Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Folly of Chasing perfect

I want to make the case that perfect is not only unattainable, but it is not even a desirable outcome because it is ultimately a sabateur of learning.

As a classroom teacher, I can attest to the debilitating effects of success. Someone who has a healthy and resilient attitude towards failure can learn a lot from their mistakes, while sometimes, ironically, it is our successes that can be paralyzing. I say paralyzing because if the point of school or work is to show how good you are, and you achieve that success, why would you risk making changes to your winning recipe?

The truth is successful people know that yesterday's solutions rarely solve tomorrow's problems; because of this, successful people are always creating and recreating themeselves. But does this creating and recreating mean that these successful people are striving for perfection?

Perfection is a dangerous thing to pursue. There is a big difference between focusing on improvement and growth rather than focusing on showing off or not looking dumb.

In Linchpin, Seth Godin examines how the pursuit of perfect is too often bastardized into mistake avoidance:
How many of your coworkers spend all day in search of perfect? 
Or, more accurately, spend all day trying to avoid making a mistake? 
These are very different things. Defect-free is what people are often in search of. Meeting spec. Blameless.
We've been trained since first grade to avoid mistakes. The goal of any test, after all, is to get 100 percent. No mistakes. Get nothing wrong and you get an A, right?
 Read someone's resume, and discover twenty years of extraordinary exploites and one typo. Which are you going to mention first?

We hire for perfect, we manage for perfect, we measure for perfect, and we reward for perfect.

So why are we surprised  that people spend their precious minutes of self-directed, focused work time trying to achieve perfect?

The problem is simple: Art is never defect-free. Things that are remarkable never meet spec, because that would make them standardized, not worth talking about.

Scott Berkun, author of Confessions of a Public Speaker offers his thoughts on avoiding perfection when he practices his public speaking skills:

And when I say I practice, I mean I stand up at my desk, imagine an audience around me, and present exactly as if it were the real thing. If I plan to do something in the presentation, I practice it. But I don't practice to make perfect, and I don't memorize. If I did either, I'd sound like a robot, or worse, like a person trying very hard to say things in an exact, specific, and entirely unnatural style, which people can spot a mile away. My intent is simply to know my material so well that I'm very comfortable with it. Confidence, not perfection, is the goal.
Even as a professional speaker, Berkun can rationalize how perfection is not only something unworthy of striving for, but it isn't even desirable. Godin might say Berkun's artfulness could be found in his ability to inspire wisdom by weaving a witty tale . And yet, there would be something wholly and entirely inaccurate with saying Burken's speaking skills are 'perfect'.

Let me be clear, I'm not calling him perfect or imperfect - I don't mean to judge at all - rather, I am saying the term perfect is a fraudulant fabrication that serves no purpose when describing someone's knowledge, skills or attitudes.

Focusing on perfection cheapens learning and forces us to think in linear terms. As if there were two endpoints - the start and the end - and if we just do our homework, and study for the test, we will one day cross the learning finish line. Thinking in this way takes educational phrases such as "life-long learning" and turns them into punch lines.

If we really believe in "life-long learning" then we have to think of learning as an asymptote rather than something linear. We have to model learning as a journey rather than a destination; however, it's hard to convince kids to focus on their learning rather than their achievement as long as teachers act like giant grade spewing Pez dispensers.

In his book The School Our Children Deserve and article The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement, Alfie Kohn offers this indictment of overemphasizing achievement and 'perfection':

No one succeeds all the time, and no one can learn very effectively without making mistakes and bumping up against his or her limits. It’s important, therefore, to encourage a healthy and resilient attitude toward failure. As a rule, that is exactly what students tend to have if their main goal is to learn: When they do something incorrectly, they see the result as useful information. They figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.

Not so for the kids who believe (often because they have been explicitly told) that the point is to succeed--or even to do better than everyone else. They seem to be fine as long as they are succeeding, but as soon as they hit a bump they may regard themselves as failures and act as though they’re helpless to do anything about it. Even a momentary stumble can seem to cancel out all their past successes. When the point isn’t to figure things out but to prove how good you are, it’s often hard to cope with being less than good.

Consider the student who becomes frantic when he gets a 92 instead of his usual 100. We usually see this as a problem with the individual and conclude that such students are just too hard on themselves. But the "what I’m doing" versus "how well I’m doing" distinction can give us a new lens through which to see what is going on here. It may be the systemic demand for high achievement that led him to become debilitated when he failed, even if the failure is only relative.

The important point isn’t what level of performance qualifies as failure (a 92 versus a 40, say). It’s the perceived pressure not to fail, which can have a particularly harmful impact on high-achieving and high-ability students. Thus, to reassure such a student that "a 92 is still very good" or that we’re sure he’ll "do better next time" doesn’t just miss the point; it makes things worse by underscoring yet again that the point of school isn’t to explore ideas, it’s to triumph.

The day's of selling perfection through grading as education's snake-oil has run its course. We have to stop selling learning as this thing we can measure on a scale from zero to one-hundred. It's not a letter or a check mark. It can't be bar-graphed or averaged; rather it might be said that proficiency is sitting on top of a mountain while expertise is chasing the horizon.

Because the consequences of overemphasizing achievement and pursuing perfection are too costly to endure, we have to see perfection for what it really is - a fraudulant fabrication that serves no purpose in encouraging students to focus on their learning.


  1. Hey Joe. I am wondering what impact you think technology plays with regards to students' views of mistakes. I have noticed that through gaming and word processing students view mistakes much differently than when putting pen to paper. What are your thoughts on this?

  2. So rug-weavers, though they do stunning work, do not aim for perfect work. They put a deliberate flaw in the carpet, so their work could never be perfect. Thus they aim to keep on the right side of the deity, and probably keep themselves sane also, since perfection is such a hard master...

  3. Anonymous,

    Please read my article again. I think you missed a good portion of what I was trying to say.

  4. See my 'Perils of Permanent Perfection' about our ill-named Curriculum for Excellence here in Scotland:

    Well said.


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