In the mid 1980’s at the Pennsylvania Medical Center there was a study on productivity and emotional health. It involved 150 salesmen with incomes ranging from $10,000 to $150,000. Forty percent of the salesmen proved to be perfectionists. They were very demanding of themselves. And with high expectations of high achievement, they were an “all or nothing” kind of people. For them, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right every time. But were they more successful? Surprisingly, the answer is “no.” Instead, they experienced much more anxiety and were much more easily depressed. But there was not one shred of evidence that they were earning any more money. In fact, discouragement and pressure hurt their productivity.
Another study at Penn State University examined gymnasts who had qualified for the Olympics. The study found that they were less likely to set perfectionist standards than those who had failed to qualify. The point? The successful athletes had accepted the fact that they didn’t always do it right. They learned from their mistakes and went on. For them, it was still worth doing, even though they didn’t always do it right.
Now, there is nothing wrong with high standards, or with an extra attention to detail and quality. But there is something fatal about being preoccupied with those few small items that never go right. You see, for the perfectionist, 99 is a failing grade. Any mistake is unacceptable. Every hair must be in place. And deep down inside, there is that constant, critical voice. It never rests. And each correction, each reminder of the one percent flaw fuels the anger that grows inside. Life becomes an obsession to fix the last problem. Eventually, the emotional drain saps the life. The spirit withers and dies. No more activity. No more trying. They would rather avoid the decision than risk the mistake.
Perhaps the old adage, “If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Right,” has not always been as helpful or as true as we thought. Not if I’m terrified by failure. Not if I’m paralyzed by perfection. Not if I measure my self-worth by my achievement. Not if 99 is a failing grade. Defined this way, it will never be worth doing, because I will never be able to do it exactly right.
Charlie Brown once said, “No problem is so awesome, so complicated, so fraught with danger, that the average citizen can’t run away from it.” And they do. So, I want to suggest a new form of the old adage …
“If its worth doing, its worth doing … poorly.”
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not down grading the pursuit of excellence. I’m not suggesting that we lower our standards. But I am saying that all our undertakings begin the same way – poorly. Let’s take walking for example. Tell me about your first step. Or hitting a ball, or learning to read, or write, or pray. It’s how parents teach their children. It’s how teachers encourage their students. It’s how coaches train their players. It’s how God nurtures his children.
Someone once said, “You have to go through shallow, to get to deep.” And so, if it’s worth doing, its worth starting, and when you start, and sometimes long afterwards, you will do it poorly. But keep doing it, because, “If it’s worth doing, its worth doing poorly.”