The Benefits of Embracing Imperfection
Have you ever set a goal and assumed that now that the goal is set it should be achieved? In other words: there is no such thing as practice or incremental improvement, it’s all or nothing? Perhaps, you have thought that not instantaneously (or quickly) achieving the desired outcome equates to failure or you just weren’t committed enough—no excuses. Rarely will we find that goals are achieved in a sustainable way when motivated by all-or-nothing thinking, shame, and/or negative self-talk.
Although difficult, especially for those of us recovering perfectionists, slow and steady often wins the race. When people embrace the process toward goal acquisition rather than focusing exclusively on the outcome, they open themselves up to imperfection, setbacks, and opportunities to practice problem-solving. They consider how to change their environments, reflect on how to better set themselves up for success, and embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Each year, our teachers set professional goals. We discuss them, try to anticipate roadblocks, and plan for necessary support. Many teachers share aspects of their goals with their students. What an excellent practice to model goal-setting for our students and children. Even better, for teachers and parents alike, is the opportunity to model how we respond to setbacks.
Children are constantly watching, taking in information, and looking toward us as models for how to deal with complex emotions and how to solve problems. Our actions over time suggest the best way to cope with challenges. When we experience a setback, our response can demonstrate to our children, “There is no room for error and this says something about me (you) as a person that I (you) cannot be perfect.” Alternatively, our response can say, “It is okay to be imperfect. It is okay to need and ask for help. It is expected to try, fail, adjust, and try again.”
A belief in the benefits of imperfect action, rather than a refusal to try or only to try if it is easy, is the very attitude we want to instill in our students. For example, instead of rushing to be the first to finish or choosing the easy way out, we embrace opportunities to feel challenged, take our time, go back and check our work, struggle and practice tolerating frustration. Rather than rushing through the writing process, we embrace the iterative nature of writing, build our stamina, and eventually proudly publish the journey. We pause and reach out for help after we try to solve our own problems, not because it is wrong to ask for help, but because we want to strengthen our ability to think through all available resources. Along the same lines, when we ask for help we prepare to be part of the solution rather than expect someone to completely solve our problems for us.
We want our students to make, own, and learn from their mistakes and to have a sense of shared humanity. This is normal, this is expected to happen—to struggle and tolerate discomfort. Later, we bring our new learning about what has worked (and what hasn’t) to share with others and make stronger connections to new content and ways to tackle novel academic, social, and emotional situations.
In school, a necessary part of building our students’ capacity is for our teachers to build bridges with and for their students. We empower our students by meeting them where they are and encouraging them to create small and sustainable changes over time in order to build helpful learning habits. The small sustainable change translates to confidence, authenticity, and progress.
The key is for teachers and parents to recognize student strengths and then build on areas for growth. In doing so, we do not ignore challenges; however, we communicate our belief in what our children are capable of rather than focusing exclusively on what they are not doing or how they are struggling. We are patient, we build bridges consisting of strategies and boundaries. These bridges start with what we model for them in our own individual relationships with imperfection. They solidify in how we talk to and about our children and in the ways we gently and supportively guide them toward reaching their full potential.
Lower School Director