When my daughter was four years old, I got a call from her preschool teacher one morning, asking if I could come to the school right then. The teacher assured me that my child was fine, but emphasized that it would be very helpful if I could come as soon as possible. Of course, I did. I arrived at the school and peered through the window of my daughter’s classroom door to see the entire class engaged in scribbling down the alphabet, with varying degrees of accuracy, in crayon on construction paper. The entire class, that is, except my daughter, who sat motionless before a blank sheet of construction paper, her fingers tightly clamped around a fat orange crayon. She was intently focused on the blank sheet of paper in front of her, as if mentally willing the letters to appear on it.
When the teacher saw my face through the window, she unobtrusively slipped out into the hall to meet me. She quickly explained that my daughter had already gone through three sheets of construction paper because the instant she made a “mistake,”—say, an “o” that was slightly less than a perfect 360-degree circle—she would become so distressed that she would tear up the paper and throw it out. She had finally become distraught to the point of paralysis, unable to put crayon to paper for fear of producing any result short of absolute perfection. My heart just ached for my baby. At the tender age of four, she did not understand that success is built on the shoulders of failure. She did the only thing that she knew to do to stop the mistakes—she stopped trying.
How many of us—who are a little past the age of four and should know better—fall into the same trap? We let our compulsion for a “perfect” future hold us captive to a less than satisfying present. While we wait for the perfect time, the perfect idea, or the perfect place to make a move forward, time and life pass us by. By not taking action we ensure that our papers are free of mistakes—but that’s because they are free of anything. Our papers are blank; we’ve got nothing. We may justify our inaction with explanations about not being willing to compromise our high standards, but many times I believe we’re just blowing smoke to camouflage the real reason we do not take action—we are afraid. Waiting for perfection is just a way of avoiding moving forward.
When I catch myself falling into this pattern, I repeat this mantra: “It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be.” In a world where many standards have fallen to ground level and barely mediocre routinely passes for excellent, I hesitate to advocate not doing our best, but sometimes we just have to make a move. Making a move with a pretty good effort will eventually lead to our best effort. Mistakes are the guideposts on our journey toward our ultimate goal. The lessons we learn by doing something wrong the first time are what enable us to do it right the next.
So, by all means, think, plan, and consider, but then step out, take a chance, make a move. And then keep doing it—better, faster, smarter—until you get where you want to be. I can’t tell you when you will get there, but I can definitely tell you that if you don’t start somewhere you’ll never get to where you want to be.
This piece originally appeared on Lee’s blog at leegaitan.com