I’ve made the argument that the boxes and lines of models don’t matter as much as the content that occupies those boxes. I’ll go one step further. What really matters is the messiness that underlies that content. Models attempt to simplify and create meaning. The content within the model is just the aggregate representation of the situation in an organization at any given moment in time. Change the context and circumstances, and you will likely wind up with a very different representation that leads to very different interpretations and conclusions. Simplicity is a distraction. If you want to really know what is going on, then you need to embrace the messiness.
We have a tendency to be in love with our models, frameworks and methodologies. As I’ve written about before, obsessing about our processes and structures too much—or reinforcing them too formally—is never a good strategy. Nonetheless, we need some structure to work with and guide us in making sense of the world. A realization came to me while thinking about one particular model this week, that highlighted a particular tension. The more we know and apply our models, the less likely they are to bring about new ways of thinking. That creates a bit of a problem to solve.
We are told that failure is an essential part of growth. It is something that we need to accept. If we are not failing often enough and hard enough, then we aren’t making progress. While it is wonderful to be able to make that argument intellectually, it is another thing entirely to respond to it personally. Our obsession with the negative isn’t about embracing failure; it’s about avoiding it. Perfectionism doesn’t reflect an obsession with excellence so much as an intolerance for mistakes. Our brains actively work to avoid situations where there is the possibility of failure, and discourages taking action that might result in pain. Actually embracing failure is directly contrary to that outcome, which means that we’ve got our work cut out for us.
I have been participating in the Ride for the Breath of Life for more than 15 years. For the last 10 years, that’s involved getting myself back to Edmonton from my home base in Ontario. This year’s ride was theoretically easier, in that because of the pandemic it was once again virtual. In other ways, that makes it much harder.
We are hardwired to look for and emphasize the negative. This is what gives rise to our perfectionist tendencies; perfectionism sounds positive, but is in fact an avoidance and intolerance of the imperfect. While it is easy to be negative, it isn’t necessarily very productive, though. And while optimism to some might represent an unrealistic and impractical viewing of the world through idealistic rose-coloured glasses, there is a great deal of insight to suggest that highlighting the positive makes a world of difference. Optimism might not be innate, but for your future success it might just be vital.
Perfectionism is an awesome thing in theory. It produces work with exceptional results, delivered well, with few if any errors. At least, that’s the promise. The reality is something altogether different. Perfectionism is frustrating, can be debilitating and is more often than not exhausting. Behind the striving for excellence is the anxiety of not quite being good enough, of not measuring up and clearing the bar. That has a number of negative consequences, not just for the perfectionist, but for those around them. Moving past it requires understanding first off where perfectionism comes from and why it exists.