Saturday, February 4, 2017

How does Perfectionism interfere with Learning?

“Successful Failure?”

Looking for the "perfect" piece of brisket?
ASAP BBQ got it, once!

What does "Successful Failure" mean for educators, parents and people that work to motivate lead and inspire others?

How often does it happen?  A student tries a problem but can’t figure it out on the first try so he gives up.  Or, she writes an essay with too many red marks on her page and never writes again, while struggling with self-esteem.  Or, he struggles playing catch so he quits the ball team, even though he can hit. Or, she has a bit of peer conflict, trying to compromise on what game to play and pouts, adding more strain to the tender relationship. All these little scenarios get played out over and over as we grow up and students failing to learn these coping skills carry the deficiency long into adolescence, and even adulthood.  As educators, how can we teach our learners how to overcome the discouragement, letdown and often times, self-inflicted pain of perceived failure? Below are a few possible interventions, supports and techniques for building up persistent learners.

·        Encourage play, especially play involving choices, decisions, play acting and characters.  Early forms of empathy come from the ability to see the world through the eyes of others and acting out, voicing stuffed animals, dolls, characters and even imaginary friends all have their place in a child’s developmental growth.  Even little cars, although often crashing, help children with fine motor skills, competition and organizational planning. Leagues that play games, without keeping score do well as the children are developing their skills, but once the fundamentals are mastered, objective scores become a necessity.
Building Dolls out of Corn Husks IS NOT A SCIENCE but an art.
Trying to make these perfect will only lead to frustration.  
·        Recognize your child’s response to quotes such as “perfect,” “right,” or “not good enough,” and AVOID the critical, leaving the perfectionism for the professionals. While still young, children have an intrinsic instinct to try and please their adult caregivers, but when their efforts are “never good enough,” discouragement leads to impending insecurities. Doubts and poor self-talk festers into a struggling self-esteem.  Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon, writes about a patient, also a salesmen, that thought he needed an “ear job” before he could really sell.  Dr. Maltz counseled him into changing his way of thinking first. Maltz’s book Positive Psycho Cybernetics admonishes us to think only good thoughts about ourselves and adjusting our thoughts sufficiently supports growth and advancement better than plastic surgery. The salesmen thought his productivity was tied to directly to his physical appearance but was able to achieve his goals, without a costly and purely cosmetic surgery.

·        Consider balancing the positive and negative comments realizing the importance of the words we use to offer suggestion, praise, and even critique.  Scientists proclaim the negative in our brain is like Velcro and the positive slides out like Teflon.  A child remembers the negative comments, sarcasm and jabs, far easier than the positive feedback so sparsely doled out for a “home run.” Science tells us our brains focus on the details of the negative far more than we replay the positive events, actually diminishing the actual positive event.  School centered initiatives often tout the need for teachers to share four positive comments for every single negative comment with the students.  Thus a student hearing sarcasm frequently internalizes the message into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Yes, the “funny” part of teasing contains a kernel of truth and the recipient remembers the feeling when the jab is made.  Retaliation, getting back at and coping take precedence.  Learning is stifled.  No longer safe or secure from ridicule, a learner shuts down and avoids the pain by avoiding the attempt.  The antecedent leads to the behavior and suffering consequences. The results of failure are greater than the rewards of success.  Recognize these trappings of perfectionism, its causes, and early signs to arrange for the necessary re-teaching and redirecting.  A child overly critical of himself becomes his own worst enemy.
The Jewel Box in St Louis Forest Park grows some fabulous specimens, but are they "perfect?"
I doubt it!
·        Caring adults should model successful failure. “Successful failure” sounds like an oxymoron but it is vital to growth, mastery and development. Just like a skier that NEVER tries a harder slope will plateau and never get better, learners need to push themselves to the point of failure.  Good leading demonstrates this cycle by showing pupils how to recover after failure.  For instance, a teacher may make mistakes deliberately but subtly to recover and progress forward.  The learning cycle repeats indefinitely. 
§  Try something new
§  Fail at this new venture
§  Try again by making minor adjustments (Frequently repeated and called learning)
§  Succeed and celebrate the breakthrough
§  Repeat the entire cycle at the next level
Video games are built on the premise that giving players the chance to try again keeps them advancing, through a series of increasingly difficult levels. Persistence, grit and determination, although somewhat intrinsic can be developed with motivation and positive feedback based on the student as a worker, esteemed because of effort and not just because of talent.  For instance, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.  Likewise, classrooms should be filled with this learning cycle where students are failing up, trying, gathering suggestive and constructive aligning feedback, void of sarcasm.  Offering a critique is not the same as being critical.

               Teachers, counselors, care-givers, managers and others striving to lead are on a quest for motivated, persistent and gritty individuals. These good leaders manage the risks of the team aligning ability, talent and effort with encouragement, motivation and a safe environment. By advancing the level of difficulty with experience, pushing to improve without crippling, handcuffing or expecting perfectionism from him or others, a good leader, is also a good manager, overcoming “I can’t” with “I can’t, YET!”  The fear of failing should not exist!

Even Calvin Coolidge faced this when he assembled this quote in 1929:
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence.
Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts.
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
Calvin Coolidge

How can we overcome, “I Can’t!” in our pupils? 
With the Power of "YET"

Perfectionism is…?
Detrimental and interferes with learning!

Compare and contrast the following cycles:
“Try, Fail, Quit!”
“Try, Fail, Try Again, Fail, And Succeed?”

How can we teach persistence, grit, tenacity and determination? 
Teach and model overcoming adversity!

BrainyQuote, 2017. (2001). Calvin Coolidge quotes. Retrieved February 4, 2017, from

Garson. (2016, January 12). Quote investigator. Retrieved February 4, 2017, from

Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. FROM THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS, 119(1), 182–191. doi:10.1542/peds.2006-2697

Hanson, R. (2001, June 1). 01 Jun take in the good. Retrieved February 4, 2017, from

Maltz, M. PSYCHO- CYBERNETICS, A new way to get more living out of life. Retrieved from

Stuart-Kotze, R. (2008, October 23). Why failure means success. Retrieved February 4, 2017, from