Perfectionism and Mentoring Don’t Mix

We're all diamonds in the rough.

We’re all diamonds in the rough.

Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.  

—Salvador Dali

So true, yet how did our expectations get so out of whack?  What makes us think perfection is at all possible — in ourselves or in other people?

When you aim for perfection, you discover it’s a moving target.   

—George Fisher

You’ve seen the hidden trap of perfectionism in others.  They’ve got great ideas; yet they fail to move forward.  They’re waiting — for the perfect circumstances, the dream project, or the ideal job.  Ironically, all too often we fail to see it in ourselves as well. What are the reasons not to choose a mentor:

  • The Critic:  “I doubt if anyone would have the right experience to be a good mentor for me.  Besides, I’m working on something innovative; no one has done this before.”
  • The Procrastinator: “I’ve even talked to a few people about being my mentor.  But I’m not exactly sure what I really want to do.  I need to wait until I’m fully prepared.”
  • The Fire-fighter:  “I’m too busy already.  How could I possibly find the time.”
  • The Dreamer: “I’ve been thinking about my idea for years.  Some day I’ll start hammering out the details and find the perfect mentor.”
  • The Worrier:  “I’d like a mentor, but I’ve never had one.  I don’t know what to expect.  I don’t want to let them down.  What if it doesn’t work out?”

Are these really strong enough arguments to keep you from excelling?   Not really.

If whatever you want to do is truly important you, you will find the time.  You’ll stop dreaming and act.  You’ll acknowledge your fears and get started.  You’ll find a way. Smart people know the importance of surrounding themselves with other smart people. They seek out others who stretch them — so they can actually achieve more, be more.

But it requires vulnerability and honesty.  

Yes, it’s really tough to admit what you don’t know — especially if you think you should already know it!  And of course we feel more vulnerable tackling our emotional roadblocks: overcoming procrastination, managing our temper or timidity, accepting criticism, or being a control freak.  (Some days perhaps its not one but all of these!)  Even asking someone for support is difficult, particularly when we care very deeply about something.

Why take a risk?  Why be vulnerable?  Why ask for real, long-term support when you work in today’s hyper-critical business world — where excessively high expectations are the norm?  Because it’s your life, your dreams, and your potential that are at stake.  How else do you expect to get to where you want to go?   

Mentoring isn’t therapy, but vulnerability is essential.  Brené Brown explains the power of vulnerability well in her TED Talk.

To escape criticism — do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.  —Elbert Hubbard

So get out there. Give yourself permission to let go of perfectionism. Breathe in a giant sigh of relief!  It always feels energizing to me.  (I hate to admit it, but I need to do this mental exercise fairly often!)

Naturally there will always be roadblocks and plenty of surprises, both good and bad.   But imagine what you could achieve with a smart, caring mentor in your corner.  Start thinking about all of the new ideas, innovations, and connections you will make.  You don’t have to be perfect.  You don’t need a perfect plan to get started.  You just need to be open to learning — and to being fully committed to living up to your potential.

The imperfections of a man, his frailties, his faults, are just as important as his virtues.  You can’t separate them.  They’re wedded.   —Henry Miller

No, your mentor won’t be perfect either.  Start off right, assure them that you’re not expecting perfection from them!  You might be surprised just how much that will strengthen your mentoring relationship — and how much more you’ll learn.

So switch off your perfectionism.  Whether you’re a leader, change-agent, entrepreneur or social entrepreneur, surround yourself with smart people who care about you and where you want to go. Focus your actions on finding a mentor — or 2! Just in case one doesn’t turn out to be as perfect a match as you might want. Everyone’s human after all.

Aim for success, not perfection.  Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. — Dr. David M. Burns

What to Do With an Avalanche of Choices

We like having lots of choices.  Yet with each option, there is always the lurking possibility we’ll make the wrong choice.  And, we hate being wrong.

Which is the absolute right choice?

In her book, Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schultz points out that, “As a culture, we haven’t even mastered the basic skill of saying “I was wrong.” Instead, we justify our choices and actions with false apologies and rationalizations: “I was wrong, but” … or “mistakes were made.”  She explains that, we do it so that we can “distance ourselves from responsibility.” (Schultz references statements by Nixon and Reagan.)  Yet our choices continue to impact our lives.

What’s more, she says, “Our default attitude toward wrongness — our distaste for error and our appetite for being right — tends to be rough on relationships.”  (Here’s her intriguing Pop Tech video.)

Given our distaste for being wrong, what can we do to make better choices? 

What can we do to increase our success and happiness — at work, in our relationships, and maybe even improve the world a bit along the way?  

