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Mastery, Not Perfection


Perfection—which according to Merriam-Webster means a state of flawlessness or an unsurpassable degree of excellence—is unrealistic and exhausting. Striving for perfection means constantly expending energy to make sure nothing is out of place, always having the answers and solutions, and managing how we are perceived. With zero margin for error, perfection is exhausting, leaving little energy for anything else. 


One might think the opposite of perfection is imperfection. It is not. Recent research by the Brené Brown Research Group revealed that on the other side of the coin of perfectionism is something worse: shame. Shame goes beyond the possible short-lived embarrassment of making a blunder to judging our very selves as bad. Shame persists, a cloud that impacts everything. This may look like overthinking decisions, shying away from volunteering to join a big project, or irritability with team members.  


For managers and leaders, their self-expectations for perfection bleed over to their expectations of others. Expecting perfection from team members may lead to not taking initiative for fear of making a mistake or ticking off the manager/leader, lacking innovation since innovation emerges through trials and imperfection, and even feelings of shame that impact their engagement and personal well-being. 


As a leader, I’ve been there myself. There was a time early in my leadership practice when I was a terrible manager. I over-managed, fueled by an undercurrent of perfectionism and competition from organizational pressure. It sucked. I was tired and my team was tired. However, things changed when I began to spend less time worried about perfection and more time focused on leading. Team members felt freer to throw spaghetti at the walls, take risks, and continuously level up. Without the exhaustion from chasing perfection, I have the time and energy to lead effectively and am more fulfilled in my leadership work. 


If you are struggling with even an inkling of the perfectionism-and-shame seesaw, I want you to know that there is hope and a better, healthier way: 


The pursuit of mastery. 


Mastery is way better than perfection. The pursuit of mastery has nothing to do with flawlessness or unsurpassable excellence. It is about learning, experimenting, tinkering, and practicing to continuously grow. Mastery is not about finding perfection at the end of the rainbow. It is about the journey, the rainbow itself. Without the expectation of perfection, we can invite blunders and mistakes without self-judgement. We can learn from mishaps without internalizing imperfection as evidence of an intrinsic personal flaw for which to feel shame. Through the pursuit of mastery, we increase our capacity to grow. We can celebrate our growth and even the mistakes that help us learn. It is not about perfectionism (Brown) nor innate ability that we unlock our potential (Grant). It is through learning and the pursuit of mastery. 


Ditching perfectionism and aiming for mastery allows us to build resilience, the skills to bounce back after a setback. Brown’s approach to courageous leadership can help us build resilience for the journey of mastery: 

  • Reckoning – become aware that we are emotionally hooked, and the story we are telling ourselves. (Often, this may be something like, “I screwed this up. I suck.”) 

  • Rumbling – identify other narratives. (Such as, “That project did not go as well as I hoped but I am learning.”) 

  • Revolution – practice seeing things through the lens of the new narrative 

 

These resilience-building steps are gold for me. From time to time, I am still tempted to aim for perfection. However, the pursuit of mastery enables me to bounce back from setbacks and grow. 


So, let’s ditch perfectionism. Nothing good comes from it. Instead, let’s pursue mastery, bounce back from setbacks, and celebrate our learnings and growth. 

 

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