How Not To Let Perfectionism Steal Your Joy

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Perfection is a topic that’s been coming up a lot lately. We want the “perfect” house that we saw on Pinterest, the “perfect” cake to post to Instagram, the “perfect” comment to wittily and supportively share in a Facebook group.

No, this isn’t a post about social media and perfection. It’s about Indianapolis 500, perfection, and joy. Hang with me here.

As an Indiana native, I have been a race fan for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, my parents would have an Indianapolis 500 party over Memorial Day weekend almost every year. We’d go all out with themes, decorations, great food (of course), and require each guest to play Indy 500 trivia. Each one would attempt to answer the most Indy 500 trivia questions and then taking their turn guessing who might be the winner, the 2nd and 3rd place finishers, the leader of the most laps, and the car to be “first out.”

There was always excitement in the air, and on race day, I was usually cheering on driver Johnny Rutherford while listening to the race on the radio, regardless of who I’d picked to win or take 2nd or 3rd places.

These days, I spend the majority of my Memorial Day weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway helping a friend in the media capture fan-worthy moments by photo and video with Indy racing legends like Mario Andretti, current race car drivers and their teams, and celebrities.

I think that it’s fair to say that I see the race festivities from a different perspective from most fans. I’m in the pits and on the track itself, looking up at the crowds instead of down at the course. Standing right next to the cars and the drivers as they prepare to start their engines, instead of four stories above and a half mile away.

The motor speedway is massive and I am just a little speck on the “grid” (as some refer to the track) to most fans in the stands.

From my perspective, I see the details on the cars, personalities of the car owners, and nervousness in the eyes of some drivers as they put on their helmets and squeeze into their cars.

I see anxious wives and sweaty pit crews where the average fan in the stands sees what look like miniature people moving around on pavement and plenty of color.

It’s amazing to me how much our visual perspectives impact our emotional ones, just how much they are intertwined.

When I used to sit in the grandstand as a spectator, I was emotionally moved to tears by the traditional songs playing over the loudspeakers and the sheer (massive!) size of the venue I was sitting in.

But when I’m on the grid, I’m focused on watching a driver thank each of his pit crew members before he gets in his car. My favorite songs on the loud speaker are passing without notice.

There’s no doubt that the little details in front of me have my full attention and my ability to see the “bigger picture” is almost lost.

Clearly, the things that I focus my attention on in front of me seem to have an impact on how I feel. My visual perception informs my emotional perspective.

So what does all this have to do with perfection? Good question.

When we are immersed in the details of things (like I am when I’m standing on the race track), our brains have a tendency to believe that we can (and should!) be able to completely control our environment.

For those of us who like order and certainty, we look at the world around us through the “lens” of perfectionism. 

We expect perfection, notice little things that aren’t going perfectly right or don’t look perfect. Little things, like a person shoving his way around us in order to meet David Letterman. There may be 99 beautiful balloons sailing across the sky at this same moment, but we have our attention focused on ONE THING: our fury at the guy who just shoved us for the sake of an autograph. Fury = 10, Joy = 0.

This is a small example, but in reality, this happens all of the time to all of us at work, at home, and at play — if we don’t catch it.

This realization hit me like a yard of bricks (there’s a witty pun here if you are an Indy car fan) when I listened to the media interviews of each of the top drivers at the end of the race.

These men just finished a legendary race, one that many drivers didn’t even qualify for. A race where a number of their fellow drivers crashed out of before the finish. A race where one driver’s crash during practice nearly cost him his life.

They will receive money and racing points and they are alive to race another day.

In other words, with the larger perspective (similar to my view of the race from the grandstand), there are plenty of reasons for every one of them to be very happy with their races.

But the reality is this: that larger perspective is not the perspective that’s in front of them, so they miss it completely.

They are in racing suits crammed in a little car going at speeds over 220 MPH for 500 miles. The car doesn’t handle like they expect, they have to take a pit stop they don’t expect, or their teammate’s car is just that much faster on the final lap.

And if they expect perfection – AKA: winning 1st place – this adds another lens onto their already “tight” perspective.

Here’s what the top five drivers of a recent race had to say…

From the winner, Juan Pablo Montoya, “Oh my god, that was awesome! I don’t even know what to say.”

From the 2nd place finisher, Will Power, “Anywhere else I’d be happy with second, but here it sucks.”

From the 3rd place finisher, Charlie Kimball, “It was a blast. The guys worked really hard on the car all month.”

From the 4th place finisher, Scott Dixon, “I was in a good position at the last restart but just didn’t have enough … there was nothing there.”

From the 5th place finisher, Graham Rahal, “I’m really, really proud of these guys, all the effort they continue to put it. I mean, once again today, the top Honda.”

What struck me about these comments, and these drivers’ reactions to the end of the race overall, was how some were thrilled and some are devastated. And it didn’t have to do with the order that they finished.

At the end of the day, when they expected to win, they were disappointed. Those that didn’t expect to win, or believed their car wasn’t strong enough to win, were happy with their finish.

It’s unfortunate for Will Power that he wanted to win so badly that his expectation stole the joy of his amazing 2nd place finish.

But here’s the truth: we have all been Will Power, likely multiple times a day. We let the perspective that’s right in front of us inform how we feel, and then we add that expectation of perfection lens on top, just to make sure we never appreciate anything but the best. Misery = 10, Joy = 0.

How Not To Let Perfectionism Steal Your Joy

So how do we keep ourselves from slipping into “Will Power mode”? These three tips are easy to keep in mind and to practice daily. It just takes a little intentional focus to go from perfectionism to joyfulness. 

Keep an eye on your GOALS.

Goals can be great and help us to move forward. But often times, we get way too wrapped up in them. They turn into “expectations of perfection.”

We create goals and then if we aren’t looking, they turn into a switch we beat ourselves with.

Goals that help you envision possibility and excite you can be helpful.

When you are devastated that you don’t reach a goal, it might be the first clue that your goal took a turn towards a “perfect expectation.” Instead of getting down, turn your attention to what you can control and assess how you did from that perspective.

Notice WHERE you’re focused.

Stress is often a sign that you are currently focused on a narrow perspective. You are looking at and reacting to what’s directly in front of you. You can’t see the forest for the trees, as they say.

By noticing what you are focusing on in your external environment, you can extract yourself from that perspective and find a new one.

So, if you are stressed out in a meeting because the woman to your right is driving you nuts, try imagining you are looking down on the meeting room from the ceiling. What new insights can you gain from widening your perspective? Or sit in the desk of the CEO and look down on your meeting. What can you see from his chair that you can’t see from your own?

Widen your perspective and you will almost always recover some of your joy.

Gravitate to Gratitude.

Sometimes the joy has been sucked right out of you and you can’t even see far enough to know why.

It’s time to pull out a little gratitude therapy. It works much better than chocolate and can pull you out of the swamp you have just landed yourself in.

What can you be thankful for in this very moment?

Stand up at your desk and shout (yes, out loud). Activate your feeling of joy from a place of gratitude. If you can’t shout it from the rooftops, go into the restroom and whisper them softly to yourself or take out a piece of paper (even in a meeting) and start writing them down.

“I am thankful for….” “I am thankful that…”

The more you write the higher you will be lifted. And who knows, your whole perspective might just change in an instant. 

Where are you feeling stress today? It could be a sign that you’re too focused in. Shift your energy back to goals you can control and start feeling gratitude, even for that meeting you’re stuck in.

And tell me, what’s one thing that’s making you feel joyful right now?

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