1.  Limit your choices.  Yes, it seems counter intuitive.  But Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, makes a good case. But it’s not easy to do in a world of seemingly endless choice where you’re faced with literally dozens of toothpaste options or hundreds of dating choices on Match.com. She says, “more choice leads to less satisfaction or happiness.”

Meaningless minutia” bogs us down so that every little difference matters way too much.  We end up constantly second-guessing our decision: “How do I know that there isn’t something better?”  Your enjoyment of this avalanche of choice, Ivengar contends, “will be diminished by your regret over what you had to give up and leaving you less satisfied than you would have been if you had had less choice.”

The perfect is the enemy of the good. — Voltaire

Fearing that you’ll make the wrong choice, your anxiety increases. “We exhaust ourselves in the search,” she warns us.  “Even the most unbiased source can’t promise that a new finding tomorrow won’t reverse recommendations. The more information we seek out, the more confused we become.”  In a study involving 401k investments, “more choice, had, in fact, lead to worse decisions.” Of course, there are times where we really need more choices and do our research, such as weighing job choices or considering surgery. (Check out Iyengar’s TED talk.)

In Acquired Tastes, author Peter Mayle takes you on a journey with the wealthy and their choice dilemma. He says, “I’m not at all sure that they enjoy themselves as much as we think they do.  And why?  Because, damn it, something is always not quite right.”  He explains, “expectations tend to increase in direct proportion to the amount of money being spent, and if you are spending a fortune, you expect perfection.  Alas, life being the badly organized shambles that it so often is…perfection is rare.  Details that we would consider trivial assume enormous significance: the breakfast egg is inedible because it is marginally under boiled…the list of maddening blots on the landscape just goes on and on.”

Regardless of our financial situation, this search for perfection infects most of us. Not only do we hope to find the perfect job, life partner, or doctor, we expect to find perfect all around us:  the perfect cell phone contract, romantic restaurant, or pair of shoes.

2.  Know who you are.  This sounds ridiculous at first.  It’s not the trivial choices that require you to know yourself; it’s the decisions without any easy answers.  Just think about the decisions you’ve had to make recently — about healthcare, a mortgage, a job change, or a relationship conflict.  All too often we don’t know what we want until a situation arises.  Ivengar says, “we don’t bother to mull over the tough questions until we’re caught between a rock and a hard place, and by that time, we’re in no shape to give the answers most beneficial to us.”  We’re so busy racing around that when the time comes to make a tough choice, we’re usually too overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed. 

Often there isn’t an obvious right or wrong choice. So “it becomes exponentially more difficult” to choose.  Paradoxically, she says, asking for more options proves that we don’t really know what we want.

For important decisions, Ivengar recommends that we do some honest soul searching — and be open to thinking and acting differently.  But that takes time and reflection.  Most of us aren’t willing to do that.  Then we only have time to react, and fall back into our “I was wrong, but” excuse.  While keeping the status quo seems easier, it’s unlikely to improve our choices — or our happiness. Habits acquired over the years don’t change easily. It is hard work! If we are truly interested into thinking better and improving our decisions, it’s worth it.

3.  Get your automatic brain under control. Ivengar reminds us that, “even when you know what you ought to be doing, what you would prefer in the long run, you can find yourself distracted and dazed by options that set off the automatic system.”  So you over-indulge at the dessert counter, or worse, sabotage a relationship and end up paying the price for a bad decision for years.

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, refers to the automatic brain as “the elephant.”  It’s enormously helpful because it effortlessly, subconsciously, operates our bodily functions and more.  But for many key decisions, you need more — logic and reason — or what he calls “the monkey” brain.  Your logical brain is “completely absorbed in looking out for problems and opportunities.”

Unless you make an effort to control the elephant brain, your automatic thinking will kick in about 95% of the time according to Gerald Zaltman.  The elephant brain can get you into trouble — reacting instinctively to pleasure (over-indulgence) and danger (anger). Oscar Wilde said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”   Imagine how much happier and successful you’d be if you could just engage your logic and reason a bit more often.

4. Learn to be an expert in the process of choosing. It sounds complicated, but it is easier than you might think. Ivengar recommends borrowing the knowledge of others because they can help you develop insights and expertise more rapidly than if you attempt it on your own.  Find a mentor to help you test your thinking.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust your judgment — but rather test your judgment where you know it needs improvement.

Ivengar says you need to “find reasons not to choose what you’re immediately drawn to. Have a heavy dose of skepticism about your own thinking.”  Work with your mentor to probe into how and why you make choices. Start by paying attention to your decisions (which is easier said than done!). Brainstorm about ways to reduce your reaction mode.

