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Winning and Losing

In Search of a Perfect Record: The Price of Trying to Be ‘The Best’

By Shawn Healy

In the competitive world of law, it is not uncommon to feel (consciously or unconsciously) that failure is not an option. However, the quest for perfection is a double-edged sword. While striving toward it can motivate us to improve, perfection is never the 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.

Dreaded ‘What Ifs’ Behind Chasing the Perfect Record

In the bluntest of terms, you can never achieve perfection — you can only fool yourself (and perhaps others) into thinking you have come close. 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.

So, what if you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t fear failure, I just really like the idea of being perfect”? Again, it’s not possible. Besides, if it were possible to achieve perfection, you would lose all your friends. Who wants to be friends with a person who cannot understand their struggles and experiences? Relationships are all about connection, understanding and acceptance.

OK, Back to Reality

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. But 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 a character flaw. They are persistent, driven and focused. (Not to mention that they also have the world’s sharpest fingernails. I have the scars to prove it, so beware.)

Smartest Person in the Room — or the Grittiest?

Author and psychology professor Angela Duckworth would describe this as “grit.” According to Duckworth, grit is “a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal.” And it turns out that the most common quality among high achievers is not intelligence or talent: It’s grit. 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 (unless you’re Stephen Hawking, who seems to have both).

With any formidable goal, effort is needed to overcome a set of obstacles along the way. This is how we develop resilience and grit. They cannot be developed in a vacuum. To be strengthened, they require resistance.

So, adopt the perspective of a scientist or inventor. 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?)

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

So, get “gritty” and embrace failure instead of fearing it.

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Shawn Healy Shawn Healy

Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist with Massachusetts Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc. (LCL). He runs stress management groups for law firms and provides training sessions on time and stress management to bar associations, solo attorneys and law firms. A frequent writer on the topics of conflict resolution, anxiety management, resilience and work-life balance, he is a contributor to the LCL blog and tweets for @LCL_MassLawyers.

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