“Close your eyes,” I began hopeful that the added layer of anonymity would give the 21 obviously surprised, but suddenly silent students in my daughter-in-law’s 5th grade class at Amanda Arnold Elementary School the freedom necessary to more honestly respond to the $64,000 question to follow. “Now, raise your hand if you’re perfect,” I continued, “if you’ve never made a mistake in your entire life.” I then asked those who had “their hands in the air” to “keep them up” and everyone in the room to “open their eyes and look around.” “Be honest with me,” I said, “how many of you expected to see at least one hand in the air?” A few hands sheepishly went up – likely believing (naively) that certainly their teacher fit the bill! “How many of you are GLAD you didn’t?” I continued, as a large chorus of hands began shooting up and bright, knowing smiles, including my own, burst forth around the room. Seizing the moment and before they could think too much, I then asked: “How many of you wish you WERE perfect – that you didn’t have a single flaw?” (5 hands) “How many of you think it’s possible TO BE perfect? (same 5 hands). Twenty percent – I had some work to do.
“Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret,” I said, glancing towards the classroom door to make doubly sure no one else was listening. “When I was your age, I not only wanted to be perfect, I believed it was possible to be perfect. In fact, I was convinced of it.” “To make matters worse (and, believe me, it did make matters worse),” I said, sharing my heart, I was pretty sure there was someone in my life, my dad, who EXPECTED me to be PERFECT.” I could see (and feel) the sudden shift in the mood in the room. “Don’t get me wrong,” I proceeded, “it wasn’t as if he ever told me that, but you know the way parents are, they don’t actually have to say things for you to know what they’re thinking. You can read it in their faces, in their moods . . . in their silence – and my dad was never very good about hiding his disappointment in me, especially when I came home with test results that fell a little (or a lot) short of 100%, had an untimely strike-out at a key moment in a little league baseball game (there were no shortage of those!) or missed a key putt or shot in a high school golf or bowling tournament.”
“Before long, my dad’s disappointment in me (real or imagined), became mine in myself. Every time I fell even a little shy of perfect at whatever I happened to be doing (school, play, work, friendship, etc.), I got upset with myself – very upset. The funny thing was: even on those RARE occasions when I managed to be ‘perfect’ at something (e.g., got A+/100% on a test, won a tournament, mowed the lawn without missing a single blade of grass, etc.), I didn’t allow myself to enjoy it for very long, because I knew a ‘new something’ was lurking in the shadows just around the corner, waiting to prove to me that I wasn’t quite as perfect as I thought I was or thought I needed to be. As I got older, I began to feel a tremendous amount of guilt and shame in my imperfection, because, in one important way, I wasn’t any different from every other kid I knew: I wanted my dad to be proud of me. I wanted to avoid disappointing him and, in my mind, every mistake I made – no matter how big or small – made it that much less likely I would get what I wanted most.” By now, the room (teacher and adults included!) was totally silent and I was fighting back the tears, hopeful they (especially the 5) were getting the message.
“I struggled to be perfect for a long time – a very long time. The more elusive it became, the harder I tried to track it down. And then, one day, I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I was never going to be perfect – that making mistakes is just part of being human, that all of us make them – I make them, you make them, Mrs. Blackwell makes them, your friends and classmates make them, (whispering) even your parents make them. I also realized that making a mistake is not the end of the world, that it’s actually an important part of learning and that being willing to make a mistake is necessary for us to take chances in life – unafraid that things might not work out the way we hope they will or might not work out at all. Recognizing that we’re imperfect also makes it a lot easier to be humble, to reach out to others for help instead of feeling like we should be able to do everything perfectly all by ourselves. Most importantly, knowing that we’re just as ‘good’ at making mistakes as everyone else makes it possible for us to ask others for forgiveness when those mistakes cause hurt and more willing to forgive those who in their own imperfection fall short of our expectations or hurt us.”
“But, here’s the KEY: Mistakes can only do all of those great things if we let them – if, instead of beating ourselves up every time we make one, instead of allowing every mistake we make to convince us that we’re a “failure,” that we’re “stupid,” “that we can’t doing anything right,” instead of letting others use them as weapons against us, we see them for what they are – a MISTAKE (“mis•take – verb \mə-‘stāk\ to understand (something or someone) incorrectly; to make a wrong judgment about (something)”) and use them for what they were intended: To grow and become stronger! I know that’s a lot easier to SAY than it is to DO – believe me, I know. It took me nearly 40 years to do it – 40 years of racing around like a greyhound trying to catch an electronic rabbit (perfection) that I was never going to catch, because it doesn’t exist! I don’t want you to spend 40 years of your life doing that. In fact, I don’t want you to spend another 40 minutes doing it. I want you to love YOU for who YOU are – imperfections and all – and I want you to encourage your friends AND YOUR PARENTS to do the same!”