Having an outside expert doesn’t solve the problem of your having to choose, she warns. “Given how many ways one can go wrong when choosing, it’s tempting to pass off a choice I’m supposed to make as an opportunity for another person to express an opinion.  This way, I don’t have to take responsibility for the choice, and the person I ask often enjoys giving advice.  Your mentor can’t make decisions for you — or make perfect recommendations.  They can probe deeper, recommend alternatives, and share decision-making successes and failures.  Over time you “can learn to simplify, prioritize, and recognize patterns.”

Don’t start with your most complicated choices.  Instead, begin with something easier so you’re willing to take risks and it will be easier to see progress.  Simplify your decisions and decision process. Invengar and others recommend limiting your choices to 3 — or groups of 3s. (McKinsey consultants apparently use this with their clients.) In a New York Times article, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, says, “When looking for a new camera, limit yourself to 3 Web sites.”  (That makes sense, unless you’re a photographer.) Or if you’re wrestling with something bigger, such as a career change, break down the decisions into groups of 3s.  Instead of thinking of all the possibilities at once, consider categorizing them into types of organizations:  nonprofits, government, or social enterprise.  Then repeat the process of creating job categories.

No one can make the right choice all the time.  But you can stop wasting time on meaningless minutia.  Instead, invest your thinking time in decisions where you feel that you’re making progress in your life.  Leverage them to your best interest — and best self.  Feel more in control and less on automatic pilot.  Get there faster with a supportive mentor who can accelerate your ability to learn and grow.

Inspired By a Human Hurricane

Cornel West, photo thanks to Axel Boldt, wikipedia

In Venezuela that’s precisely how Cornel West was introduced — as a human hurricane. West admits that he “likes moving in 5 different directions at the same time.”

At 14 he was already operating at full speed:  West ran the 2-mile in 10:12, one of the fastest ever for his age.  “(I was) burning up the track and burning the midnight oil, reading books like they were going out of style….holding down that first chair violin for the orchestra…(and) reading philosophy like other kids read comic books — not to impress anyone, but to feed my soul.”

Who is Dr. West? When he was a professor at Yale, there was a time when he commuted between Yale, New Haven, Connecticut, and across the Atlantic to the University of Paris.  He was also a Professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University, with a joint appointment at the Harvard Divinity School teaching African-American studies, Divinity, Religion, and Philosophy. Today he’s a professor at Princeton University, graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University with a Ph.D. from Princeton — and author of many books.

Some might consider him to be a man of reckless conviction — others praise his courage, leadership, and strong beliefs. According to Maya Angelou, “Cornel West thinks like a sage, acts like a warrior and writes like a poetical prophet.”  The New York Times praised his “ferocious moral vision.”  He sees himself as “a bluesman in the life of the mind.

When he was a student at Harvard, West said,  “I was willing to die to emerge a more courageous, living, and decent human being.”  By death, West meant having the courage to question — and be continually transformed.  He believes that examination and rejuvenation go hand in hand — “critique and praise are inseparable.”  Outspoken may be an understatement when it comes to West:

  • He criticized the Black Panthers for criticizing Christianity.
  • He risked his life when he stood up against a minister from the Nation of Islam’s for disrespecting Malcolm X.
  • He was the first Yale professor to be arrested on Yale property — participating in the university’s clerical workers strike.
  • He co-authored, Jews & Blacks: Let the Healing Begin, only to later challenge his co-author for not walking his talk.
  • He voiced his outrage directly to President Clinton about the welfare reform bill (yet spoke at Clinton’s 2nd term inauguration).
  • He stood up to Harvard President Larry Summers who had accused West of being unprofessional.

A man of tremendous achievement, West continues to raise the bar — in his own life and for the world. Featured in the film, The Examined Life, Dr. West exudes brains, intensity, and a passion for life — a self proclaimed “prisoner of hope, a fanatic of fairness, and an extremist of love.” Yet he’s acutely aware of life’s dualities, “We all got the blues.  We all wanna lose our blues.  We all gotta look for ways to do that.”

I’ve been reading his memoir, Living and Loving Out loud, a roller coaster life.  It’s full of passionate debate, relentless inquiry, overcoming injustice, strong family bonds and the broken ones too. 

Insights From the Life of Hurricane West:

1. Embrace Conflict — With Empathy and Hope

During an emotionally charged event at Harvard, West risked his life by standing up for respectful dialogue when a preacher from by the Nation of Islam referred to Malcolm X as a dog.  The minister said to West, “you’ll be lucky to get out of this building alive.”  After going into hiding for a few days, he reached out to someone in the Nation’s community — eventually finding shared values and empathizing with one another. “Empathy overwhelmed anger,” West explains,  “Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.”

