An imperfect slip of the tongue

I said a bad word. A very bad word.

And worse, it was in front of my six-year-old daughter.

Actually, I said it to my daughter.

But don’t judge me. Consider my defence—I was drinking.

It was a particularly hot cup of tea. Though, it wasn’t the heat that caused my unfortunate slip of the tongue. Or the tannins. It was a lack of concentration.

I was thinking about a job interview, from many years ago, that still puzzles me today. It was for a marketing job and everything had gone incredibly well. I was given every indication that the job was mine, even introduced to my future colleagues. But then, in casual conversation, the boss asked me what I thought about his company’s image. So I told him.

Forty-five minutes later, I’d given a considered and, some would say, comprehensive response. It’s true, I shouldn’t have criticised the company name (his family name). And I don’t think he appreciated comments about his photo hanging on the wall (you’d think he’d have a sense of humour with a nose like that). Anyway, I’ll never know why I didn’t get that job.

So here I am carefully sipping my tea, contemplating the past, when my daughter comes to me with her latest piece of art—a colourful drawing of her family. Of course, this wasn’t an unusual occurrence. My little princess is a prolific artist and—I would say— a very talented one.

“What do you think, daddy?” she says.

Looking at the picture, I could clearly see the proportions were all wrong. And there were a number of noticeable inaccuracies. For one, her mother’s teeth aren’t nearly that big. Or sharp. And as far I know she doesn’t have horns. And her little brother hasn’t had poo on his head for at least a couple of weeks.

Of course, I didn’t say any of that. What I said was far worse.

I said, “Perfect.”

It came out carelessly, even though I knew it was wrong.

Did I want her to believe she had reached the pinnacle of artistic expression at such a young age? Or was I just setting her up for future failure, giving her the belief that perfection was the definitive goal?

I’ve read countless articles about the dangers of perfectionism. And as someone who works in a creative field, I know the pain of continually striving for something that is ultimately elusive.

Perfectionism is often regarded as a positive attribute. But it has a dark side. Ultimately, it’s a fear of failure or being ‘good enough’ and it can cause crippling anxiety. It’s that negative inner voice that makes us set unrealistic standards, quit an activity because we aren’t instantly good at it. And it’s a risk factor in a host of psychological disorders, from OCD to anorexia.

I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist, but I certainly lean that way sometimes. I spend far too long dwelling on mistakes. Obsessing over insignificant details.

When I was younger, my dad would always say to me, “Perfection is the enemy of good.” And at first, I thought the old man might be losing it.

But over time, I realised what he meant, that always seeking ‘the best’ can be paralysing. It can stop you from doing good things. Taking chances. Singing Karaoke.

My worry is that I see traits in my daughter that are uncomfortably familiar. Her reaction when she accidentally colours outside the lines. The way she can fear trying new things. The pressure she puts on herself to do something the right way.

The experts say that these sort of behaviours are increasingly common amongst kids of all ages. And I wonder how things like standardised testing, competition in schools, and high-pressure exams are contributing to the problem.

Or are we just giving kids too much praise that they worry when they don’t receive any and only feel validated when they do?

I try to do my best as a father, but this time I dropped the ball. And I’m beating myself up about it (there it is). I know I should be praising her effort and perseverance, rather than the quality of her work. I should be helping her to understand that, most of the time, we shouldn’t expect perfection. All we should demand is our best.

She can still be a high-achiever. She can still be immensely determined and go after what’s important to her with great passion. But she can also understand that imperfection shouldn’t be feared. Making mistakes is just part of the learning experience. It’s part of being human.

Confucius once said, “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without”. Which reminds me, I need to talk to my wife about her “perfect” diamond engagement ring. I think enough time has passed.