Imagine that a little eight-year-old girl, we will call her Hope, decides she wants to learn to ice skate. She has never set foot on an ice skating rink, and she doesn’t even know how to stand on the ice in her skates yet. But her parents have brought her brand new, beautiful ice skates, and she is at the skating rink full of excitement and ready to begin her first lesson. Now imagine that her coach skates over to Hope, introduces himself to her and her parents and then commands Hope to step out onto the ice and skate a beautiful routine immediately—for her first lesson. Hope, afraid to disappoint him, wobbles tentatively out onto the ice and then falls immediately. The coach berates her and tells her what a terrible skater she is. Consider how unrealistic and downright cruel it is for this coach to expect a little girl who doesn’t even know how to balance on her ice skates yet to skate a beautiful and flawless routine from the outset. The problem is not with Hope. Her mistakes and skating imperfection are actually perfectly normal and exactly where she needs to be. She is just learning how to skate, and she will learn how to skate, but her coach is not any help to her in this process. He expects perfection, but his perfectionist thinking is misguided, unrealistic, insensitive, and unkind.
I have told the story of Hope above because I think Hope’s situation is more common than we might think. That is because Hope’s situation is exactly the position we put ourselves in when we practice the time-honored, yet painful and unhelpful, habit of perfectionism, a habit that is all too common to many of us. When we are perfectionists, we expect ourselves to act perfectly at all times in some or in all areas of our lives, whether it is in our education, our appearance, our relationships, or our profession. When we are perfectionists, any sign of failure or weakness in ourselves is unacceptable to us. I don’t know about you, but I have had a lot of experience with perfectionism and its painful effects. Growing up, I took piano lessons for many years. I started out being excited about piano, but soon my perfectionism took over, and ruined the experience for me. I remember clearly sitting at my piano when I was nine years old practicing the pieces my teacher had assigned for me that week. Every single time I made a mistake playing a song, I would start the song over again. In my perfectionist thinking, the only acceptable outcome in my practice sessions was playing a song flawlessly. Instead of welcoming my mistakes as an opportunity for me to learn about myself and the song from my practice problems, I viewed every piano error as a painful reminder of my glaring lack of perfection. In other words, I used those errors as an imaginary club with which to bludgeon myself. As you can imagine, piano lessons and especially recitals became an extremely unwelcome and unbearable task to endure or escape if at all possible.
Unfortunately, for much of my early life, I brought this same perfectionist attitude into all areas of my existence, and it caused a great deal of pain and suffering. I pushed myself constantly to be perfect until finally, exhausted by this attitude and a few major failures in my life that specifically grew out of my perfectionism, I finally gave up hope of being perfect. The loss of my perfectionism made me really melancholy for a while until I suddenly realized one day that my imperfection was actually perfect. And that is what I would like to tell you right now. Your imperfection is perfect, and here are three reasons why.
This painting is “The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch” by Sir Henry Raeburn
First, please realize that you are a lot like Hope, the girl I mentioned at the beginning of the story. Just like Hope has never skated before, you have never lived your life before. No one has. So when you make mistakes, you are exactly where you need to be—you are at the beginning of new relationships, new jobs, new skills, and new experiences. If you realize that you are a beginner and adopt a beginner’s mindset, accepting your imperfection, you are in a perfect position to learn amazing things.
Second, if you are making mistakes, that is awesome. That means you are showing up to your life and living it. You could never make mistakes. You want to know how? You could shut yourself up in a cave and never leave. You could avoid doing anything except for the very basic things you know how to do—like eating, tying your shoes, and taking showers. If you lived like this, you would probably never make mistakes, but you also wouldn’t really be living your life. So if you are making mistakes, that is awesome. It means you are showing up to your life and living it.
Third, whenever you make mistakes, that’s wonderful because you have learned two important things: (a) You have learned what you don’t know, so you can learn it now. (b) You have learned a way not to accomplish whatever it is you are trying to accomplish. For instance, let’s say you are in a new job setting and you do something that you soon find out violates some unspoken rule at your new job, and folks are angry with you. This mistake is no doubt painful, but through this mistake you have learned two really important things. You have realized something about your new job culture you didn’t realize before. You have also realized something that you shouldn’t do, which you didn’t know before. Good for you! If you take these lessons to heart, you are now a much better employer. And this is how it is with all areas of your life. If you make mistakes and take those lessons to heart, you are now much better at living your life.
Now I would like you to imagine that you have been hired as an ice skating coach for Hope, the girl I mentioned at the beginning of this post. (Let’s pretend now that you are an ideal ice skating coach). Imagine how differently you would act towards Hope than her original coach did. You would break down the art of ice skating into manageable steps, and you would help and encourage Hope until she had mastered each step. When she struggled to master a step, you would stop and figure out why she was having problems with that step, and you would help her overcome the problems she was having. You would help her view her mistakes as important feedback, rather than irredeemable failure. And as she got stronger and more efficient in her ice skating skills, you would praise and recognize her success until it became a habit, and she was skating beautiful skating routines.
And that is how you need to be with yourself in your life. As you live your life, you will make mistakes. It is inevitable, and it is perfect. Take your life in small steps. Encourage yourself each step along the way. (I will be posting next week about how to do this specifically through a practice I call loving thinking.) When you make mistakes or fail, that’s excellent. Take it as an opportunity for important feedback. Take time to figure out if something isn’t working or if you need help from someone else or if you need to try something different. You can always get more help. And if you don’t know how to get help, be willing to figure it out. You eventually will. Use that feedback to make small self-corrections that keep you headed in the right direction. This is how you craft a beautiful life. Your imperfections are perfect.
 Shunryu Suzuki has written a book called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind that I really like. The beginner’s mind spoken about in this book is a mindset of openness to an experience and to life. It is an openness to how things should be, what we can learn from them, and even an openness to how they are to turn out. I think practicing beginner’s mind is one of the ways we overcome perfectionist thinking. Perfectionist thinking demands that we be experts and that we know everything right now. Beginner’s mind acknowledges that we are always beginning, we are always learning, and we can always learn more. Beginner’s mind invites us to stay open to and abide with how things are, rather than how we think they should be.