you had a bad day

What I Didn’t Know About Embracing Imperfection

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In January, I challenged myself to spend 30 days acknowledging, accepting, and welcoming my most imperfect moments. For awhile, The Imperfection Challenge was smooth sailing. I was starting to think that a bump in the road would not get me down.

Then I hit a bump in the road. A minor dip, really. I spent a great deal of time planning a presentation, only to forget the necessary materials on the day I presented. The teachers in the meeting had to scramble to find what we needed—the materials I was clearly designated to bring– to continue on with the work. As wasted time ticked by mercilessly, this small blunder morphed into a chorus of steadily rising voices in my head. And even though we eventually accomplished our goals, the thoughts came anyway:

You are wasting people’s time.

The people who respect you are changing their minds.

You are a non-essential member of this team.

After the presentation, I racked my brain. I’m supposed to enjoy my failures this month! Remember the imperfection experiment, I thought to myself. Accept the meeting and be okay with the mistake.

Well, it turns out that embracing imperfection is easy until things actually start going wrong.

And that’s when I realized I had it all wrong. Embracing imperfection shouldn’t be about turning our mistakes into something closer to our original expectations. In fact, that approach defeats the whole purpose of the imperfection challenge. My misconceptions about being imperfect did not stop there.

I was camouflaging imperfections, not embracing them.

I’ll be honest. In the first few drafts of this post, I was trying to put a positive spin on all of my bad days of January. That awkward training, the day I was two minutes to just about everything, the conference application that got denied. I was going to point out all of the benefits of failing and convince you (and myself) how wonderful it feels to fail.

It doesn’t usually feel wonderful at all. And anyway, why was I always trying to rewrite the script? Things go wrong. Period.

Looking for some insight, I did some reading about wabi-sabi, the Japanese art of finding the beauty in a naturally flawed world. Under this belief, the most beautiful objects are irregularly shaped, uneven, and split with cracks. Life is revered in its most natural, simplistic state. It isn’t about coming to terms with the flaws or being happy despite of them. Instead, the beauty is found in the flaws themselves.

I liked the idea of being able to just exist in my discomfort, letting it settle around me. It’s common, acceptable, and so very human to make mistakes. And besides, it takes so much energy to hide all of it so no one can see.

Maybe we need to stop camouflaging the flaws in our own messy leadership.

I forgot other people fail, too.

It’s important that we recognize our own imperfections and allow ourselves mercy and grace. However, to offer that to someone else is a true exemplar of leadership. In our efforts to improve the way we handle our own imperfections, we can’t overlook the fact that it is just as important to embrace the imperfections that are not our own.

How do we view others in the stormy wake of their mistakes? Perhaps this is the hardest challenge for a leader. You can always look away from your own reflection, but you can’t lead without taking action on behalf of others. How we choose to do this for others can be the difference between someone who fails and moves on, and someone who believes they are a failure.

I didn’t account for the fear factor. 

There were plenty of imperfect moments that I didn’t experience in January because I didn’t allow myself the opportunity to faiI. I let fear keep me “safe.”

Fear of speaking up, fear of being too passionate, fear of being wrong in the end. (And this last one has a way of quietly dissolving my convictions, bit by bit.)

It doesn’t matter how comfortable we are embracing our imperfections if we are too scared to let ourselves fail in the first place. I think about the blog post I didn’t write, the hand I didn’t raise, the risk I didn’t take. I wish these things, potential failures or not, were a part of my January.

Here are some strategies to manage fear so that you don’t miss another opportunity to be imperfect.

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So while I clearly failed my imperfection experiment, I guess that was the point along. To get it wrong, to make the mistakes (or be too afraid to make them), to be a regularly operating human in this world and to sometimes be uncomfortable about it. These fears and imperfections–they were a part of our January, and they will be a part of our February, March and April too. They definitely aren’t going anywhere. I was misguided to think embracing my flaws would make them go away.

Take a seat, imperfections. Go ahead and make yourself feel at home.

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3 reasons why

3 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Start a Blog (and Why We Ignored Them)

3 reasons why“Sometimes when we dare to walk into the arena, the greatest critic we face is ourselves.”

~Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly

When you finally decide to venture into the arena, you walk a very fine line between courage and panic. Here I am, an almost-leader, thinking I have enough experience about leadership to write about it–and actually hit publish. In the weeks leading up to the start of this journey, the critic inside my head was relentless.

I tried to silence the critic by reminding myself why I am here. I thought about the many hidden leaders in education. I wanted to give them a voice. I was excited by the idea that we could call others to leadership by writing about it as something that absolutely can, and always will be, imperfect. Still, the doubt, fear, and excuses flooded in. It felt easier not to hit publish at all.

It turns out that I was not alone in my self-doubt. When I listened carefully to the dedicated educators around me, I heard things like this:

“There are so many better candidates for that position. I don’t think I’m going to apply.”

“I just don’t feel like what I’m doing is making a difference.”

“I’m not strong enough/smart enough/tall enough to be a leader.”

(Actually, “tall enough” came from me. I’m 4’11 and I used to think this all the time.)

And then a mentor of mine who works outside of the teaching profession shared a confession with me: She said she has always wanted to start her own business, but it was on her “I want to, but I’m too chicken” list. I couldn’t stop thinking about that. How many of us have a list like this? How long are these lists? Why do they even exist?

So many of us feel insecure, inexperienced…and imperfect. Maybe this is the reason so many leaders remain hidden in the first place. There were endless reasons to avoid starting this blog. Here are the three that whisper in my ear the loudest and why I (all of us) should stop listening:

  1. Nobody will read it/approve/support your work/care.

This might be true. However, I like to think of that well-known phrase that was adapted from the movie Field of Dreams. “If you build it, they will come.” Except my own personal adaptation goes like this:

If you build it, they might come, and even if they don’t, at least you’ve built something.

Success is about getting started, not about lack of failure. This reminds me of my painfully slow 5K when I first started running. I jogged into the finish line while the race organizers were cleaning up the refreshment table. I was deeply embarrassed by this until a friend noticed my shame. She asked, “Do you know how many people are still sleeping?”

Get started. That’s all that matters.

 Shorten your chicken list: Reframe how you look at criticism. Instead of letting it define you, celebrate the fact that you pushed your limits. You will not get criticized or rejected when you stay inside your comfort zone.

      2.  Your ideas will not inspire others.

Drew Dudley, founder of Everyday Leadership, has a very down-to-earth perspective on what it means to be a leader. His TED talk on Everyday Leadership explains how simple it really is to make a difference. We may be overlooking and devaluing the impact we have on others. He said, “We’ve made leadership about changing the world, and there is no world. There’s only six billion understandings of it.”

Of those 6 or so billion, you only need to change one. If you can inspire one student to feel like an author, one colleague to try teaching for another year, one administrator to stick with a vision even when it gets difficult, then according to Dudley, “You’ve changed the whole thing.”

Shorten your chicken list: Pull out your “feel good” folder, and if you don’t have one, start one now. Keep every letter of thanks, student card, principal compliment, or parent email that celebrates your everyday leadership. Reread them anytime you need a reminder that inspiring others is not something that is beyond you.

       3.  You might fail.

I used to have this misconception that leaders had all the answers. You have to know what you are talking about. All the time. What does it even mean to know enough, to be good enough? Nobel prize winner physicist, Niels Bohr, defines an expert as “…someone who has made all possible mistakes in one field and there are no more to make.”

I don’t think I’ve heard a more appealing invitation to fail over and over again. If we look at mistakes as the necessary training for expert status, we might stop trying so hard to avoid them.

Shorten your chicken list: Before you take action, predict three potential ways you can fail. Say them out loud, and then ask yourself, “If I make these mistakes, what is the worst that could happen?” The answer to this question might surprise you.

If you wait until you are fully ready for something, you will never get started. This isn’t about creating a blog, being a writer, or even leadership. It’s about starting. Imperfection is guaranteed. Take one thing from your “I really want to but I’m just too chicken” list and do it anyway.

Is there something that you’ve always wanted to do—but haven’t yet? Tell us about it! Your first step starts right now.

 

Ali

Ali

I am a lifelong educator on a mission to start believing in myself. I write to inspire others to abandon perfection and lead anyway. I am attempting this daily at home as a mom with three toddlers in Berlin, Maryland.
Ali

 

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