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Overcoming Perfectionism: How Lawyers + Law Students Can Use Failure

Overcoming Perfectionism: How Lawyers + Law Students Can Use Failure

In the competitive world of law, it is not uncommon to feel (consciously or unconsciously) that failure is not an option. Still, perfection is impossible to achieve, and fearing failure will limit your growth and learning.

While striving toward it can motivate us to improve, perfection is not a helpful goal. For perfection to serve a useful purpose, it must be a direction, not a destination. Having a direction helps us to continually move, grow, learn and improve. Arriving at a destination requires us to stop moving.

FEARING FAILURE: AN OBSTACLE

You can never achieve perfection, and focusing on the impossible is counterproductive. You might be able to achieve the appearance of something close to perfection, e.g. being perceived as consistently superior by external measures — which is a similarly unhelpful goal. Failure is critical to internal growth. Putting perfection first limits your ability to learn.

Those who unabashedly pursue perfection are usually those who have the greatest fear of failure. It is this fear of failure that drives them, and making decisions based on fear will always have more downsides than upsides. Fear and anxiety are all about the future — the dreaded “what if” questions that make our stomachs turn into butterfly thunderdomes and force us to miss out on the actual learning moment, the present moment. Living in reaction to a feared imaginary future will steal your happiness and contentment in life.

Why do so many of us fear failure? In large part, it comes down to our perceptions. If we perceive failure to represent a character flaw, or to be a sign of weakness, then we will fear the effects of failure. However, if we perceive it in a positive light (such as, it is how we have learned everything we know how to do in life), failure suddenly loses some of its sting.

When we fear failure, we devalue failure. And failure is the most effective way to learn. Think of a child trying to walk for the first time. Learning to walk involves failing repeatedly on a daily basis for weeks, maybe months. Infants don’t perceive failure as wrong — it’s just necessary to develop a basic survival skill. Find more on how to accept and learn from failure more effectively here. You can’t learn from failure without exposing yourself to the feared outcome.

If you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t fear failure, I just really like the idea of being perfect,” explore what makes “perfection” attractive to you. If you desire to excel at a task, skill, project, or goal — even all the tasks, skills, projects, and goals — you need to embrace an imperfect path. In her new-ish Netflix special on vulnerability, acclaimed researcher Brene Brown explains that in her consulting work, professionals are quick to say something to the effect of “I’m willing to risk failure,” to which she replies, “To really succeed, you’re not going to risk failure — you’re actually going to fail.” You need to accept actual failure — not just a risk you avoid with all your energy.

STRIVING FOR SUCCESS: GROWTH MINDSET + GRIT

Valuing outcome over process can discourage us from taking on new opportunities that involve risk of struggle and failure. Any formidable goal requires effort to overcome the obstacles along the way. Pursuing perfectionism can deter us from taking on new, rewarding challenges. We develop resilience and grit through resistance — and an appreciation for its value — termed a growth mindset by psychology professor and researcher Carol Dweck. When we adopt the perspective of a scientist or inventor it can help us to see every unsuccessful attempt as a steppingstone toward eventual success. There’s a reason four out of five American households have a can of WD-40 in their cabinet and not a can of WD-1. The inventor had 39 failed attempts at the formula, and then, voila! Success. (And thankfully he persisted. If he hadn’t, what would I use to fix 98 percent of my household problems?)

It turns out that the most common quality among high achievers is not nearness to perfection, intelligence or talent: It’s grit. Another psychology professor and author Angela Duckworth studies grit, which she defines as “a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal.” Many people, if given the choice, would choose to be the smartest person in the room. Yet research finds that the smartest person in the room will be outperformed by the one with the most grit.

The difference between just wanting to be excellent in something versus perfectionism is discussed in a podcast episode titled Lessons from a Recovering Perfectionist. Around minute 23, Dr. Vickie Bhatia explains that “if we’re focused externally, that’s the perfectionism — so if we’re focused on how other people see us — whether that’s praise or criticism — that’s a very different process than being internally focused and thinking about how do I do better for myself next time, or how do I keep learning or striving or moving forward on this journey.” And around minute 19, she discusses how that can tie into imposter syndrome.

Perfectionism is isolating, and the legal profession is the most isolating profession. If it were possible to achieve perfection, you would lose the ability to relate to others and the ability to keep friends. Who wants a friend who cannot understand their struggles and experiences? Relationships are all about connection, understanding and acceptance.

Developing a pattern of focusing on how others perceive you limits your own capacity to relate and learn. It can help to have professional support when first refocusing on self-acceptance and personal values. Lawyers and law students in Massachusetts can schedule a Free & Confidential consultation with one of our licensed clinicians. Find more on scheduling here.

When you perceive failure as an essential part of the learning process and develop grit toward the goals you set in your life, you will be surprised at what you can achieve. It won’t be perfection, but it will likely feel much better than being the smartest person in the room.

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This post was updated from a previous post by Shawn Healy, PhD, which was originally published by Attorneyatwork.com in November 2017.

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