What's Wrong With Getting It Right?

The perils of trying to be perfect

Posted May 03, 2013

1 plus 1
From the time I can remember the measurement of “success” was doing whatever it was I was doing “right”. Questions had only one “right” answer and my job was to find that answer and hold onto it. When I was small, the questions were easy. One plus one had a “right” answer.

As I grew older the questions grew more complex. Simple answers were hard to come by but “right” answers were still required. I remember learning to take standardized tests. Standardized tests have required answers. But while I was filling in the circle next to the required answer, I often knew full well that if I considered the question more broadly and more seriously the required answer did not make sense. It was too simplistic. Learning to give the required answers on a test is a skill unto itself, often having little to do with accuracy.

The relentless requirement to “get it right” in a world full of complexity is a form of tyranny. And like all tyranny it is merciless. Having to “get it right” presumes that it's both possible and desirable to figure out an ultimate, all-inclusive, and unique solution. And we can't rest until we do. We believe that we have no other viable choice. If we don't "get it right", someone else will beat us to it. And then, heaven forbid, we will be “wrong.”

What ever happened to doing something well?

There is a difference - quite a substantial difference in fact - in doing something well and insisting that we have to do something “right.” When we let go of “right” and do our best to do something well, to be as skillful as we can, we ecounter a cascade of merciful and useful benefits.

Benefit One: We are not, and never will be "perfect". To be “right” is to be perfect. Perfect, a theoretical concept having no real corollary in our lived experience, is a finished state, complete, over, final. To be perfect does not allow for life and growth. The more I practice doing something well, the more my skillfulness grows. I hope I am not finished growing. Growing is fun.

Benefit Two: Doing something well includes an invitation for others to join us. There is room. There can be competition for sure. Many people find competition exhilarating. Some do not. But whether or not we are competitive, when others join us, there is the opportunity for collaboration. We find camaraderie, new ideas and the acknowledgement that we are not alone.

Benefit Three: There is delight in the doing. It's nearly impossible to something well if we truly don't like it. We can grit our teeth and determine do something we soundly dislike and do it "right." But to bring our whole selves to bear and do something well requires our hearts to be engaged.

colored hands touching
Benefit Four: There is the opportunity for compassion. When we are doing the best that we can and not trying to be “right”, we reallize that each person we encounter, including ourselves, is living her life as skillfully as she can in that moment. And each has only so much time, energy, training, attention and peace of mind to devote to doing whatever he or she is doing.

Benefit Five: We actually perform better when we concentrate on doing something well rather than doing it “right”. We are less tense, more open to innovation, more creative, more aware of what surrounds us and the impact of that on our performance. When we are determined to “get it right” our focus is narrow.

Benefit Six: We learn to trust ourselves. When we stop being so judgmental of ourselves and celebrate our skillfulness, we live the truth of our lives and honor who we are. It’s difficult to trust ourselves when we can never hope to meet our own expectations.

Benefit Seven: Our relationships improve. I have watched the tyranny of the belief in getting it “right” cause grinding damage to the relationships between people who love one another. If we are trying to answer to the tyranny of “get it right”, we not only expect that we have to get it right, we believe our partners can and should too. And if they don't, we tell ourselves they aren't trying hard enough and maybe this is evidence that they don't really love us.

The mercilessness of getting it“right” versus doing something well becomes very evident when someone is ill or injured. Recovery is not something than can be “gotten right”. There is no “right.” Each person’s journey through recovery and adaptation is unique and ever changing. There is no fixed, absolute, standard answer. There is only creatively meeting the challenges in front of us. Each person who is healing is doing the best he can with the cards he is dealt. We can reach out to each other and help one another become more skillful in the way we work with ourselves, but we can never judge that someone is not “getting it right.”

And yet I have seen so many people frantically judging themselves while they could be using their attention and skillfulness to support their own healing. It’s painful to witness someone adding to their suffering in this way. The lesson is writ large as we witness a person struggling to learn to walk again. But watching that effort only makes what is true for all of us more easily seen. Let’s all give up “right” and celebrate our capacity to do whatever we are doing well.

About the Author

Alison Bonds Shapiro, M.B.A., works with stroke survivors and their families, and is the author of Healing into Possibility: the Transformational Lessons of a Stroke.

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