To really understand why progress is more important than perfection. I think first we need to understand that progress is more important than outcome.
I learned about this importance from a 12 year old client of mine a few years ago. She came to me because her mother was concerned about how her daughter was handling stress at school and really wanted her to feel supported and be proactive if there was anything that would cause distress.
When I sat down with her, I asked her why she thought she was coming to see me. She was not sure other than she had told her mom that she was feeling stressed out and that she let like she needed some help and they agreed to book an appointment to see me.
After that, I then asked her a different question, ‘what would make this time we spend together feel like it was really awesome and helpful for you?’ She went on to say that she was stressed out at school and she wasn’t exactly sure what would make the session great, but that she really needed to make some ‘hard decisions’ about things that were happening in her life. I asked her what those may be and her answer was, ‘I really need to decide if I want to play volleyball next semester or not.’ This was a big deal for this young woman as it meant a big decision around friends’ expectations, her own desire to participate or not, letting others down, and what she wanted to spend her time doing. I responded with, ‘I can understand how that is a big decision and certainly something that would be helpful to find an answer for. Tell me about volleyball for you.’
We had a great conversation and worked through what the blocks and barriers were for her knowing what choice she desired to make and she eventually arrived at her decision that playing volleyball wasn’t something that she wanted and that she would play soccer instead. I then asked her a follow up question, ‘what are you taking away from our time today?’
She took a moment and reflected on that and replied with, ‘decision making!’
And that truly captures the essence of process being greater than outcome, that progress is more important than perfection. For her, she was unable to access the skills within her to formulate a decision on her own. She needed to work through her own thoughts and process that with me as a way to understand what her desires were and what was ultimately most important for her to do.
The most exciting part was that this young woman actually taught me a lesson and one that I have shared with many other clients in my practice since.
When I first meet with my clients and go through all of my paperwork, consent, and outcomes, I will often iterate, ‘ultimately, I want to work myself out a job with you and that you fire me one day.’ This usually results in a smile or laughter and sometimes even, resistance. But the objective for me is simple: it is my role to identify where there are opportunities to build or amplify skills in my clients so that they no longer feel the need to have me in their life as they are able to work through issues for themselves on their own or with their support network in a way that is productive and healthy. So if I am doing my job well, then I am working myself out of a job constantly as clients get what they need to live their best lives and move forward stronger and with new skills.
When they hear that, then they agree and get excited at the outlook of being able to ‘fire’ me. In fact, one young man booked his final session with me and his mother attended and said, ‘we are here because he wants to share something with you and we will only need a short time.’ I was very curious and turned to the young man and asked him what it was he would like to share. He stated that he had learned so much about how to manage his feelings of anger and frustration and that he was now much happier because he knew how to avoid letting his emotions take over. He reported to me that he and his family were getting along better and the skills we worked on were something that he was doing daily. It was a very touching moment. And then he looked me square in the eye, pointed at me and said, ‘you’re fired!’ in his best Donald Trump impersonation.
For these two young people, it was the process that was more important than the outcome. When we simply do something for someone, we are not teaching them how to be resilient or the skills to take care of things on their own, but rather we are teaching them learned helplessness and to avoid trying to work things out for themselves. I am guilty of doing this and many parents are as well. It makes sense when its been a long day and we are tired sand it would just be ‘easier’ to do it rather than coach someone through the process of doing it.
But is the outcome truly what is important in those cases? I would argue that it is not and the process of learning far outweighs the outcome of something being completed and no longer an immediate issue.
So, to go back to the quotation. We need to strive for progress and not perfection. Perfection is unattainable in so many ways and by focusing only on perfection, we are inviting in the opportunity to be disappointed and ignore how important the progress is. As well, the progress that we make can often open new avenues and opportunities that we did not foresee at all. If we are overly focused on a single ‘perfect’ outcome, then we start to take a narrow view and miss all of the other opportunities that present along the way.
Additionally, progress is not a straight line. If you imagine progress to look like climbing a mountain, there will be peaks and valleys along the journey and each represents learning and growth. At times, having to go down to get to a higher peak can feel like a step backward, but truly it is always moving us toward the desired outcome of reaching the peak that we set out, initially. The process is where we learn new skills and how to be more effective in our lives, whether it be personally, professionally, or even in our relationships. Each step toward a desired outcome is growth and worth it. You may never reach perfection, but by always making progress, you will never stop growing and learning. And what better way to feel alive than to never stop moving forward.