“Perfect is the enemy of good.”
Sometimes perfect finds us when we least expect it.
In the Fall of 2021, I was asked to give a keynote at a meeting of Chief Information Officers (CIOs) for school districts across the state of Illinois. I could never have conceived how this invitation would help save a life and change the future.
In March 2020, this group of professionals, and their staffs, navigated an enormous abyss as they, literally overnight, deployed relatively new and untested technology to reinvent the delivery of educational content as COVID-19 rendered traditional classroom technology obsolete. My task was to help them put into perspective the enormity of their success throughout 2020 and 2021. “It’s true,” I suggested, “educational outcomes were not the same as in-person teaching. However, if your people had not pivoted and put technology in every home, and found ways to support faculty, students, and parents, it’s likely educational outcomes would have totally evaporated!”
In advance of my time with this incredible group of dedicated professionals, I interviewed several to try, in some small way, to understand the enormity of the task handed to them as school doors slammed shut. The heroic stories I heard of the countless efforts put forth by their staffs were inspiring. Many explained how boundaries evaporated. “I had to remind my people to put their phones away. ‘Stop reading texts and emails for at least a few hours each day!’ Some of them would have worked 24/7 had I not put a stop to it,” one CIO told me.
But it was one call that changed the future. That CIO said “My people strive for perfection. I remind them that perfect is the enemy of good. In these times, as painful as it might be, we must often settle for a good solution, because our customers are desperate.” I was touched by that thought, not realizing how powerful Voltaire would become just a few days later.
“My children are with relatives,” she explained when I answered her call on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline the following Saturday morning. “With them out of the house, it would be a good time for me to end my life.” My heart broke for this young mother who believed she could not be the perfect mother her children deserved. To her that meant they would be better off without her. You see, her own parents were, suffice to say, unbelievably far from perfect. Her life was so painful, she wanted her children to have a life the opposite of the one she endured. She loved her children so much that nothing less than a perfect mother would suffice.
The turning point came when I reminded her of Voltaire’s wisdom. She paused. “Could you say that again?” “When only perfection is acceptable,” I said,” you are blind to the loving parent you are; the truly good mother your children have.” “Tell me one more time?” she asked. “Perfect is the enemy of good,” I repeated. She began to cry, and through tears she said, “I’m going to write that down and carry it with me the rest of my life.” A few moments later that call ended with gratitude and tears on both ends of the line.
Two weeks later, in front of more than 80 school district CIOs, I was able to remind them of their value to the children, and future, of Illinois, and I was able to publicly thank one who helped me find a moment of perfection…a moment when the two of us were able to help a young mother find the courage to accept her imperfections, and know that being a good and loving mother was enough.
A few months into the COVID-19 epidemic another young mother called. She was overwhelmed and in tears. She, too, always aimed for perfection, took great pride in working full-time and keeping her home neat and orderly. Prior to COVID-19, albeit a challenge, she was able to keep up with cooking, cleaning, laundry and still have time to be the mother her children deserved, and the wife her husband loved. Then, the pandemic made her life immeasurably more complex. “In addition to everything else, suddenly I must help them with their schoolwork, watch over them as they struggle to learn remotely, and become an expert in remote technology I never knew existed. I can’t do it all. I feel such a failure.”
“Of all the things you feel you should be doing, but cannot, what hurts the most?” I asked. With a pause she began to cry and said, “I can no longer be the mother my children need. They need the times we used to spend in the park…the times we would sit and read…the games we used to play.” I thought for a moment and asked, “Could it be okay, just for now, that there are dirty clothes in the laundry room and dirty dishes in the sink so you could spend time with your children? Could you give up the need to be perfect in every way so you could spend time being the mother your children need?” The relief in her voice was palpable. As the call was ending, she said, “I’m going to take the children to the park right now. Thank you so much.”
I spoke with a preacher who was also a perfectionist. He hated himself because of all the ways he saw himself as imperfect. He put on a façade of perfection and refused to tell his congregation he was struggling. “They won’t respect me if I am not perfect,” he told me. He even admitted that his perfectionism and unhappiness lead to anger and unhealthy treatment of his wife and four children. I asked if he ever told the members of his congregation that they deserve to love themselves unconditionally. “Of course! I do, all the time,” he replied. “Do you see any hypocrisy in not, at least trying, to love yourself in spite of your failings?” I asked. “When you put it that way, I do. But loving myself despite my failings is so very difficult,” he admitted. “What might happen,” I continued, “if you were to reflect on that?” I suggested he even consider writing a sermon in which he admitted to his congregation how he, too, struggles with self-acceptance. “How do you think they would feel if you were to tell them you will be working to love yourself, and ask for their support and prayers during your journey?” He admitted that doing that would lift the great weight of perfection off his shoulders.
I am often asked how I dealt with the stress of answering calls on the suicide hotline. There were two things that helped. First, the emotion that typically overwhelmed me as I closed the door after a 4-hour shift, was gratitude. How I could not be grateful when a young mother came to realize the love for her children, in the end, was infinitely more important than her need for perfection. Or when a young teen called holding a bottle of pills she intended to ingest, ended our call 45 minutes later by thanking me for answering. “If you hadn’t, I would have taken those pills.”
But there was a second reason I was seldom overwhelmed by the intensity of the work. I always gave myself permission to be imperfect. I am, after all, simply a member of the community who showed up one afternoon each week to help in whatever way I could. I failed hundreds of times to help callers find their perfect ending, but I always tried.