Perfection seems like a laudable goal, or is it?
“If you want to improve at anything, you need to know where your mistakes are leading you.” — Hannah Whitaker for the New York Times
That pastor was not the only one who promoted the idea that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs. While others may not promote perfectionism so explicitly, society encourages this type of thinking. Life in general is not forgiving of our mistakes. For example, we spend years preparing for and taking test after test and are rewarded for avoiding mistakes. So understandably, we try to avoid mistakes at all costs.
For years, when I played the piano, I was so focused on avoiding mistakes and would feel the need to start all over again when I made a mistake. As I have learned more about music and improvising, I have come to realize that mistakes aren’t always as bad as I thought. In fact, I don’t always have to acknowledge mistakes in my playing, I can keep playing without missing a beat and listeners might not even notice. Improvising while playing the piano is something I am still learning, and there are no “wrong” notes. As my instructor says, you’re only a half tone away from the “right” note! Now when I play from sheet music, even though I am not improvising, I will often keep playing after a “wrong note”, because I have finally realized that a mistake does not mean I have to start all over again. The so called “wrong notes” will at times not only sound right but might make the piece sound even better!
Similarly, in life, when we make mistakes, we do not go back and start our lives all over again. We should learn from our mistakes and move on. Without our mistakes, we would be deprived from the important lessons that enable us to mature as individuals.
This should not be construed as endorsing a lackadaisical attitude towards our responsibilities at work and in our personal lives. There is a place for striving for “perfection”, in the sense that we should strive to do our best, but we should be realistic in our expectations.
Making a mistake while playing a piano piece is usually nonconsequential. At worst, I may feel embarrassed or even get made fun of. When it comes to patient care, on the other hand, a mistake could cost a patient’s life. So, yes, we must strive to do our best when doing things that have significant consequences, like providing patient care. However, even when we do our best, mistakes can and do happen. In health care, mistakes or “near misses” present us with opportunities to evaluate our processes and procedures and determine what, if anything needs to be changed to avoid repetition of the mistake.
Similarly, the mistakes we make in our interpersonal relationships can lead to personal growth. I have learned lessons in my personal life that I could never have learned from reading a book or listening to someone else’s experience, as illustrated by the following story.
A young woman got into a conversation with me while on the subway in New York several years ago. As it turned out, we were both on our way to the same church, even though we didn’t know each other. She was very friendly and while I don’t remember the details of the conversation, she mentioned that she was a single mother and indicated that she had financial needs. I wrote a check for a hundred dollars and handed it to her. She responded that she didn’t have a bank account. For some reason, I had a hundred dollars in cash on me that day, which was unusual. I didn’t want to give away all the cash I had on me, so I gave her 80 dollars in cash. Months later, after I had moved to another city for medical school, I was looking through my statement from my bank in New York, which I hadn’t used much since the move. To my surprise, I noticed that the check I had written for the young lady on the subway had been cashed! I had given her cash because she said she didn’t have a bank account, but she had somehow found a way to cash the check, in addition to taking the cash I gave her! Did I learn a lesson from that? Of course! Now I know that if such a scenario ever presents itself again, I need to take the check back and not just trust the person to tear it up. Some may argue that she must have needed the money so badly, but that’s not really the point. She had given me the impression that she would be unable to cash a check and that was why I had given her cash. She could not have argued that she didn’t understand that the cash was in lieu of the check. Anyway, the important thing is that I learned a lesson from that mistake, one I would not have learned any other way.
There are many other mistakes I have made in other spheres of life that I remember vividly and still tend to ruminate about. Learning the lessons, accepting my imperfections, forgiving myself and moving on are issues I am still working on. It is the only way to grow into the masterpiece I was created to be.
by Olapeju Simoyan, MD, MPH
Olapeju Simoyan is the Executive Director of Research at Caron Treatment Centers and a full professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Drexel University College of Medicine.