“This is not your masterpiece! It’s a practice piece. You don’t have to be perfect. Keep going.” Said the encouraging and assuring voice from my watercolor teacher.
I had just run into some problems with my painting, and I was afraid to mess it up further. I wanted my teacher to rescue my work instead of having a go at fixing it myself. You see, I wanted to produce a good piece of work every time I painted. My focus was on the end result. The timely reminder from my teacher had once again helped me focus on my learning and less on the outcome. And, most important of all, to paint and enjoy myself!
Here is what I have found that helps me to avoid the perfection trap when I'm learning something new.
- Adopt a Growth Mindset. A growth mindset suggests that you can develop your skills, get better and continuously stretch yourself. People who exhibit a growth mindset actively seek new challenges, new experiences and embrace failures. So, these days when I'm painting, I put more of a focus on the question: “What do I want to learn and get better at?” rather than “What do I want to produce?” This shift in attention encourages me to push my boundaries, take more risks, make mistakes, and allow failure to inspire and inform my next effort. When we make a deliberate choice to adopt a growth mindset, we can allow ourselves to stretch a little more when we take the next big step.
- Focus on the process of learning. Perfectionism is often associated with an excessive focus on outcomes. I think all of us can identify with the tendency sometimes to employ outcome-focused thinking. However, I’ve found that wanting to know more today than we did yesterday and focusing on continuous learning are both key in helping us achieve whatever outcome we desire (more so than just outcome-focused thinking!). When we channel our energy and attention on the process, showing up and working towards our daily practice goal while applying different strategies/techniques to improve, we are in control of our development. We spend less time worrying about unknown future outcomes and concentrate rather on what we can do every day to ensure that we are moving closer to our goal. Ever since I’ve placed more focus on the process of learning and less on the outcome of my painting, I have been much more motivated. I see every piece of my work as a practice piece. There is always something to learn, something I can improve! A good outcome would be a by-product of the process I have used. I am not pressured to perform. Instead, I am immersed in learning, experimenting, and enjoying!
- Value your progress. When I started learning watercolors, I often found myself unable to complete a work on my own. I never thought that the piece was good enough and gave up halfway. It was so liberating to be reminded that, “You don’t have to be perfect!” and I made a point of finishing each painting! I eventually looked back at all of my works and was able to see how much I had improved. I began to systematically review each painting and make intentional plans as to what specifically I wanted to improve in my next piece. This way of continuously evaluating progress is an integral part of the learning process. Though we may be far away from our goals, we should start to appreciate the effort we put into continually refining our techniques and making incremental progress over time. When we zoom out and begin to view our work, relationships, and even ourselves, as continuous works in progress that are constantly evolving, we’ll feel happier with our lives and more motivated (and less uptight!)
Perfection can get in the way of progress. Being mindful of our thought processes is the first step in preventing us from falling into the perfectionist’s trap. We can consciously choose a growth mindset, continually stretch ourselves, focus on the process of learning, and value our progress along the way. As a common saying goes, “The journey is just as important as the destination.”
What does your learning process look like?
What is the progress you’ve made that you want to celebrate?