There isn’t much about failure to enjoy. Depending on what it is—giving away a penalty in the last second of a semi-final and costing your side the game, a moral failure that trashes a family, exam results that leave you far short of the grades you need, an investment failure that impacts many lives—some have a heavier weight attached than others.
I’m not writing about those heavyweight fails. I’m writing about something less, yet like an acorn it can grow into something bigger.
We live in an era of unprecedented focus on perfection. Sure, in every age perfection has been the goal, but the front door was your defence—now with social media all of life is public. And it must be perfect. We have to look perfect, take the perfect photograph with the perfect filter, and caption it with the perfect phrase.
I’ve been reading a book by journalist Will Storr called ‘Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed’. It’s an interesting read, and its opening chapters got me thinking about our dangerous love affair with perfectionism.
“the modern world is giving us a greater number of opportunities to feel like failures.”
“When a University of Pennsylvania task force published their report into the problem of student suicide, they noted a dangerous ‘perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, cocurricular and social endeavour.’”
“We’re living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills.”
That troubles me—especially the impact it is having on our young people.
I used to be troubled if I didn’t get everything done that I planned to. It wasn’t quite perfectionism, but it was a twin brother. My To-do list never emptied. I felt like I was swimming against a relentless tide—sometimes lying awake, almost panicked, thinking, “I can’t afford to be awake, I need to sleep so I can get up and get things done”.
Then one day I heard a preacher say, “Only God gets his to-do list done”—and the lights went on. Of course! I’m finite, with limited time and limited resources—I can’t do it all. And it isn’t my job to do it all. The pressure lifted. It was as if I had forgotten who I was, and was trying to emulate God! What a doomed enterprise.
I believe something similar needs to happen with our perfectionistic streak. Only God does all things perfectly. In a world that has written God out of the story, we have written ourselves into the role of perfection-attainment. And it is killing us—our dusty little frames, our finite abilities can’t handle it.
It's not that we shouldn't ever aim to be the best—it's about what we do when we fall short. And what failing does to us. It's realising that not all things need to be the 'best', but can simply be enjoyed for what they are.
We need to enjoy the attempt, enjoy the progress, enjoy the learning that takes place en-route to achieving a goal. We’ll not enjoy the failing, but we might see that there are other things to enjoy about the attempt. And why? Because perfectionism spreads like a weed into bigger areas. It corrodes happiness, it swallows momentary pleasures, it wastes our time. And it makes us feels increasingly like failures. Perfection might seem a nice ideal, but it is a cruel master.
In a world obsessed with the perfect moment, the perfect picture, the perfect pose, the perfect life—we need to remember we are not capable of perfection. Instead we need to leave it to God, and we need to get our identity from Him, not from our successes or what others think of them. The irony is that when we stop seeking perfection, and start seeking the Perfect One we find that we are more loved, more highly esteemed than any achievement could ever bring us.