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How to embrace your imperfection (and why it’s really important to do so…)

I had an epiphany: it’s actually ok to be imperfect…

One week from today I’ll be 28 years old. When I look at my friends’ lives I feel like I’ve fallen behind. Most of my friends are either married or engaged and living with their significant others in apartments that look like something out of the Crate and Barrel catalogue.

Me? I’m years away from being engaged (sorry Mom and Dad!), and am just now moving out of an apartment I shared with friends and into my own place. And I plan to decorate with Ikea stuff.

Feeling as though my friends have surpassed me used to make me wildly insecure. I felt like there was something wrong with me, like I was somehow imperfect, and that I needed to catchup.

But at the end of 2013, after a post-speaking-tour-breakdown, I had a revelation: I realized that it’s totally ok to be imperfect. In fact, it’s essential to be imperfect. Simply put, if you are human you will never achieve total perfection. And that’s ok. In fact, in its own way, it’s kind of beautiful.

Why do I mention this? Because most emerging leaders fall into the same trap I had fallen for: they obsess over their imperfections to the detriment of their work and life.

To truly lead, you have to be cool with imperfection. At a practical level, if you sit around trying to perfect your work, you’ll fail to pull the trigger on your next amazing project. At the existential level if you fail to accept your imperfections you risk becoming neurotic, depressed, cruel to yourself, or irritating to be around. In fact, many perfectionists become all four.

To lead, you have to let yourself off the hook and embrace imperfection. Here’s how:

Surrender to the reality that the human experience is a messy experience (and then notice it’s beauty): Hearts get broken, dreams fail to come to fruition, friends fall out, you forget an important meeting, someone farts in the elevator, the dress doesn’t fit right, you waste the day away on Facebook and Netflix, or the promotion goes to someone else. In an ideal world, perhaps everything would have clean edges. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world filled with imperfection. However, if you look closely, there is immense beauty in imperfection. Magicians will often make tricks look imperfect as it creates a more satisfying experience for the audience (see the too perfect theory), and an entire branch of Japanese aesthetics is dedicated to the beauty of imperfection (see Wabi-Sabi).

Remember: no singular person holds up the world: I often meet entrepreneurs, leaders, employees, and students who tell me that if they take a day off, everything in their organization will collapse. Hate to be rude, but that’s simply not true. Doctors, Presidents, and police officers all take days off and call in sick. Sometimes they call in sick for really important stuff too. If they can do it, we can too. Take your work seriously, but don’t fall for the illusion that you have to be perfect or the world will collapse. Release yourself from that stress. It’s an illusion. Which brings me to…

It’s ok to drop a ball from time to time: thanks to smart phones and high speed internet, pretty much everyone has more demands on their time and attention than they can actually handle. I used to try to be perfect. I wanted to keep 100% of my commitments, answer all emails and calls within 24 hours, never make a spelling error, show up exactly on time, exceed every client’s expectation (even if it’s just  a 5 minute phone call), keep on top of my social media, and remember every friend’s birthday.

But of course, that’s ridiculous. No one can do that. More so than ever before, it’s ok to drop the ball from time to time. There is a fine art to dropping the ball. The trick is to drop the balls that don’t matter as much. It’s ok not to respond to every email immediately, to cancel plans you’re not excited for, and to ignore social media. The important stuff – relationships with people you love, work that you care about or pays the bills, physical and mental health – make sure you pay careful attention to that. Everything else though? It’s cool to drop the ball from time to time.

Stop focusing on what’s wrong, and realize that you’re already friggin’ awesome: people who get hung up on perfection tend to be hard on themselves. That’s what happened to me. I was focused on my friends having different lives than I do, while completely ignoring all the cool stuff I’ve done that they hadn’t. If you’re really obsessing over what’s wrong or imperfect, I suggest you sit down right now and make a list of ten great things you’ve done in your life. Read it daily. Keep adding to it from time to time. You’ll see that you’re way more awesome than you realize.

Relaxation is not a guilty pleasure or a sign of weakness. It’s essential: most emerging leaders act as though exhaustion and busyness are status symbols and treat relaxation as though it’s something to be embarrassed about. Truth is, taking the time to relax isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s essential for your physical and mental health. Besides, if all you ever do is work, you’re building a boring life and setting yourself up to fail. Good leaders understand how to create internal balance in their lives so that they rarely – if ever – burn out. Don’t fall for the trap of believing that exhaustion and being super busy is the same as success. It’s not. It’s a sign that you’re not loving yourself well enough. Trade in your exhaustion for some well-deserved R&R.

Realize that it’s ok to be imperfect

Work to improve yourself, yes, but don’t stress over being imperfect. You can be overweight and beautiful. You can be a successful 28 year old without a partner or well decorated apartment. You can still be a critical part of a team after taking a day off. You can recover from a dropped ball (even if it seems really important). Embracing imperfection isn’t just important for leaders and individuals who want to create something beautiful, it’s essential to the human experience. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat some pizza, even though I’m currently trying to cut weight at the gym.

So how have you accepted your own imperfections? What were the results?  Leave a comment letting me know. 

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