Life Lessons: Success Is Letting Go of Perfection

I was disappointed when the sunset did not contain the brilliant colors it had displayed earlier in the week, as I stood on the icy shoreline of Lake Superior with camera in hand.  I thought, “Is this all?”  Seemingly flat colors, uninteresting cloud formations, no breathtaking moment as the sun dipped below the horizon.

lEarly Spring on the shores of Lake Superior

But, the longer I stood on the shoreline, the more I appreciated the “imperfect” scene.  I knelt on the hard-packed ice and snow to examine the delicate mounds formed by the water and wind, battling to keep hold as Spring fought to take over, and enjoyed the solitude for a time.

Early Spring on the shores of Lake Superior

As I sat and watched the changing light across the ice, I thought about conversations my oldest son and I have had in recent weeks, as the scores from his standardized college tests are revealed and he continues evaluating where he might be interested in applying to college in the Fall.  We are blessed in many ways — so blessed we are unlikely to receive any financial aid from colleges to help with expenses, and not so blessed that we can write  the check for private college tuition, room and board.  Closing that gap between the reputable public universities in Minnesota and neighboring Wisconsin, and the private college price tag if that is where he decides he wants to go, comes down to our son successfully competing for merit scholarships.

Early Spring on the shores of Lake Superior

We are proud of our son (OK, son #2, if you happen to actually ever come across this blog, we love you and are proud of you, too, but a post can only be so long) — he has done his job as a student, challenged himself with his coursework, is a competitive athlete and knows how to draw a bow across a string to produce a beautiful melody.  He also realizes that there are many others who will be applying to college with resumes just as impressive . . . which brings us back to standardized test scores.

When I learned of his ACT score, I was pretty darn impressed.  However, being the over-achieving first-born, his immediate reaction upon reviewing the score sheet was, “I can do better, I am going to take it again.”  Frankly, he does not have a lot of room for improvement, but while my husband and I are trying to support and help provide guidance through this process, we do not want to dictate.  So . .  . registration for another round of the ACT was completed, with SAT scores pending in the meantime.

Early Spring on the shores of Lake Superior

This week, the SAT scores were published, and he again did very well.  I gently suggested he just “leave it be.”  He was well within or above the upper half or top quartile of the statistics for schools he is considering at this point, and he meets the thresholds for most competitive scholarships.  We talked about what the numbers meant, we revisited our discussions regarding what he is seeking in a college environment, and what were his impressions of the schools he has visited thus far.  Is another point or two on the tests, when you already have crested the threshold most folks consider more than sufficient, going to truly be a game-changer?  Are you wanting to do it to seek another feather in your cap without really needing that feather?  Could your time be better spent elsewhere?

We had a similar discussion earlier in the year concerning an opportunity for a select talent-based group that would involve a significant amount of additional time investment his senior year.  I finally asked him — “Do you want to try to qualify for this opportunity for the sake of being able to tell people you are talented enough to do so, or because you actually want to spend the time doing that activity?”  It would mean taking time away from other activities, perhaps detracting from the level of performance he desired in those other areas.  I reminded him that leaving room for some fun and downtime as the year goes on is important, as well.

Early Spring on the shores of Lake Superior

So it goes with life, as we feel the pressure to climb ever higher on the career ladder, add another degree to our resume, lend our name to another non-profit or corporate Board of Directors . . . the list goes on.  Is that pursuing success, though, or pursuing society’s (or friend’s, family’s) concept of what success should be?  Life is about trade-offs.  We can perhaps have it all, just not at the same time.  Having it “all” or being a success is not always the corner office, not always the top box on the organizational chart.  In my office hangs a wooden sign on the wall with a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “Whatever you are, be a good one.”  To me, that is success.

Saying something is “good enough” is not always failing to realize your potential, sometimes it is recognizing that “good enough” is being the best you are, whatever you are, and being content with that.  Continually finding reasons for discontent, for imperfection, living life by a string of “if only” thoughts, is a great way to let life pass you by before you realize it is gone.  Even in high school, while we want our children to fully realize their talents and opportunities, setting goals and aspirations for the years beyond high school, we hopefully also want them to spend some time enjoying life now.  Life can quickly become a treadmill of expectations, with that perfect concept of “success” always just out of reach.  Step off the treadmill once in a while, maybe even explore the road less traveled, and help your children learn to do the same.

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” ~ Anna Quindlen

Ciao! ~ Kat

14 thoughts on “Life Lessons: Success Is Letting Go of Perfection

  1. C Howland

    A huge life lesson that many never realize….and which often leads to the not being willing to even try due to the fear the outcome will not be perfect. To all of us with our human imperfections. Love C

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  2. Yes, yes, yes. I relate so much with your thoughts here, Kat. Our egos and our society urge us to try harder, try harder. (Our son took his ACT twice, too.) Not saying that is bad, but wishing we humans might relax a little more. Or perhaps it’s an age related thing? As we get older we realize that now it’s time to start realizing the gifts of “enough”.

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  3. Another wonderful post! As someone who used to think being a perfectionist was a strength versus what I now consider a weakness, I enjoyed this post. I’ve often dreamed of writing a book about being average and what a liberating experience it has been for me!

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    1. Thank you, Lucinda — sometimes suggesting we are content with where we are for now or forever seems to some to be settling for less, when it can often be the right thing for not only us but also those around us.

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  4. You not only decided the evening light was “good enough” – you found unexpected beauty all around. And went one better – you came up with this wonderfully thoughtful post that ties in so well to your search for the perfect sunset. Kudos!

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  5. Your post was like reading a preview of our future! All the same challenges and difficult choices coming right around the corner for us. I didn’t have a fraction of these choices growing up, which I see now as both a detriment and a blessing. I look forward to learning from your excellent example!

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