How to avoid the perfection trap and keep learning

I enjoy dancing and spend many hours practicing on my own. I enjoy the process of learning and all those small aha moments, when I understand a new detail that improves how I move. It is an extremely rewarding process that creates new possibilities.

So, when I was asked recently “Are you a perfectionist?”, I was really puzzled. I always have had high expectations of myself but my goal has never been to be perfect or reach the peak of my abilities. In fact, I always think I don’t know enough and consider myself on a continuous learning path.

But I was left wondering, is there a perfect state that you can reach at some point and stay happily ever after? How do you know whether you have achieved perfection? After all, what is perfection?

How many Grand Slam are enough?

When I finished my Masters degree, many of my classmates vouched to never study again. So, when a few years later I decided to pursue another degree on a completely different subject they just couldn’t understand why.

“Haven’t you had enough learning so far?”

“Why you get yourself through all this trouble again?”

This felt like saying to the famous tennis player, Roger Federer, “Ok, you have won a Grand Slam, it is time to retire now!”. However, he never stopped there. Federer went on to win a record of 20 Grand Slam men single’s titles and is still active. Should he have stopped after the first one? Or perhaps after the 8th or maybe the 10th one?

Nevertheless, “Perfection” is an illusion that our fixed mindset creates, and which we usually use as an excuse to stop learning, evolving and growing. It is an imaginary place where we feel comfortable and never want to leave. We put some effort we reach our first peak, and that’s it. We camp there forever and completely miss most part of the mountain and its magnificent views.

Fixed versus Growth Mindset

According to Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, there are two basic mindsets that shape our behaviours. The fixed mindset and the growth mindset. All of us have a bit of both but usually one of the two is more dominant than the other.

Fixed versus Growth Mindset
From Carol Dweck’s Book Mindset

People with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is static. When they fail they see it as a limit of their abilities. For instance, a dancer who always does the same routine, and never tries anything new. For her, taking new risks might lead to failure, and failure reflects poorly on her skills and talent, which in her mind are already fixed. So, it is better to stick to what she already knows and is good at. Unfortunately, people with fixed mindsets reach “perfection” early in their lives and never fulfil their true potential.

It’s tempting to create a world in which we are perfect. We can choose partners, make friends, hire people who make us feel faultless. But think about it – do you want to never grow? Next time you are tempted to surround yourself with worshipers, go to church. In the rest of your life, seek constructive criticism.

Dr Carol S. Dweck

On the other hand, people with growth mindset never really reach “perfection”, although they certainly achieve much more than those that have fixed mindsets. People with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can be developed. They are always seeking for new challenges and opportunities to learn. They don’t see mistakes as a reflection of who they are but as feedback that will help them improve and grow.

It is the journey that matters

There is a beautiful 19th century Greek poem by Kavafy, called Ithaka. The poem is inspired by Homer’s Odyssey and the epic journey of Odysseus to his home, Ithaka, following the Trojan war. Odysseus spent 10 adventurous years travelling across the Mediterranean before finally reaching Ithaka.

In his allegoric poem, Kavafy talks about the importance of the journey and not the destination. The destination, Ithaka, serves only as an excuse for the journey but it is the journey that really matters.

In fact, the poet says that you shouldn’t rush to reach your destination, and should hope that your journey will be long, full of obstacles and learnings. At the end, when you reach Ithaka, you may find her poor, not because she fooled you but because you became so wealthy from your experience.

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.Hope your road is a long one.

Ithaka by C.P. Cavafy

You need to let go of all the limiting beliefs that hold you back, and avoid the “perfection” trap.

Life is not about the arrogance of perfection but the humbleness of learning and the excitement of growth.

Life is not like a still photograph, a perfect moment frozen in time that we cherish forever, but an ongoing adventure that constantly takes you to new, exciting and unexpected places.

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