What if we took action like that? It’s easy to discount West’s actions as youthful machismo.  Risking my life like that isn’t something I would do, but sometimes we really need people who will!  West inspires me to have more courage. I need to speak up and speak out earlier.  I know there have been too many times in my past when I didn’t; thinking that avoiding conflict was the better route. He also reminds me to make sure I am actually listening and learning — rather than focusing on changing other people’s minds. West saw how intelligent protest can cause real change, but it requires “the courage to exercise constant humility in the pursuit of a noble cause greater than oneself.”

2. Depth of Support Is Essential

Ever since he was a young kid, West was a challenger and defender; he “bullied the bullies,” which was constantly getting him in trouble.  Through it all he had “the voice of calmness and unquestioning integrity” from his parents — and unflappable support of his older brother and two sisters. When West was falsely accused of rape (he and his 2 roommates were all arrested for the same crime while attending Harvard), his brother Cliff said, “I’ll get on a plane right now; I’ll be there in the morning.”  (Fortunately the next day, all charges were dropped.)

He also has a strong Christian faith, having had a spiritual mentor at an early age.  At Harvard, he had a mentor too — the first black professor to gain tenure there (Martin Kilson).  West continued to build relationships with exceptional colleagues and collaborators throughout his life.

That deep level of support is difficult to replicate, but we all can actively seek out mentors, colleagues, friends, and professional groups. Sure brains matter. Hard work matters. But when you need to muster the courage to survive the really tough times, nothing comes close to value of authentic emotional support.

3. Connect Your Voice to Your Vocation

How many of us knew precisely what we wanted from life? West knew himself; I had “to forge a unique style and voice that expresses my own quest for truth and love.” West encourages us to first find our voice and put forth a vision for it — and connect that to our vocation.  Of course that’s easier said than done.

Early on, West was fortunate to find his calling: “connecting the life of the mind to the struggle for freedom.”  It doesn’t guarantee life will be any easier, just more meaningful.  West says, “It is clear that there are profound joys and unbearable sorrows that accompany being true to one’s calling.  The comfort is in the knowing that by giving one’s heart and soul to uplift others through one’s art, one’s vocation, voice and vision are fulfilled.”   I’d say there are sorrows and joys in every life, but it all seems more worthwhile if you’re doing something that matters to you.

4. Forget Perfection — Enjoy Life

With all his achievements, it would be easy to discount the challenges.  I’m not talking about the external ones, but the internal ones.  West openly admits to his humanness, which I find refreshing since we’re bombarded daily by superlatives and life’s realities lie hidden.

He says, “I must unapologetically reveal my broken life as a thing of beauty.” Despite all his success, West continually found himself coping with a bad case of the “IRS blues,” creating a “monetary mess” for himself.  He didn’t bother with doctors, until someone suggested he have his prostate checked; he had aggressive, last-stage prostate cancer — and beat it.  After his marriage to an Ethiopian Orthodox woman, they had to sleep with guns under their pillows and had militia guarding their house.  When they divorced, he said he had nothing “except his ’88 Cadillac.”

Quite the life. Yet he seems to be a man that remains passionate — clearly hungry for more. He loves music (from Marvin Gaye to Beethoven), romantic poetry, his 1988 Cadillac Sedan Deville — and women (you’ll have to read the book).

He writes to his children “the most essential lesson I can offer from my twentieth-century life for your twenty-first-century lives is to find and sustain joy every day that you breathe by touching the lives of others and inspiring people through your example to reach higher and serve better.”

Just like the rest of us, West isn’t superhuman — perhaps more authentic than most.  Whether you value his views or not, you know where he stands.  While many know him more for his civil rights and social justice efforts, I value his willingness to fully embrace life.

So enjoy what life has to offer.  Don’t get bogged down by cynicism; keep going.  Forget the imperfections in your life, and focus on loving the people that stick by you. Chase what excites you and stand up for it — with empathy and hope.

Why You Should Radically Raise the Bar

If you’re truly motivated to improve your life, incremental change won’t get you there — not fast enough. What we need is inspiration — something that sparks action, risk taking, and commitment. Often we have some vague notion of what we want in life, but we don’t allow ourselves to dream — let alone dream big.

What's your seemingly impossible dream? What will inspire you to radically raise the bar?

If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success. — James Cameron

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that our aim is too low and we reach it.” — Michelangelo

And then we don’t raise the bar again.

