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The Myth of Perfection

I remember when my daughter first started learning Spanish in elementary school. She would happily practice her budding language skills on anyone who would listen.

One of her favorite practice partners was a middle-aged Mexican gentleman who worked at our favorite restaurant. From the first time she chirped “Hola!” to him, he insisted on speaking Spanish to her (slowly, and usually with a lot of pantomime to compensate for her lack of vocabulary).

One day while we were watching them interact, my husband turned to me and said “That’s the nice thing about kids. They don’t have to be ‘perfect‘…they just talk. That’s why they learn languages so much more easily than adults do.”

A self-imposed curse

We all do it. We strive for perfection in most, if not all, that we do. We watch a performance and exclaim “pure perfection!” then beat ourselves up because we can’t do it “as perfectly.” We hear someone speaking a language we want to learn, and long for the day when we can speak as “perfectly” as that person.

Well, I’ve got news for you. Perfection is a myth. A dangerous myth that prevents us from taking pride in our accomplishments, or from learning things we’d dearly love to learn.

That’s right. You will never be perfect. And that’s a good thing.

An impediment to progress

Whether you’re learning to draw, learning to sing or play an instrument, or learning a language, the pursuit of perfection can be a real impediment to progress.

I can hear you saying “But Audrey…if I don’t strive for perfection, what impetus will I have to improve?” My answer to that is, you’re confusing “perfection” with “excellence.”

What’s the difference?

When you’re striving for “excellence,” you’re trying to “excel” — that is, “exceed your previous performance,” with the goal of being the best you’re capable of being. Every time you pick up your instrument or your pen, or open your mouth to try to speak the language you’re learning, you try to be just that little bit better.

It may be a matter of trying to refine your pronunciation a bit. It may be a matter of trying to use a new word or grammatical construction, or practicing conversation so you can speak more smoothly and naturally. It may be a matter of trying to fix previous mistakes.

The drive to excel is its own impetus. You want to improve, and you reward yourself for every little bit of progress. And because you’re not hung up on perfection, you can ACCEPT it as progress.

At the same time, you can be kind to yourself when you make mistakes.  All a mistake means is an opportunity for improvement…it’s not the end of the world! You’re good at improvement! You practice it all the time! You can fix it, and you will.

“Perfection,” on the other hand, by definition, means “no mistakes.” And when you set yourself up for perfection, you will inevitably be disappointed.

You’re learning something new. You’re going to make mistakes. A lot of them. And the funny thing is, the better you get, the more conscious you’re going to be of those mistakes.

(If you don’t believe me, ask someone you think of as a much more advanced learner than you are if he or she ever makes mistakes…and prepare to get an earful!).

If “perfection” is your goal, those mistakes will eventually become a source of frustration, embarrassment…even fear. Instead of congratulating yourself for the progress you’ve made, you’ll find yourself focusing on what you’re doing wrong.

Eventually, you will find yourself afraid to practice at all…at least where anyone can hear you. And that fear will actually cause you to make MORE mistakes. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more tense and fearful you get about making mistakes, the more mistakes you will make.

If you take nothing else from this post, take this at least: Fear and embarrassment are  impediments to learning.

What is “perfection,” anyway?

I have a friend for whom English is his second language. He’s is a very fluent English speaker…in fact, he’s a teacher in a local school where most of the students are native English speakers.

Is his English “perfect”? Well, he has an accent that reflects his native language, so by definition his pronunciation and speech rhythms aren’t “perfect,” at least as regards the local dialect of English. Sometimes, like all of us, he has to fish for the right word. Occasionally he gets an idiom wrong, or misuses a word.  Nope: Not perfect.

Is he a good English speaker? Yes, indeed…by any reasonable standard, he’s an EXCELLENT English speaker, and if my Irish ever even begins to approach his standard of English, I will be ecstatic.

(Or I will if I don’t get too hung up on “perfection”!)

Here’s another way to look at it: How many native English speakers do you know who speak perfect English? Who always pronounce and use words correctly? Who have impeccable grammar, and who never misunderstand or misuse an idiom?

I can tell you how many I know: 0. That’s zero. Present company included.

Why hold yourself to a standard in a language you’re learning that you would never impose on a learner — or even a native speaker — of your own native language?

Let go and learn

When you let go of the myth of perfection, you free yourself to make mistakes, and to learn from those mistakes.

You find that you speak more comfortably and freely (dare I even say fluently?). So what if you have to fall into English here and there, or resort to pantomime? That’s just part of the learning process!

When you let go of the need to be “perfect,” you let go of fear and embarrassment and free yourself to learn.

Now I just need to learn to practice what I preach!

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