Why being imperfect is perfectly fine

By Rachael Stevens (@RCStevensYes)

This blogpost is based on my presentation from WomenEd in Sheffield in October, and at TLCWorcs18 on 3rd February.

I will hold my hands up right now and admit: I am NOT a perfectionist. My O’level art teacher once wrote in my school report: “Rachael has a rather slap-dash approach to her work in this subject.” I think that kind of sums up a fair bit about my approach to many things. It’s not that I don’t care: far from it. But it can sometimes seem that I don’t if things aren’t finished properly, so I’ve had to learn to be a better finisher. I have had to learn to be more organised; to be more consistent and to dot and cross the letters that need dotting and crossing. I know what high standards are and when they are needed. I knew I had to try harder not to seem ‘slapdash’ as this wasn’t a good example to set to those around me, as a mum, a teacher and now as a leader. So, at the other end of the scale, it’s made me wonder if the notion of perfectionism can also be moderated, if we can see that perfectionism is not a good example to set to others, rather than just thinking we can’t change?

We should all look to high standards in the workplace. But there’s a big difference between high standards and perfectionism. It’s probably a bit difficult for me to explain why you shouldn’t aim for perfectionism when I don’t do it myself. I have experience of it though, in my friends and colleagues, nearly all of them women. I wonder why we put ourselves under this pressure to be perfect so much? It can be centred around an idea of not feeling good enough, of trying to prove to someone/everyone that you are. It’s surely a risky thing to always demand of yourself though?

Christmas jumper

This is a picture of a Christmas jumper. It reminds me why I am not the perfect mother. Millions of examples of this spring to mind, but I’ll choose the day a while ago now, when I sent my 7 year old daughter into school wearing civvies and a Christmas jumper on Christmas Jumper Day. Turns out I hadn’t read the letter properly and it had been changed from the previous year to now be Christmas Jumper Over Uniforms Day. We didn’t realise this until we got to school. My daughter felt self-conscious and rather mortified. She started crying. A teacher took her off across the playground and said they would wait in the school office while I ran home and fetched her uniform. When I got to reception I said, “Hi I’m E’s mother – I’ve brought her uniform in.” The receptionist shook her head and said “Yes, naughty mummy!” Daughter was still crying in the background. And then cried again when I walked her home 6 hours later, saying how embarrassed she’d felt. The receptionist hadn’t made me feel exactly top of the world either. So, not the perfect mother.

elastic band moon

These are pictures of an elastic band and the moon which remind me that my academic and career trajectory have not been perfect. I have less climbed a career ladder than a pile of cardboard boxes that have given way at various times as I tried to scale them. So, as Robbie Williams once said, “I’ve gone to the moon and back on an elastic band.” I think this means he was partly lucky; partly in the right place at the right time, and partly good at what he did. He also experienced failure at various junctures. Same. On the day all my friends got their 8 or 9 O’ level results from the girls’ grammar school that allowed them to go to the sixth form, I came away with 3. I had to leave the grammar and go to the Tech to take more O’ levels, which led to a very different path to that of my peers. I mucked about a fair bit a school. I got by on being good at English, but was fairly off-the-rails. There wasn’t much in the way of intervention in the 80s, not at the girls’ grammar school at any rate: I was left to my own devices. And I also felt very lost at University, wondering if I was on the right course and what I could possibly do when I graduated. After a few years dabbling in local journalism and delivering some training for the local education authority I went into teaching at the recommendation of a friend who said ‘Hey, I think you’d LOVE teaching.’ They were absolutely right. I used to be envious of people whose lives seemed so organised and so sure in their direction. But in the end, I’ve achieved what I wanted to (once I’d discovered what that was) and I can’t regret the path I took. It would also be a bit of a waste to time to do so.

RCS and mum

This is a picture of me as a baby with my mum which reminds me of a great but imperfect childhood. My mum was fantastic fun, a real lover-of-life and she gave me an enormous amount of confidence.  I consider myself to have had a very privileged childhood with masses of love and reassurance, and a joy for the world around us. However, she was killed in an accident with a horse one Sunday in October when I was 9 and my brother was 7, so things took a bit of a different turn from then on.