Naturally if you’re living your passion, perhaps your biggest challenge is making it happen.  If you’re reading this, it is more likely that you’re not quite there. Maybe you haven’t given up, but you aren’t fully committed either. Raising the bar isn’t about pushing you to burnout. It’s about encouraging you to become more authentic — to fully apply your strengths to what matters to you.

Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die today. — James Dean

What’s stopping you? Thought leader Edward de Bono warns us about complacency:

1. Cozy complacency: You convince yourself that life is adequate as it is. This isn’t about endless second-guessing your life choices or wondering if your life is keeping up with the Joneses. Get out of your comfort zone but avoid rushing to a decision.  Overcome this urge with thoughtful analysis so you avoid looking back at this point in time — wishing you made better choices.

2. Lack-of-vision complacencyYou box yourself into your current situation. You can’t envision living any differently.  You see limitations: family role, financial situation, social class, career or age group.  It’s hard to imagine anything different.  You lack support or the courage to rock the boat. You shut yourself down well before the idea even leaves your head.  Allow time to fantasize; look for stories of lives or lifestyles that appeal to you.  Engage others in brainstorming too, so you’ll explore options you’d normally never consider.

3. Arrogant complacencyYou stubbornly cling to your opinions. This is a difficult one, which requires the toughest examination. Often we rationalize how we’re getting by with too little or we convince ourselves that we’re living the good life.  Only we don’t pay attention to the cracks.  We’re too busy selling our lives to ourselves. Pay close attention to your intuition and early warning signs: a nagging health issue, a quiet whisper that you’d rather get out of what you’re doing, or the years are ticking by.

These examples are overly simplified, yet perilously real. The mind is exceptional at rationalizing our behavior. In the words of Sigmund Freud: to be completely honest with oneself is the very best effort a human being can make.  Remember it’s your life you’re talking about.  Dare to think about what is really important. Live a life worth living — your own view of what that is, that is what matters most.

How do you overcome complacency? What you need is an idea so compelling, so inspiring that it will ignite you out of your comfort zone and into a better future.

Raise the bar by setting your own “big, hairy, audacious goal,” a term coined by business guru Jim Collins, in his book Built to Last.  According to Tom Peters, that isn’t quite enough.  You need a goal that is both clear and compelling.  Some business concepts don’t translate easily into our personal lives, but this idea of setting a big, hairy, audacious goal for yourself — one that you can actually visualize — is certainly worthy of consideration.

A mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimensions. — Anonymous

President Kennedy inspired Americans to care and believe about space travel — in 1961!   He did it with a clear, concise, seemingly unrealistic challenge — to be the first country to land on the moon.  He said, I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

On a personal level, setting the bar that extreme might seem too grandiose or ridiculous. We muse about an idea, but we don’t make the commitment and set an urgent goal or marshal our resources to insure their fulfillment. 

These all started as a dream, but someone decided to make a commitment:

Mark Twain said it well: A man with a new idea is a crank — until he succeeds.

Anything that really inspires you is likely to be complicated.  So get comfortable making mistakes. Raising the bar not only requires rapid learning but getting comfortable making mistakes. We live in a world that seems to demand flawless perfection every time — a harsh critic of failure.  Coming in second is equivalent to “losing.”

We need to take Samuel Beckett’s advice:  Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.

And of course, try again.

Naturally that’s easier said than done. As humans we have a built-in negativity bias! We are hard wired to pay much more attention to problems — dramatically more attention. Thanks to evolution, I guess it makes sense.  To stay alive we simply had to learn to adapt quickly to threats — it meant life or death.  According to author Jonathan Haidt, psychologists consistently find that the human mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things. Positives just don’t carry the same weight. I didn’t want to believe this, but here is just one example, called marriage math by Psychology Today.  After just one negative experience with your spouse it takes at least five positive experiences to patch things up.

So manage your negativity bias and keep a close watch out for motivation killers. Dean Rieck’s blog, 8 Bad Habits that Crush Your Creativity and Stifle Your Success, has practical ideas to overcome your inner critic.  (Although written for the marketing world, Rieck’s ideas are universal.)

Still not convinced to radically raise the bar for yourself?  Take a look at Divine Caroline’s blog:  Ten Lies You’ll Hear Before Pursuing Your Dream. As she says, working hard on your dream will be very hard work, but at least you’ll be devoting your time, creativity, and energy on something that truly matters to you.  That’s positive in itself!  Here’s hoping you find inspiration to dream and do something that you wouldn’t dream of doing…without!

Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare. — Japanese Proverb