The Day After Perfect

Sometimes, the most difficult truths we uncover are truths about ourselves. I’ve been working on a book that has given me the opportunity to uncover many difficult truths. Truths that have set me free and made me feel alive in my work. I’ve been thinking about one of those truths over the past week.

In the book, I mention:

As an Enneagram 3 and classically trained dancer, achieving and perfecting have been a way of life for me. Enneagram 3’s, known as The Achiever, love to collect gold stars. We love to get things done. We love for others to recognize our efforts. But when we aren’t doing our inner work, we tend to attribute productivity and accomplishment with self-worth. Many Enneagram 3’s have a deeply-seeded belief that they are not worthy of love and belonging. So, they work really hard to prove to others just how lovable they can be. I’m tired as I write that because I’ve spent a good amount of time in that space.

This past week I had the honor of connecting with educators who are new to our school district. I didn’t want to leave that space without encouraging them to keep an eye out for what Jon Acuff calls “the day after perfect.” When we head into a new school year or new job, we start fresh. Essentially, we have a clean slate. Many of us spend the summer dreaming about and planning for the educator we always wanted to be. We go in with high hopes. That sense of hope is important. As the Battelle for Kids research indicates, “Hope is a more robust indicator of future success than GPA or ACT score.” Hope matters. In a big way. But we are human beings not human doings, and we are going to do something or not do something one day that doesn’t fall in line with the person we dreamed we would be this school year. It’s inevitable. And it’s what we do after that happens that really matters.

As Acuff describes in his book, Finish, it’s our response to not being perfect that will help us achieve our goals. It’s our decision to learn, reflect, and try again and keep going that matters most. Sometimes, failure at a goal is a sign that our goal needs to be adjusted. And that’s OK too. As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve had to learn to that many of my goals were too ambitious. Often, it’s not that the goal can’t be achieved. It’s more so that the timeline or intensity at which we decide we will pursue the goal that sets us up for disappointment, failure, and quitting. It’s the not quitting part but in fact the finishing part that many perfectionists struggle with because the lie we tell ourselves is, “If it’s not done perfectly, it’s not worth doing.” This is simply not true. We don’t have to be perfect to make a difference.

Students and colleagues won’t remember that you did something perfectly. They will remember how you made them feel. How the thing you were doing felt for them. People will remember how capable and connected and appreciated they felt in your presence and in the space you created. When learning and leadership work is done well, people remember being a part of the co-creating. They will remember the ownership they felt in it. Those are the kinds of things people remember.

So, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to encourage educators to keep an eye out for the day after perfect and their response. I decided to tell a story to new teachers to help them envision it. A story that would be paint me in a not so perfect light and instead a deeply human light. When I taught middle school English, I had a student who changed his presentation after I had reviewed it, and when speaking to the class, he chose to include some content and language that was not appropriate for the classroom setting. I called home to talk to his mom about it. I will never forget what she said to me. Without missing a beat, she said, “Well, he doesn’t like you. And he doesn’t like your class.” Wow. That was hard to hear. Sometimes, when we hear hard things that hurt, it makes us want to snap back. I knew better than to do so, but I could feel myself thinking ugly thoughts. Ugly thoughts that have hit some of us during difficult moments in our career. I wanted to say, “Well, I’m not hear to be liked. I’m here for learning.” As if those two things don’t go hand and hand – Rita Pierson would have and should have schooled me up real quick. While I knew I shouldn’t say THAT, before I could figure out what to say, she elaborated, “He doesn’t think you like him.”

There it was. Something that hurt but something I could work with. Students struggle to learn from people who they think don’t like them. And I can’t think of a single person that I like who I think doesn’t like me. I was surprised to share this story in front of roughly 75 educators…in a cafeteria where my words seemed to linger…quite literally echoing through the high ceilings.

But when it comes to talking openly about imperfection and when it comes to modeling learning and reflection, great leaders go first. My worth as a human being, educator, and leader does not come from being right and getting it all right all the time. In fact, no part of my worth comes from anything. I am a human being and that is enough. My most impactful work comes from modeling being human and learning in front of other people.

So, whatever role you’re in this school year, people need less attempts at perfection in our schools. People need more humanity. I think our school year would change if we were able to make that connection for ourselves and alongside others.

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