"In our culture, we make it feel like you’re either a success or a failure- and that if you fail, that’s it. But it’s just not true. Everyone loves a comeback.”
The pursuit of perfectionism is a losing game, and I should know because I've been playing it most of my life. I still like to think that I can help it, that one day I’ll grow out of this tendency. I realize that's partly where the problem lies. Some of what makes us who we are is hard-wired. We don't simply grow out of it. Just as I must accept my imperfection, I must also accept that I might never shake the desire to get as close to perfect as I possibly can-- even to my own detriment.
So how then do I make room for failure-- my own failings and those of people around me? Shocking as it may be: I have no perfect answer, but here’s what I’m learning are keys to falling in love with failure and breaking up with perfectionism.
Forgive yourself quickly and generously.
The initial reflex of a recovering perfectionist after recognizing that they’ve failed is to self-punish or to want to find someone else to blame and then punish. I’m the foremost of offenders. It sometimes takes me days to recover from a blunder. I analyze every aspect of the decision or interaction. I rehash it with one of my #DayOnes. My husband ends up hearing it about it, sometimes my mama too. What’s holding me back in that moment from applying my new learning productively is my inability to forgive myself quickly, to be as generous with myself as I would be with anyone else. It costs me time, energy (and as a business owner) money. I’m learning to cut it out, and I’m doing so with the support of a community of peers, advisors and coaches who help me stay focused on the big picture, and not all of the day-to-day failures that are inevitable. I give myself a reasonable amount of time to “grieve” the loss of face (because let’s be real: that's often what it comes down to, embarrassment over feeling exposed). When my time us up, I pull it together and get back to work. My goal is to need less and less time for this recovery, but I’m a work-in-progress; and part of this is accepting my own messiness.
Invite critique often and openly.
It’s especially important for those of us attached to the delusion of our own exceptionalism to create room for others to burst our bubble from time-to-time. It is too easy to forget that just because we show up brilliantly lots of the time, doesn’t mean we’re not showing up poorly other times. Unfortunately, off-days and fumbles may make a lasting impression that is difficult to reverse. Ultimately, we cannot control what anyone else thinks about us, and it is pointless to try. Still, it’s necessary to be aware, reflective and open to critique. As entrepreneurs, we spend so much time in our own heads dreaming, planning, imagining what’s possible for the future that we can sometimes lose sight of what is happening in the right now. There’s real value in hearing from our team, our clients, our partners (even our family), and really anyone who experiences us on a regular basis. We need others to tell us the truth, and for that to happen, we need them to genuinely believe that we want to hear it.
Take things only as personally as you need to.
If someone shares helpful criticism with you that points out a character flaw or personal blindspot, then by all means, work to change. Reach out to a trusted friend, an executive coach or colleague who can help you see the situation with fresh eyes and less emotion than you’re likely bringing to the table. We each have the capacity to improve unsavory traits, and we each have them. If someone points out, though, a glitch in a process that you’re leading or questions the efficacy or validity of your methods, don’t conflate or confuse that feedback with an indictment of your character. Take things only as personally as you need to. Don’t be tone deaf and don’t try to interpret another’s words. Take what they say at face value, and always with a grain of salt. I’ve found John C. Maxwell’s rules for “failing forward” helpful reminders for how to productively leverage failures without falling into patterns of blame or stagnation.
Learn from the failures of others.
If you’re failing at something, you’re probably not the first person or the last person to do so. We will all fail at some point, but some failures are absolutely preventable if we pay attention, ask the right questions and take good advice. Before embarking on a new initiative, launching a new product or exploring some new opportunity, do your research. Seek out others in your network and ask them what their most recent failures have been and what they’ve learned. Make it an intentional practice to ask peers and mentors what they’re working to improve and how they’re going about it. These conversations require earnestness, candor and courage, and maybe even a bit more time. These conversations, though, are an investment in your long-term success. More than that, your humility and commitment to growth will leave an impression on others, and they’ll become (or stay) your champions, even when you fail.
Danielle Kristine Toussaint, founder + CEO of She Thinks Purple, is a storyteller, strategist and social impact leader. She has been the writing pen behind op-eds and speeches for Huffington Post, Forbes.com, and TEDx. Danielle holds a B.A. in Political Science and African American Studies from Yale University and a M.S.Ed from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. She’s a founding member of Tide Risers and excited to expand the network to Washington, D.C. in 2019. She recently completed #BFFLabs: Black Female Founders Pre-Accelerator.