Perfect is the Enemy of Good

*My imperfect attempt at lettering the title of this post. I could have spent more time making it pretty, but I would have never published my post. It would have been ridiculous and ironic to delay my post to make my lettering nicer, given my post’s subject, so I went with it.

I had my annual physical yesterday with my primary care physician, whom I’ve been going to for over 20 years. I like her because she takes time to talk to me and check in on my emotional and mental state rather than focus solely on my physical ailments. She was happy and excited to learn I had graduated from nursing school. She asked whether I planned to have more kids. I shared my anxiety over my ability to have another healthy child at my advanced maternal age. I started to talk about parenting and the guilt I feel about being an older mom to my daughter. She knows me well, however, and knows I can be overly critical of myself.

I responded that this was the problem with being a perfectionist; I recognize I can be needlessly hard on myself. She declared, “I want to eliminate the word ‘perfectionist.’ What if we replaced perfectionist with ‘overly critical’? No one wants to be overly critical!”

“What if we replaced ‘perfectionist’ with ‘overly critical’? No one wants to be overly critical!”

Dr. M

I tried to explain I am not proud to be a perfectionist and am trying to change. Still, I shared how my perfectionist attitude got me through pre-requisites and helped me complete a competitive accelerated nursing program. She shared how she can relate to this and proceeded to tell her story when she was younger.

When she was in medical school, residents were required to go to counseling. She met with the counselor, who eventually noted, “You have a harsh critic inside, don’t you?” The counselor encouraged her not to be so critical, “You don’t yell and scream at a two-year-old to learn their alphabet. You don’t yell and scream at a toddler to get them to walk. You don’t have to be so difficult on yourself”. My doctor defiantly declared to her counselor that she had no intention to change since her harsh critic served her well. My doctor rationalized to her counselor that she accomplished her goals and got to medical school because of her “harsh critic.” Her counselor responded that she didn’t do those things BECAUSE of her harsh critic; she completed those things DESPITE her.

I appreciated my doctor’s story because it paints an alternative to being “overly critical.” As a parent, I can relate to the patience and compassion needed to teach a child a new skill. I could scream and make my daughter cry about brushing and flossing her teeth, for instance, but there are other ways I can guide and encourage her. In the same way, I can choose different ways to talk to and motivate myself. I don’t have to suffer so much by my internal critic or be perfect to achieve my goals.

I have had to consciously and regularly examine the toll of aiming for perfection in nursing school. I shared how I would reason, “I could kill myself to get 100% on a care plan, or, I could spend more time with my family and get a 93%.” After hearing this, my doctor exclaimed, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” She echoed what I have struggled to remind myself over the years.

“Perfect is the enemy of good.”

Dr. M

There’s a book entitled “Good to Great” by James C. Collins that my pastor talked about during one of his homilies years ago. From it, my pastor learned and shared, “Good is the enemy of great.” I never got around to reading the best-selling book, but that message stuck with me: I would challenge myself to do better. I’d ask myself if my work or actions were the best I could do. At some point, however, I’d get discouraged and have an all-or-nothing attitude. If I couldn’t do things as well as I thought I should, I didn’t want to do it at all, or I’d scrap an entire project. I’d be ashamed of myself and compare myself to others. Striving to be perfect, I would feel frustrated, resentful, and spent. However, years since that homily, I’ve often thought, “Perfect is the enemy of good enough.”

While I do not advocate living one’s life by always doing only the bare minimum, sometimes the bare minimum maintains my sanity. “Good enough” has allowed me to survive and move forward from perceived failure. I’m learning to ask myself more often, “What’s it going to take?” and “Is it worth it?” (like in writing dreaded care plans) or “How can I approach this without so much suffering”? I still need reminders to be gentle with myself and that not everything has to be perfect to be great, so it was nice to hear my doctor affirm my previous thought.

I appreciated my doctor taking the time to remind me: perfect is the enemy of good. No one is perfect. Humans are imperfect and fallible, and it’s our struggles that lead to our growth…And sometimes, “good enough” is pretty frickin’ remarkable.

