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Sometimes you just have to jump out the window and grow wings on the way down." – Ray Bradbury
What is a perfectionist?
Recently, Dr. Dweck did a talk in London for The School of Life and she took the audience on a deep dive into the concept of perfectionism: is it a vice or a virtue? This talk really resonated with me as I come from a home of highly driven people. I think everyone in my family would characterize themselves as perfectionists.
It turns out that this may be the case in many families. A colleague of Dweck's, Pam Scott, gave adults a survey to find out if they felt they were perfectionists and if so, how they felt about it. Many adults agreed that they were perfectionists, but they had very different feelings and responses about what that meant.
"It's about fear of chaos," one person said. Another worried that "I am not good enough." A third said, "I need to do things perfectly the first time." Like Mary Poppins, these folks were trying to maintain a "practically perfect in every way" reputation. This type of perfectionism can be debilitating, especially if your best isn't good enough, or if you do not have the time or resources to do your best.
But there was also a very different set of responses.
"It got me where I am today." Now, this response doesn't sound like it is describing a vice; the tone sounds almost proud. Another said, "I am known for high standards and excellent work, why would I ever stop using this tool (perfectionism)?" A third said, "I can't stop until I've done it right."
According to Dweck, the research says there might be two kinds of perfectionism, and those two ways of behaving have drastically different outcomes for people both in accomplishing their goals and in how they feel about themselves. One kind of perfectionist tends to agree with statements like: "People will think less of me if I make a mistake;" and, "A partial failure is as bad as a complete failure." Another kind of perfectionist agrees with these statements: "I try to do my best in everything I do." "I am driven to be excellent." "I strive for high standards." In these responses we can hear echoes of the person-focused vs. process-focused fixed and growth mindsets.
Is Perfectionism a growth-minded or fixed-minded trait?
"I had to start shrinking my world to maintain [perfection]." – Carol Dweck
Dweck frames perfectionism in the context of the two mindsets. First, a fixed mindset is a belief that personal qualities, talents, and intelligence are fixed. What someone has is all s/he will ever have. And, people worry, "Do I have enough?" In a growth mindset, on the other hand, people believe that those talents, personal qualities and intelligence can be developed through effort, mentoring, and practice. These folks don't believe that everyone is exactly the same, but that we can all grow and achieve a high standard.
These two perfectionist belief systems can have very different results. When a person strives for perfection to avoid judgment (fixed minded) the results make that behavior look more like a vice when compared to those who strive for perfection for themselves. The anxiety that the first group experiences can sometimes turn into depression. Feeling judged and feeling not good enough can have a negative effect on their other relationships.
On the other hand, those who are pushing themselves to achieve for their own intrinsic drive tend to achieve more, be happier, and feel inspired. This perfectionism sounds more like a virtue.
This is not to say that working for your own inner drive means that no one will judge you or that you won't fail. But it might mean that you are more resilient in the face of that judgment. What's more, it probably means you are able to reach higher levels of achievement because of your ability to make and learn from mistakes, failures and feedback from others.
A fixed minded perfectionist has as a number one goal to look and feel extremely accomplished all the time. S/he wants to make zero mistakes and do "it" perfectly. This can result in the person making choices that are "safe" where s/he can remain perfect and avoid failure. It seems that perfectionism here is largely to do with the desire to have every step of the way in the process be perfect.
If a growth minded person says it's more important to learn, s/he will actually achieve that high accomplishment because that is how one grows - by engaging deeply in a process (and making mistakes). This perfectionism is about producing an end-product that represents perfection. The process to get there is a learning, iterative, and persistent process until excellence is reached.
Dweck says, "Everything important in life requires huge amounts of effort over long periods of time. If effort makes you feel inadequate... you are at a huge disadvantage." If our culture expects (or even just hopes for) perfect, effortless achievement, when things get hard, we quit. Talent is equated with not having to work hard. The thing is, things always get harder.
What can growth and fixed-minded perfectionism look like in schools?
At Sci Academy, a school in New Orleans, there is a school-wide focus on cultivating growth mindsets in students and staff. Not surprisingly, they have a mission statement shared by the students and staff: Chase Perfection. Catch Excellence. At this school the message is clear: no one is perfect, but we will chase perfection! Through this process, we can achieve excellence. Processing errors provides essential feedback for learning. When we say, mistakes are good, it's not because we want to be sloppy, it means mistakes are normal and we can learn from them!
In Dr. Dweck's experience at the university, she sees a condition of perfectionism that has been dubbed "duck syndrome." When high achieving people think that they have to be perfect all the time, they fail to ask for help when they need it. Or, they may fail to prepare and put in the effort that a task requires, thinking that it should be easy. Like a duck swimming on top of the water, their swimming looks effortless and smooth – almost like floating. But underneath the water, they are paddling madly, trying to stay afloat. For students with duck syndrome, they are struggling and failing privately and not accessing help that they need.
Dweck explains the crux of the issue with this kind of perfectionism: "Errors and setbacks are calamities...people in a fixed mindset run from their errors or hide their errors." This is really tragic when we think about our most accomplished students failing to meet their potential.
"Who will you become?"
Perfectionism, like many personality traits, is only a vice if it actually makes you or other people less happy. Achieving the excellence that the Sci Academy promotes can only happen when someone pushes him or herself every day with an inner drive to produce great (maybe perfect) work.
When I was pregnant with each of my children and when they were newborns, my mother-in-law would say, "I wonder what he will be like? What will Sabine love to do? What funny things will Max say?" Directly to the babies, she would ask, "Who will you become?" Her curiosity and excitement were so sweet to witness. The lesson there is clear: Becoming is better than being. I teach my children to take on a beautiful (effortful) journey of becoming themselves, striving messily for greatness.
About Emily Diehl
Emily Diehl is Director of Professional Learning for Mindset Works and has 16 years experience as a classroom teacher and insructional coach. She works with K-12 educators, school leaders, and parents in helping to develop agency and life-long learning. She has contributed many lessons and experience to the Brainology program.
About Mindset Works
Mindset Works was co-founded by one of the world's leading researchers in the field of motivation, Stanford University professor Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. and K-12 mindset expert Lisa S. Blackwell, Ph.D. The company translates psychological research into practical products and services to help students and educators increase their motivation and achievement.
Mindset Works and Brainology are registered trademarks of Mindset Works, Inc.