Why perfect is a four-letter word

Why perfect is a four-letter word


I was six when I saw Mary Poppins for the first time.

It was new, in the theater. I fidgeted on the flippy-up seat, peering through my wild early-60s hair, likely sporting my favorite purple tie-dyed T-shirt that came down to my knees. I took stock as Jane and Michael received their first come-uppance from their new nanny. The children—normal, everyday children in the scheme of the film—are both found lacking by a magical measuring tape, which then proclaims Ms. Poppins herself to be “Practically Perfect in Every Way.”

What a blow to my freak-flag-flying six-year-old ego. It took a few years for the sentiment in this scene to worm its way fully into my heart, but by 12 I was a full-blown perfectionist, known for stellar penmanship, carrying just the right (impressively thick) books, an ever-sweet smile, and stick-straight posture (my back is still damaged by the effort). No surprise that I had few opinions, no voice, and was just a few years away from a rampant eating disorder.

It took me decades of anxiety, general uptightness and even a divorce before I made my way through to the other side, but I can happily say now that I’m a recovered perfectionist. Or at least I’m in remission. Most days. It means I’m a little less efficient, a fair amount less organized, true—but I’m MUCH happier, healthier, more energetic, more productive, more creative, more willing to take risks, and a lot more fun to be around.

And I’ve lost my fear of public speaking. Goodbye perfect, hello real. And it turns out that dropping the “perfection obsession” makes you a much better speaker.

The thing is, people don’t even really want speakers to be perfect. These days, working to be perfect (if it’s even possible) can seem boring, robotic, aloof and false. As Amy Cuddy puts it, “when we are trying to manage the impression we’re making on others, we’re choreographing ourselves in an unnatural way…. [and] we come across as fake.”

What audiences want these days isn’t so much perfection: it’s reality. It’s connection. Authentic speakers—like Chris Anderson, owner and curator of TED Talks, who’s shy and unassuming, coming out on stage with hands in his belt loops and more than a few “ums”—are changing the paradigm for influential public speaking from performance and technical perfection to dialogue, authenticity and rich content we can trust.

Here’s the deal. When you’re focused on being perfect, you’re focused on yourself: either you’re not doing well enough, which creates an Inner Dialogue of No Return, or you’re doing splendidly (for the moment) and reveling in self-admiration. Either way, that’s misplaced attention. Where you really want to focus when you’re speaking is your audience: not the impression you’re making, but the connection.

I’m not saying I’m “perfect” at being an im-perfectionist. I do slip up some days and weeks (and perhaps the whole month of June this year), getting too hard on myself and expecting too much. But I’m well aware now of the correlation between impossibly high standards and uncomfortably low self-esteem, between perfectionism and poor performance (not to mention misery). I sing loudly whenever possible (turns out I don’t suck at it!), dance enthusiastically in my slightly messy kitchen (and occasionally in the grocery store), and I wear my hair wild once again. I choose to follow Mary Poppins when she’s hanging out with her dear Bert (hopping into chalk paintings, dancing on roofs, racing calliope horses), but not when she’s being prim, proper and judgy in her buttoned-up nanny persona.

So let’s all loosen up a little and go fly kites. Or freak flags—your choice. The message is the same: once you stop trying to be perfect, you’ll soar. It may be a little bit messy, but it’ll also be a little bit wonderful.

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