Perfection is a 2nd Rate Idea

Key Points

  • Education does not need perfection, standardization of humans, and measures without much meaning. 

  • We need human-centered systems focused on growth.

growth mindset

While listening to a podcast interview with the famous music producer T-Bone Burnett (think Roy Orbison or Counting Crows or Krause/Plant’s “Raising Sand” albums), he said something that hit me in a deep way. While discussing why so many bands and records end up short of their potential, Burnett said (and I paraphrase), “The problem is that too many people are trying to make the perfect album. They don’t understand that perfection is a second-rate idea and striving for it is a waste of time.”

I immediately backed up the podcast to listen again. I began thinking about all the ways traditional schools implicitly and explicitly send students and educators the message that perfection is the goal and (more insidiously) that it can and should be met. From celebrating the student with perfect attendance to the student with the perfect ACT score to the student with the perfect GPA to the student with the perfect record of taking all the AP courses, schools send the message that perfection is both attainable and the best way to a successful life. Sadly, this approach has some devastating consequences.

Burnett is right. Seeking perfection is a second-rate idea. Should one always strive to be the very best one can be? To get one step closer to the pinnacle of whatever is being pursued? Absolutely. But perfection? What are the costs of trying to be perfect? In the setting of a traditional high school the costs can be quite high:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Unhealthy study/work habits
  • Depression
  • Suicide
  • Feeling less-than
  • Fearing mistakes
  • Hiding or denying one’s shortcomings
  • Denying one’s own humanity
  • Inflated sense of self-worth or self-loathing
  • Cheating and short-cutting
  • Missing out on other fulfilling aspects of life

At Iowa BIG, the biggest struggle we have is not with the disengaged students but rather with the students who seek perfection – those with stellar GPAs, who rarely miss a point on a test, and who’ve never fathomed not getting an A. Why? One simple answer: fear of failure. We embrace imperfection and mistakes as a critical part of learning. Students and teachers seeking perfection do everything in their power to avoid making mistakes or acknowledging imperfections. School has taught them at every step that mistakes are dangerous and have long-term negative effects. Get a “C” on that test? There goes your A! Your GPA will now drop .005 points! This idea of perfection implies that learning can be perfect. More damaging is the implication on the learner, who now often thinks twice before doing challenging work in case they don’t believe they can do it perfectly.

Chasing perfection is an aversion to learning. Learning requires mistake-making. You don’t learn by doing things you already can do and perfection, if ever attained, is wildly unsustainable. Any system that implicitly values and promotes the perception of perfection is, by default, a learning-averse system.

Chasing perfection is an aversion to learning.

Trace Pickering

Students who are pursuing perfection and experience an inevitable failure or misstep in their projects at BIG have a meltdown. They think they’re failures, that they are going to get an “F” on the project. It takes a lot of coaching to help them realize that it isn’t perfection they’re after – it’s learning and growth – and we don’t hold failures against them like some punishment. Failing and learning is the only way to that perceived A and, more importantly, to some very deep and “sticky” learning and growth.

That’s why we don’t grade projects, we only assess the learning that occurs along the way. Sometimes the biggest crash-and-burn projects contain the greatest and most powerful learning outcomes. Once you attach a score or grade to the level of success of a project, you remove countless opportunities for students to take intellectual risks and learn from the natural missteps that come when learning anything new. It also assumes that there is a right answer and the game is to identify it and apply it. Authentic, messy, contextualized projects that engage the community don’t have simple or single answers. Like the entrepreneur, one has to continue to learn more and more and continue to apply potential solutions, quickly learning from small mistakes along the way. The game most certainly isn’t looking for and securing perfection.

Once students cross over to growth and improvement and away from the idea of perfection, we see stress and anxiety melt away. We see students slow down to engage deeply in learning – something they don’t always know how to do yet. We see students who boldly take on new challenges. And we see students who begin to see that their value isn’t in being a 4.0 student or valedictorian, it’s in being a voracious learner who is curious, engaged, and interested not only in their own learning but learning in community. I saw it in my own daughters. Once they realized that the game of school wasn’t about being “perfect” but was really supposed to be about learning in pursuit of getting better every day, their learning took off, their stress and anxiety dramatically decreased, and their quality of life improved dramatically. Now, as professionals, they excel because they aren’t afraid of taking risks and learning instead of spending most of their time trying to maintain a charade of perfection.

Sadly, we often see this perfection affliction in the educators we work with. Living nearly their entire lives in a system that values perfection, we see them stressed. We see them hide their weaknesses from their colleagues meaning little chance of actually improving their practice. We see them get major anxiety when evaluated because, for some reason, not getting all 5’s on the 1-5 rubric scales for the ridiculous number of teaching competencies means failure. We see them forgo relationships and care for rigor and “toughness” to show they are a “great teacher.” We see them ignore, dismiss, or even refute mistakes which, in reality, means they are refusing to learn and grow. We see it across the education profession.

This is likely one of the reasons schools are widely seen as “second-rate” today. We’ve chased second-rate ideals for too long – perfection, standardization of humans, measures without much meaning, etc. We need human-centered systems focused on growth, not perfection. It’s what “Getting Smart” really means – to pursue relentless growth and learning, not perfection.

This post is part of our New Pathways campaign sponsored by ASA, Stand Together and the Walton Family Foundation.

Trace Pickering

Trace Pickering is a former Senior Fellow for Getting Smart and Co-Founder of Iowa BIG.

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