Almost a decade ago, I was having lunch with a dear friend and we were half-laughing, half-crying about our inner nerds. I was bemoaning my need for “gold stars,” and it was then that my friend said what has stayed with me all these years: “I get it dude, it’s your Lisa Simpson complex. I’m the same.”
Now for the unfamiliar, Lisa Simpson is a cartoon character who is endearingly obsessed with perfection and good grades, with being the archetypal “good girl.” And my friend’s comment has stayed with me all these years because elements of my “Lisa Simpson complex” still infect so many big and small aspects of my life, and it’s something I have to work hard to keep in check. (But her comment also reassured me that there are other “Lisas” out there… maybe you’re one too!)
Now, part of me is proud to be meticulous and painstaking about things that are important to me (good grammar, detailed P&Ls, folding my clothes just-so… you have to have standards, so they may as well be good ones!), but part of me also recognizes that there’s a reason “pain” is 36% of the word “painstaking,” because too much Lisa Simpson is no good. It is painful. And it can be destructive. And it can give too much power to people or things outside our control.
And it is only with a lot of practice and the perspective that comes with time (I won't say "age" just yet) that I have finally started letting go just a little bit of my once-near-obsession with getting gold stars and being "perfect" in all aspects of my life.
I know I will never NOT care what other people think of me, but I have started to be selective about whose opinion I DO care about (Are they qualified to have an opinion? Have they been in the ring themselves? Or are they just haters raining down popcorn and peanuts from the cheap seats?). I know I will always want some actual or symbolic gold stars, but I have started getting better at giving them to myself. I know there will be times when I look at my businesses or look in the mirror and only see the things that need “fixing,” but I have started getting better at focusing on what is amazing and beautiful, too.
As high-achievers, I think sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves to be everything to everyone and to do it all perfectly, often by a standard of perfection or performance that someone else has given to us. And I get it. Wanting to be “the best” is hardwired into my DNA. One of my favorite stories about my mom goes something like this: When she was around 8 or 9, she came home from school bawling her eyes out, shaking with sadness. Her grandfather – my great-grandfather – rushed out of the house terrified by her distress, and asked her what was wrong. Through sobs and snot, she told him it was because – wait for it…. – she had gotten a 98 out of 100 on her exam! And even as I type this I am smile-crying because god, do I understand her despair. I wish I could transport through time and give the 8-year-old version of my mom a massive hug for feeling those two points so deeply…
My friends, this stuff is hard. Being a leader is hard. Achieving big things is hard. Being a human is hard. Having high standards is hard. But it is also sometimes – maybe more of the times than we realize – made harder by our own doing, by that self-imposed soundtrack nattering in our ears making us forget that a perfect score isn’t the goal, and that what we are doing or have already done is pretty damned great if we would just allow ourselves to see the damned greatness.
So, all I’d like to suggest is that from time to time, we let go of those two points and turn the perfection soundtrack off. That we give ourselves credit for how many points we DID get, how many new customers we DID get, how many milestones we HAVE achieved, and to focus less on how far there is still to go.
For me and so many us, the trick, the work, is finding the elusive sweet spot between striving and accepting: striving for more and better while accepting where, and who, we currently are.
It’s not about becoming complacent, it’s about recognizing that sometimes, even when we do our best, all we’ll get is a painful 98% and a tearful walk home, but our grandfathers will still be there to hug us, and we’ll still go on to have amazing lives full of inner and outer achievements, and maybe one day, sixty years into the future, we’ll have daughters (literal or figurative) who write lovingly about us and admire us for all the times we chose not to give up, not to stop, not to throw everything away even when we were less than perfect.
And it’s about recognizing – as my great-grandfather said to my mother all those years ago – that sometimes those two points aren’t ours to have, anyway. Sometimes 98 is our perfect score. And that really is perfect enough.