I’ll let you in on a secret:  I failed a semester of high school English.

If you’ve been reading my posts, you’ve likely noticed that I have a decent grasp of the language.  By contrast, my French, which I got decent grades in, is practically non-existent.

Yet, I failed.

A big “F” on my report card.


How Could This Possibly Have Happened?

To put it simply, it had to do with homework.  I didn’t turn it in.  On the surface, this looks like laziness. It’s just writing some words down on paper and giving it to the teacher – just a bit of putting the nose to the grindstone and getting it done.  Tests?  I generally did very well in these – even without studying the content much.  I’m lucky in that way, I guess.

True, in some cases, I didn’t even start the homework.  In other cases, though, I got half-way, or even completely, done, but still didn’t turn it in.

In recent years, I’ve spent time reflecting back on this pattern.  (It wasn’t just this one English class – I did the same thing in many of my classes, and in a variety of things outside of school, as well.)  I came up with one primary reason why I would so resist turning in homework:


In some cases, perfectionism manifests in obsessive behavior:  Working harder, iterating, revising over and over, making sure to use all the exact right words in just the right order.  Then, when the work is finally above a certain threshold, handing it over, knowing it could have been better, and obsessing over how it could have been improved.

In my case, however, I knew perfection was unattainable.  Worse yet, my identity was so tied to doing everything well and right, I couldn’t stand for a teacher to tell me I had done something wrong.

So, rather than hand in something “acceptable” that could be graded, critiqued, or criticized, I’d take an incomplete.


Not because I was that bad at it, but because I wouldn’t put it out there for criticism in the first place.

Digging Deeper

As this Harvard Business Review article covers, perfectionism is increasing in our society.  This growing perfectionism leads to feelings of inadequacy, which goes on to depression and anxiety.  Not good.

The root causes listed in the article parallel my experiences fairly well.

Rewarding Talent and Knowledge – One nugget I’ve learned (intellectually) over the years is that talent and knowledge mean nothing by themselves.  Using the talent or knowledge productively is what matters.

Yo Yo Ma is an incredible cellist.  You might say he’s very talented at it.  Yet, the reason he’s world-renowned and world-class isn’t due to his talent – that’s just the foundation.  He has put in tens of thousands of hours of practice to hone that talent.

Albert Einstein is reported to have commented that he doesn’t need to store every bit of knowledge in his head – he just has to know how to find it.

Yet, growing up, I was constantly praised for knowing the right answers and being talented.  Many things came very easily for me, and I received heaps of approval for those things.  In school, I was rewarded for “regurgitating” the right answers on a test.  However, there was very little reinforcement for training and digging deeper for improvement.  So, I kept up what I was rewarded for.

There is very little that we’re inherently good at.  We all start things at the bottom of the heap.  We may move up faster in some things due to talent and genetics, but won’t ever excel unless we put in the work.

Focusing on Outcomes over Process – A number of authors and success/productivity experts have recently started highlighting a widespread mistake, which is paying far more attention to outcomes rather than the process of getting there.

What I mean is this:  You could achieve a goal because you took the right steps in the right order (process), or you could achieve it simply because of luck.  Either way, you achieved your goal, right?  No problem.

The problem is that expecting to repeatedly achieve goals based on blind luck is folly.  It’s not consistent or realistic.  On the other hand, if you consistently apply a solid process to what you want to achieve, you may occasionally fail if “bad luck” brings about barriers, but you are far more likely to hit your goal.

In school, we are given grades based on an end result.  Our paper met some criteria, or we got a certain number of answers right, and that’s what we’re measured on.

In life, it’s often the same thing.  We may receive accolades based on the end result, but not so often on the hard work and thought it took to get there.

I have been lucky far too often, particularly early on in life when habits are more sticky.  I have had things work out when not following a consistent process.  As a result, I developed a habit of relying on luck and talent to achieve outcomes.

Emphasizing Success – Endemic in our society is a focus on achievement.  Success may be measured financially, or based on hitting other observable goals, or on other accomplishments.  Yet, that isn’t always what matters in life.  What about love, community, relationship, integrity, and other characteristics?

When the societal rewards come from what we accomplish, that’s where we put our focus.  Then, when we’re not getting those rewards, when we’re not achieving perfection in those areas, we feel like we don’t measure up.

In my own life, I have only rarely received comments or attention about my qualities.  A very few people have shared that they appreciate me for me or for various character traits, whereas I’ve had many comment on areas I’ve been successful at (or not been successful…)

Punishing Mistakes – I’m going to be deliberately vague about my experiences in this bit, as the specifics are probably better left to therapy sessions…

That being said, part of my upbringing included random criticism and punishment for things I did “wrong”.  (I say “wrong” because, in most cases, these things were not breaking rules or laws, but simply didn’t mesh with someone’s opinion about the correct thing to do or way to do it.)  This happened from a very early age, so it was quickly rooted into my default neural pathways.

The random part of it created a degree of fear and trauma, as I never knew when it was coming, and it would catch me off-guard.

I still live with the sense of, “When will the other shoe drop?”

Essays in school were another place I experienced that random “punishment”.  If I turned one in, and the grading happened to be harsh when I thought I’d done well, I felt crushed.

Ironically, I unknowingly created a sense of control over the timing and reasoning of that punishment by not turning in homework.

Complicated:  C.  The second paragraph lacks depth where you failed to explore the purpose behind your premise.  (How the heck was I supposed to know I was to do that?!  I thought this was an “A” paper…)

Simple:  F.  You didn’t turn anything in.

Complicated:  Not knowing which homework would receive good grades vs. poor grades.

Simple:  Report cards came out on a regular schedule.

Now, if I had not experienced the early-on random punishment, it’s entirely possible I would see the grading on those papers as constructive criticism, and use it to improve my skills.  You could argue that this different mindset would also be present throughout my life.  We’ll never know…

Wrapping It Up

This is a long post already.  It’s just a big area to unpack.  But I’d like to end on something positive and constructive.

  1. We don’t need to be perfect.  It’s unattainable, and near-perfection has less impact on our world than we think.
  2. We can focus on process instead of outcomes.  Consistently following known steps to accomplish what we set out to do generally leads to the outcomes we want, while chance isn’t a reliable strategy.
  3. We can encourage each other and build up others’ character, rather than always talking about what we’ve been (or not been) “successful” at.

Lastly, take a moment out tonight and raise a glass to imperfection.