I would be able to “win” at life.

Learn all of the rules. Commit them to memory. Make sure to follow them down to the letter. That’s the way to win. That’s the way to avoid making your parents, teachers, coaches, etc. upset. And yet did this equal winning?

Early in life, you are given a simplistic rule book and told that if you learn the rules, follow them and understand all of the detailed caveats and play honestly, you will continue to climb the ladder of life. This is very prescriptive but also baked into almost every game, school lesson and most rules at home.

Does the win count if the game is rigged?

Rules can be a great way for keeping kids behaviors in relative check (especially when you are in the midst of more than one child). But I think we are only telling half of a story when we say to kids that following the rules will equal success, when the world is truly game board where some players have an unfair advantage while many others are playing by unwritten rules.

Knowing this, as a society and as parents, we are often focusing too much on being perfect and winning. We don’t look hard enough at how something was done, that an good effort was made or the joy in the attempt. We don’t look hard enough or celebrate the imperfections and that fact pushes us to only focus on the end results and not in the process of learning.

How does perfectionism seep into your adult relationships…

I think the focus on the perfect date, guy/girl is so damaging. It just wastes time, energy and robs us of actually appreciating a person for all that they are and even for what they are not.

Life lies in the imperfections. In the real everyday ticks, annoyances, weird comments and sometimes bad timing.

My single friends have shared their interesting/scary/funny/unusual experiences on the dating apps over the years. These sites can be littered with these ideas that in order to be seen as “the right one”, you have to not only be absent of fault, but sell this idea that life with you would be like “winning the lottery”. (I mean really???) How are so many people saying that they are some dream experience instead of showing even a small truth about themselves instead. (By the way, winning the lottery doesn’t equal happiness, just look at the stories of some of the lottery winners)

Spend enough time with anyone and you’ll see the truth. The charade of pretending to be perfect and then being found out doesn’t seem worth the hassle for anyone involved, but that’s what’s being sold. Like everyone else, I looked for someone great who would add to my life but was always wary of people that claimed to be perfect. It never proved to be true and I want no part of the person that says they are perfect, that can’t see their own faults.

How much of this have I been guilty of putting on my own children?

When I look at how our lives in the U.S. and Singapore are centered around winning, I wonder how much of this is healthy. Everyone wants a good life but you can easily get swept into the ideas of getting into the right school, right activities, right profession, right partners, right house and on and on. It truly can soak up every ounce of your day. Way past the point of reason or rationale. And even when you see the perfection trap for what it is, extricating yourself from that type of thinking is harder than you may believe.

Why? Well it’s hard because what’s the alternative? Encourage your kids to fail?

And the crazy answer to that is YES and A LOT.

Many studies, including one from Stanford University (Parents’ Views of Failure Predict Children’s Fixed and Growth Intelligence Mind-Sets), have shown that kids who are ok with failure as a possible option for trying new or challenging things, are more tenacious, willing to take bigger risks, see life as a learner and therefore more likely to take home the bigger life prize in the end. But first you have to get over the idea of perfection and get comfortable with doing things badly for a while.

My favorite question to ask my kids is “what did they fail at or what mistakes did they make today”. I try to not just normalize fails but celebrate the attempts at something new or challenging. Celebrate that they are looking to learn and seek.

That’s the currency that will actually bring them a sense of self, a sense of accomplishment and something tangible that they can actually build on.

I understand striving to win for a big award but what about when there is no “prize”

When you are used to life being a zero sum game, the worst thing you can think of is being a loser. What’s the prize? There doesn’t even have to be a tangible prize. You can be simply playing for the bragging rights for being the reigning UNO champion in your household. That’s enough! (Especially in my family) But how crazy is it that we’d rather stick to the things we know we’ll win instead of opening our worlds to all of the things that there are still out there to attempt and fail at gloriously.

I think it all goes back to ego. We want to win the game/round/promotion/date so that the alternative isn’t true. We don’t want the act of losing to be tied to us as a person. When did that become a thing? I know I’ve had that wrapped around me for way too long and it took this move to realize how silly that is.

As you grow through the ranks of adulthood people are still being trained to “win”, even if the game they are playing isn’t worth the time. We are handing out A’s to the folks who are just showing up on time or handing in all their assignments, even if the product is rubbish and the people who show that they are willing to take risks and fail not given the same due.

Where should our focus really be? Why aren’t we in constant pursuit of creating vs winning?

If we finally stop worrying about the idea of perfection, life actually starts to feel a lot more fun and rewarding. First, you are no longer worrying about how things are perceived which gives you that much more time and space to be in the growth mindset of learning, doing, creating, revising and ACTUALLY enhancing your life.

It’s a subtle shift of mindset above all else, but I swear that once I was able to stop worrying about what others were thinking about me or what I was doing, I really began to enjoy what I had.

This very blog came about because I no longer wanted to just post the lovely pictures of my expat experience and places I’m visiting without telling the deeper side of the story. It’s a false narrative and it not only places you into a very constrictive box in others minds, but it also boxes you into a singular place in your own mind, as you start to feel the pressure to live up to a persona instead of just being.

What I’ve found is so much joy in the attempt again. I started sharing my writing even though I am not a professional writer. I started learning to play tennis, although the first time I truly played was 9 months ago. I began to weight train, even though I have to start with the smallest weights at the gym. I went to the yoga classes, right next to the girls who are already doing head stands. Started learning photography, although others were way ahead of me in skill. None of that mattered to me anymore. What matters in life is the doing and the improving against your own measures. What matters is the earnestness in the attempt, not in the award at the end (which so few get anyway). It’s not what is glorified because “girl works diligently everyday when no one is watching” doesn’t sound as good as “girl wins the olympic gold”. But I don’t want to limit myself anymore to only things I am already proficient in. I want to try, I want to fail and I want to try again.

Is this an Americanism or do we all fall for some version of this?

The more I speak to my friends back home and abroad, the more this idea of “perfection” rings true. It hampers us as women to be stuck in what is believed to be the “ideal” for us. The more we buy into it, the smaller our worlds become. Making us beholden to something that we don’t ourselves believe in.

It takes on slightly different forms for women depending on where they are from, but it’s so clearly there. Seeping through the messages on how we should dress, how our bodies should look, who we should marry, what is appropriate for us to do for work, how we should raise our children, etc, etc, etc.

It’s awful to see how so many incredible women are being hampered by these ideals that are pumped into the air. And too many of us let that perfectionism disease seep in way too deep. The sooner we let the air out of those tires, the better we’ll be.

Back to a playing a beautiful game

This reflection makes me think about the many soccer games that my parents would watch ever since I was little (some over and over again). At times they were old World Cup matches or just European games that showed amazing passing, incredible saves or a phenomenal player that elevated the entire team. Many games we had watched before and therefore already knew how they ended.

But what my parents were looking for wasn’t the score at the end, but much more interested in how the game was played. If the players simply outmatched their opponents but hogged the ball, that wasn’t worth celebrating. If we saw some phenomenal passing, saves, team work and real hustle, it didn’t even matter what the score was at the end. That game was worth every minute of play.

This is my intention in my own life. Not necessarily the easy win, but the beautiful game.

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