I have actually had job applicants do the “perfectionism” as a fault-in-a-job-interview thing, thinking they were being ironic and funny.

Nope. I didn’t laugh because it wasn’t amusing, especially the eighth time of the day.

Perfectionism is a fault. (And multi-tasking is neurologically impossible, so quit saying you’re good at it.)*

Perfectionism is great…to a point. And that point is when you have to turn in the paper or the brief or defend the paper or play the piece in public or realize that no matter how hard you study, you’re going to get a B in genetics.

You will, surprisingly, survive all these things.

The thing is to be good enough. Is this paper good enough? Have I done the best job I possibly can on it? If the answer is yes, then move on. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Voltaire: not perfect, but pretty damned good.

In some ways, college is a great fix for perfectionism, if you haven’t gotten over it already, although I saw kids (I started law school a few years later than many classmates, so I still think of them as kids) go through it the first time in law school. When all of your classes are curved to a 2.9, there are going to be a lot of B-/C+ grades handed out, generally to people who have never gotten anything less than an A. That’s a lot of heartbreak for a 22 year old.**

I noticed pH was a perfectionist before she turned 3. I don’t remember how or why I knew, but it was one of the reasons why I pulled her out of daycare, quit, and started working with her at home. It was becoming paralyzing for her. (It still is, if the expectations of an assignment are not made explicit to her, and it was a huge source of contention with her first grade teacher.)

At the time, I thought of it in terms of expectations. If anyone asked why I’d quit and so on and they were worthy of more than the “quality time/only young once” pablum, I explained I was teaching her to manage expectations. (At the same time, too, I was learning how to manage her expectations.)

For example, she had a view of how things ought to be but wasn’t able to articulate why they ought to be that way, thus we’d have epic tantrums. For example, if we made plans to go to a store and it was closed, or if we’d expected to have sushi but changed our minds? Tantrum.

The world*** does not like people who have meltdowns over things like a change in lunch plans, so we worked on it. “It’s fine: we can have sushi tomorrow instead.” “It’s good the store is closed, because that means the workers have the day off.” (I got a LOT of traction with that one, because she liked days when Daddy was home.)

A spill on her clothing? She’d tear it all off and run around in her underwear. (I have to admit that, while I won’t run around in my underwear, a spill on my clothing is very upsetting to me.) “It’s fine, it will dry. We will wash it when we get home.” (It took about four months of work to get there.)

Once we were out of the awful 2.5-3.5 age and coasting into four, things improved, probably a combination of a maturing brain, better communication skills and, maybe a little bit, what I worked on with her.

Now I work on this message:

There are very few mistakes in life which cannot be rectified. Fixing most of them starts with “I’m sorry…” and then a recitation of facts and owning up to what you’ve done.

I believe adulthood is really only reached when someone can admit to making a mistake, apologizing, and fixing it. 

Also? Moving on from the mistake–on both sides.

One recommendation I’d read for perfectionist kids is to play music, because a mistake is invisible and it dissipates into the air. That fit my ideal of parenting, which was to start music at around five. (We tried earlier than that, but it was a mistake. Five was a good time for her.) It also fit my desire to get a new piano. So when she started playing piano and would get upset about mistakes, I would practice too, and model making a mistake, then how to handle it. “Oops!” and then I’d be going over and over and over until I got it right–until at some point we reached a place where she would practice over and over until she got it right, and when I made a mistake, she’d say, “It’s okay, Mama. You’ll get it. Just keep trying.”

I am a fan of good enough parenting. My mother set a very low bar, but I aspire to do the best I can.  I know I am making mistakes. When it’s blatant, I apologize. I have no trouble apologizing to my child if I err. I can’t imagine either of my parents doing this.

(It’s trickier if it’s a life/social lesson, e.g.,”I’m sorry I wasn’t patient with you when you were trying to get my attention during the concert, but it’s impolite to speak during a concert. I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings.”)

And so as weird as it sounds, I work with pH on perfectionism almost as much as I work on her with any individual academic topic. I know I can always improve at everything I do (including the editing of this post, which probably remains imperfect) and this is something I’m trying to impart to her. Love of learning: that she has in spades. She’s naturally curious, both of her parents are constantly reading and discussing new things they’ve learned. (The main reason I pulled her from school was to make sure the love of learning remained.) I have no doubt she will spend the rest of her life learning new things.

But learning that we can constantly improve our skills and ourselves even if we never get close to perfection…that is something I’m hoping she has in her brain–even if it only remains a seed–before we hit the teen years.


*I always say I can do one thing at a time very well, and it’s why I structured my working day so that my high-productivity hours–mornings–were set up for research and writing (I had my calls held, because although I can hardly believe it, I used to have people answer the phone for me), I would answer email around/after lunch, and would return phone calls and put out fires in the afternoon. If I really, really, really needed to get something done, I’d go to the library or home to work.

**This is why I think people should take classes in undergrad subjects that they are naturally bad at. This is also why I do crosswords and, occasionally, KenKen, and why I put more study time into my logic class in undergrad than I think any other class ever. I’m terrible at all these things. I did get an A in that logic class, though, to my everlasting surprise.

***Because I do not believe this is the best of all possible worlds.