What I Learned at Preschool

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I attended my first parent-teacher conference this week for my preschool daughter.  I had wrapped up my final exams just two days before.  While my own grades were still unknown, my husband and I learned about my toddler’s progress and “grades”.  We got a snapshot of where she was as far as cognitive skills, emotional development, gross motor/fine motor, and social skills. My daughter’s ratings were “P”, “B”, or “D” for her various skills.

I asked the teacher, “What do the letters mean?”

She replied “P is for proficient.  B is for building”. 

I then inquired, “Is D for deficient?”

She said with a laugh, “No, D is for developing.” 

In a prior Facebook and Instagram post, I shared how a professor described my “deficiency” after a clinical simulation and provided solely negative feedback to me.  I was unexpectedly triggered by my own insecurities at my daughter’s preschool review, thinking “D” meant “deficient” for areas where she could use more work.  Instead, the areas where she could improve are ones in which she is still “developing”.  What if I gave myself the grace and focused on how I am still developing?  What if I transformed “deficient” to “developing?”  Stating, “I’m developing a skill” elicits a very different response and attitude from, “I’m deficient in a skill.” 

What if I transformed ‘deficient’ to ‘developing’? Stating, “I’m developing a skill,” elicits a very different response and attitude from, “I’m deficient in a skill.”

The Mature Student Nurse

I got emotional during the conference and started to cry. I cried at the recognition of myself in my daughter.  I cried about projecting myself on her progress and development.  In a moment, I felt my issues had me resigned to suck at parenting.  The traits and behaviors I notice in myself that I try to “fix” or change show up strongly in my daughter: stubbornness, perfectionism, and inflexibility.

  • She may give up on doing something if she notices she is not doing it perfectly.
    • She was doing a cutting exercise with scissors but just gave up and decided not to do it because she saw she wasn’t exactly following the cutting line.
    • I have multiple calligraphy sets that I don’t use because I get discouraged with how my writing ends up looking – even though I know the whole point is to practice.
  • She can be very driven and direct herself, but so much so where she does not welcome working in teams.
    • She loves working on puzzles by herself, but she gets upset when her classmates try to join her.
    • I sometimes find it challenging working on group projects. I dread them at times. 
  • She can fixate on things and become emotionally derailed if things do not go as she planned.
    • She melts down over clothing. 
    • I go into panic mode over a bad test grade.
  • She gets an all-or-nothing attitude.
    • She was supposed to draw a picture of herself.  She started, but was unhappy with how it turned out. She erased the image and tried to re-draw the picture, but never finished.
    • Because I want to do things perfectly, I can take a long time doing things or worse, I won’t do it at all.

I realize my daughter will naturally take on her parents’ traits – good AND bad, whether we purposefully do this or not.  How can I expect her to act differently when I do not know how to do this for myself?  How can I give her tools I do not have?  To an extent, I realize my stubbornness and perfectionism has served me well and allowed me to get into a very competitive nursing program.  However, I also recognize where it has not served me. 

I’ve heard the saying, “the enemy of great is good enough,” but I know my issue can be summarized as “perfection is the enemy of good enough.”  I can get overwhelmed or paralyzed from not being able to do things perfectly or exactly the way I think I should.  Comically, I now recognize that my perfectionism is what had me put so much pressure on myself as a parent that I was driven to tears at my daughter’s parent-teacher conference. 

I would not want to label my daughter as “deficient,” so why am I so quick to label myself this way?  My daughter is DEVELOPING. So am I. 

The acknowledgement that I am still developing is a gift and empowering.  I can work with that.  If I want my daughter to know that it is okay to make mistakes and pursue projects imperfectly, I need to demonstrate that.  Before I can change my behavior, I need to notice it.  I see how my behavior impacts my life (and my daughter’s). I can do something about it now that I recognize it.  I am figuring it out as I go along. I feel lost at times and may not make the best choices, but I’m trying – I am still developing.