RCS and Dad


And this picture is of my dad, again with me as a baby where he looks as proud as Punch, which reminds me why my childhood continued to be privileged and full of love even though something awful happened right in the middle of it. My dad was Sub-Officer of the county Fire Brigade when my mum was killed on that Sunday, and unemployed the following day after resigning from his job to care for my brother and me. He remained unemployed for a year and then took a job, again in the fire brigade, but this time as a stores man, giving out the uniform and equipment to the people he used to lead. We became a single-parent family overnight and one with a much-reduced income. But my dad loved each of his jobs, at both ends of the scale, because he loved the fire service. He put 100% into both of them and he never forgot why he’d given up his career: to put my brother and me first. My dad tried his very best to make sure we were exposed to a culturally-rich life: we had tonnes of books, I still had piano lessons and we went on school trips, sometimes even abroad. We were supported and very loved, and I would maintain that I still had a pretty good childhood. We also had a much dirtier house, with not as much of a close eye kept on our academic and social progress, but it was not a disaster. It was just imperfect.

Take a look at this picture:


Is this cake imperfect? Or is it rubbish?

At the TLCWorcs workshop when I showed this picture and asked the same question, Simon suggested that it was imperfect. It shows effort; it’s charming and joyful. Simon is a year 6 teacher and thus may have been thinking about his pupils when he said this. And so he’s right: it’s imperfect.

Sue, who heads up ITT at our local university, suggested that if you’d ordered the cake from Harrods and paid £200 for it, you’d be forgiven, when you lifted the lid of the box, for saying it was rubbish. And so Sue is also right: it’s rubbish.

Therefore, context is everything. How do you know the difference between imperfect and rubbish if you beat yourself up for everything that’s not perfect? Because everything in life, in the classroom, in each lesson you teach or each student you support, all of these things are NEVER perfect. But, most of the time, as long as it’s not completely rubbish, it’s actually OK.

Think of the last thing that you beat yourself up about because it wasn’t perfect.

Was it rubbish?

Now think of the last thing that you did yourself because you couldn’t trust someone else to do it to your standards.

Were they rubbish?

How can you be an effective and more confident teacher or leader if you don’t know the difference between imperfect, good enough and rubbish? When something is rubbish – or unsuccessful, or below par, to the point where it doesn’t do its job or it negatively impacts someone else – then yes, it needs dealing with. When something does its job and is fine, but is not exactly as you would have done it, then it’s good enough. We have to let others be good enough and encourage them to work towards better.

At the other end of the scale, it’s sometimes very hard to tackle situations involving what other people do when you know what they have said or done is not up to the standards needed. But everyone deserves the chance to learn how to make things better. Whether you are in the classroom giving feedback to a student, or in the corridor speaking to a child about the consequences or poor behaviour, or helping a colleague see why something they have done – or not done – has had a negative impact, you need to be able to be honest about why it’s just not good enough. Over the past few years I’ve discovered the idea of ‘Radical Candour’ advocated by Kim Scott to help with these difficult situations. It helps at all levels: personally, in the classroom and in leadership. You can read about it in summary Radical Candour, and her YouTube presentation is here.

But back to imperfect.

How do you treat a friend or family member or colleague or student when they’ve made a mistake and they are beating themselves up? Do you agree and say: “You know, you’re right – I definitely think less of you because of this.” No, you don’t. So, don’t say it to yourself when you make a mistake and it turns out things aren’t perfect.

  • Make mistakes and learn from them.
  • Delegate and don’t expect perfection. We’re all learning.
  • Organise your shizzle so you are less likely to feel overwhelmed by everything that comes your way, but don’t think it’s the answer to everything or a guarantee of perfection. Don’t stress about the things that are out of your control; think about how you can cope with them. (Remember: ‘The best plans o’ mice and men go aft awry’. Alternatively, ‘Shit happens’.)
  • Prioritise – what needs doing now? what can wait? what will be good enough and do what it’s supposed to, even if it’s not perfect?
  • Celebrate imperfection: it’s normal.
  • Know the difference between imperfect, good enough and rubbish. Be kind…. but help yourself and others to learn and grow.

So here’s the Christmas jumper again reminding me about sometimes being an imperfect mum. But was I/am I rubbish? No. And I gave the receptionist my best eye-roll and then told my daughter this on the way home. No-one died! Get over it.

Christmas jumper

And here’s the moon and the elastic band, reminding me about my imperfect progress. Has my academic and career path been rubbish, though? Again, No. It’s been a bit skewiff at times but actually rather wonderful for the most part, and it’s not over yet because I’ve still got so much to learn.

elastic band moon
And here’s my lovely mum and dad. Did I have an imperfect childhood? Yes. We all do, to some extent: there is no such thing as the perfect childhood or the perfect parent, so don’t fool yourself that there is. Everything is relative. But was my childhood rubbish? No, a million times no. Neither of my parents are with us now, but what they gave me in terms of love and optimism about life will always mean I’m never disappointed by imperfection – and that’s a good thing.

RCS and mum RCS and Dad

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