“Strive for progress, not perfection.”–Anonymous
During a recent conversation with a new mother, she shared with my husband, John, and me, the plight of her recent episode of sleepless nights. The mother explained that her nearly ten month old daughter had learned the joys of pulling-up and cruising around furniture for short bursts of time. Enamored with her newfound skill, the baby girl was now waking during the night in order to practice her newly discovered skills. While the new parent was thrilled and excited at the baby’s achievement of this new milestone, her eyes were rimmed with dark shadows due to her lack of sufficient sleep. However, as the parent continued to share various stories of her baby’s zig-zag pattern of progression–crawling and rolling by day, pulling up and cruising by night–the mom’s eyes, nonetheless, sparkled with delight.
Initially, as many parents do, I reflected on my own daughter’s development. She was much more interested in mastering her vocal and verbal skills at the nine-to ten month period. Her interrupted sleep, at least at that age, was to wake and explore all the ways in which she could babble, vocalize, and soon enough, form meaningful words. It wasn’t until the 10-11 month period that she became more interested in pulling up and cruising. Even then, it seemed that she pulled up with the sole purpose to practice all the ways in which she could use her voice!
My daughter’s path of development was not better or worse than the parent’s child, rather it is an example of the varied and unique ways in which children’s bodies and brains develop. In fact, John and I took great amusement in the fact that our own daughter would be more interested in learning to talk before walking. Likewise, the new mom did not criticize or compare her baby’s progress to that of a child who had mastered walking, rather she focused on her child’s progress.
Upon reflection, the next day, I realized that there was a nugget of wisdom in that story that was worthy of more contemplation. Reflecting, not only my daughter’s unique mastery of walking, but also upon what I understand as an educator regarding child development, I recognize that learning is all about progress, not perfection. In fact, the same is true for establishing new habits or making/adjusting to a drastic change in life. Cultivating growth, change, and learning, in the real world, moves slowly through up and down periods of time.
“Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. Tiptoe if you must, but take a step.”–Naeem Callaway
Reflecting on the ways in which babies learn to walk, child development experts state there are certain milestones, such as, sitting, rolling over, crawling, pulling up, cruising, and so forth, that parents should expect. During the process, the baby will learn to balance while standing, then bounce while standing, and might revert back to rolling or crawling. Eventually, however, the child will return his or her interest to pulling up, and perhaps begin to attempt cruising, but may still go back to crawling for a while–or in the case my daughter–focus on developing verbal skills.
The point is that while so-called experts can point to certain milestones of development, in reality all children learn to walk (and talk) at his or her own pace–some taking longer or shorter periods of time than others. However, we never compare the child-learning-to-walk to a so-called “master-walker.” Can you imagine a parent or grandparent saying to a baby learning to walk, “Why aren’t you walking like so and so?” Instead, we foster and encourage each, well, baby-step along the child’s unique time-line of progression. Which led me to wonder why so many of us, myself included, don’t do that for ourselves?
Why do we, as adults, compare our own progress–or for that matter the progress of school age children–to that of a so-called, “master.” While having a goal is absolutely worthy, as the old adage states, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and neither is progress. In fact, I often have conversations with parents of students that growth often happens in fits and starts. Each student’s brains are wired uniquely, and thus learning never occurs in a straight upward angled line. The same is also true for adult learning.
All progress–be learning a new skill, establishing a new habit, or changing/eliminating a bad habit–looks more like the zig-zag pattern of learning to walk. How many times per day does a baby who is learning to walk fall down? Are we ever disappointed in the baby when he or she does this? No! Instead, as loving adults, we say words to encourage, foster, and inspire the child to try again. In fact, I would argue, it is the adult’s positive attitude that is part of the baby’s motivation to get up and try again–at least until they are too tired. Even then, as we put the baby to bed, we know that tomorrow’s is a new day, and he or she will be right back at it again in the attempt to learn to walk.
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”–Martin Luther King Jr.
Thus, this is the type of attitude that we should offer ourselves in our attempts to instigate personal change and growth. Start with small steps towards the desired goal. If you “backslide” and revert back to old habits, such as when babies revert back to crawling, get back up the next day, and try again. Don’t compare yourself to others with self-defeating thoughts or other comparative notions. Each of us has our own distinctive way of learning, changing, and/or progressing.
I would have never told my daughter that she should give up on learning to walk, much less called her a failure when her interest in walking was put on pause for several weeks as she focused on her vocalization. That was part of her own idiosyncratic pattern of growth, and the same holds true for our own attempts at growth and change.
According to the Kaizen principle that is often applied in the business world, improvements and growth in an organization most successfully occurs through small steps. In fact, as best as I understand it, the Kaizen principle for growth and change encourages a business to create a culture in which employees plan, implement a small steps towards growth, periodically review whether or not the plan is working, then take action–either by taking the next small step forward or by refining/adjusting the current step. With each successive step and revision, growth begins to occur. This principle can be applied to our own lives.
Stop comparing yourself to a master-image of perfection. In fact, I encourage you to stop striving for a so-called image of perfection–after all, this is life, with all of its ingrained messiness and fallibilities. Instead, foster progress. Talk kindly to yourself as you would a child learning to walk. If you fall down, it’s okay. Cry if you must, but get up the next day, and try again. If you need to hold onto a structure for a while, as a baby must hold onto furniture in its attempt to master walking, remember the baby is developing its leg strength, and you are likewise building strength! The point is to keep moving forward, no matter if it seems like you’re only making baby steps. Eventually you will attain your version of success that works for you.