Posted by: Greg | 05/31/2013

It’s Time To Get Over Our Perfectionism: How To Take A Lesson From Baseball

Ty CobbsBaseball’s Lesson

It’s fascinating to look at the sport of baseball and notice the greatest hitters in the history of the game—you can’t help but see something profound immediately.  The all-time best hitter, Ty Cobb, had a career batting average of .366.  No one has been able to reach that level in a career before or since.  That’s .366 out of .1000.

What this means is that over 6 out of every 10 times Cobb got up to bat, he went out.  And he’s considered the greatest.

Which begs the questions, why is it that our expectations for baseball are so radically different than our expectations for ourselves and everyone else in the rest of life?

The Commissioner of Baseball in 1991, Francis T. Vincent, Jr., made this astute observation:

“Baseball teaches us, or has taught most of us, how to deal with failure.  We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often—those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players.  I find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.”

Ironic–that errors are part of it’s rigorous truth.  Almost oxymoronic.  But refreshing and true.

Institutionalized Perfectionism

I grew up in a Church that rigorously fights an ongoing war against failure.  Error is seen as a lack of spirituality and trust in God.  If you simply trusted God more, you would overcome your tendency to “strike out” when you stepped up to the plate of life.  With God’s help, you can get better and better at hitting the ball whenever you’re up to bat.  And before the world ends, God expects you to hit home runs or at least hit safely every time you’re up.

There’s a word for this view:  perfectionism.

For the most part in my life, I played the game pretty successfully.  I knew the rules inside and out and was quite accomplished at fulfilling and living up to them well.  I certainly received a lot of accolades for how successful I was, at least on the outside of my life–which is the only side of anyone people can really see, right?

So when you live in a perfectionist culture where mistakes and failures aren’t accepted as the norm, there’s intense pressure to measure up to the highest standard in order to feel good enough.  Self worth becomes built upon performance.

Without realizing it, my sense of self was being constructed on a shaky foundation.  I had to make sure I was successful and didn’t fail; I had to constantly prove my worth by my performance.  So if you’re one of those lucky ones, like I was, who is able to be really productive within the accepted measurements, you’re rewarded—you get praise and positive attention from others and therefore you can give yourself the same.

Until the big failure and fall.  And I had it.  Epic.  My whole world collapsed around me.  And in one fell swoop I was on the outside, no longer seen as successful, all my past accomplishments wiped off the slate of institutional memory.

Unlike baseball’s radical paradigm in which the player steps up to the plate and strikes out, still maintaining his beloved stature as the valued and famed hitter even though he goes out 6 out of every 10 times—in my world it was, one big strike and you’re out, for good.

Identity and Self Acceptance

Beyond the pain of the institutional response to me, my biggest personal challenge suddenly became, Now that I’ve blown it big time, what is my identity, where do my feelings of worth and value come from without that great reputation?  Can I accept myself even in the midst of failure?  Or am I simply a loser forever from now on?

My road back to a sense of deep personal acceptance and worth was long and difficult.  But in the end, the opportunity to build my sense of self on a much more stable foundation, than the shaky one of performance and perfection, was the most important outcome that could have ever happened to me.  It has given me a sense of confidence, security, and acceptance of myself in powerfully authentic ways like never before.

Perhaps baseball has a lot to teach us about life.  Like the Commissioner observed, errors are part of the game and perfection is an impossible and unrealistic and not even expected goal.  No player ever bats .1000 in a career.  Ever.

So the ongoing questions for me in my life is that whenever I make mistakes (and I do, often), whenever I don’t live up to my values in even small ways, whenever I try something and make a mess of it, whenever I feel the need to present myself to others as all together, whenever I am tempted not to feel good enough unless I do it all perfectly–whenever I’m faced with these moments, can I still feel a sense of value, acceptance, and okayness and refuse to place my worth in judgment?

A Spirituality of Imperfection

What would happen if we built our view and experience of spirituality on imperfection rather than perfection, that we would stop expecting no mistakes or failures and start expecting errors as a natural part of the game of life?

Would it mean that we would simply compromise away our values?  Would it mean we’re simply trying to rationalize and justify our mistakes?  Would it mean that we would be embracing an “anything goes” philosophy, that it wouldn’t matter any more if we failed or made mistakes, no matter how many people we hurt along the way?

That’s certainly not the way it’s worked with me.  Re-establishing my sense of self and building it on the foundation of the reality of imperfection, and learning how to embrace myself in the midst of failure, has in fact increased my value for healing and wholeness, for showing up in the world in ways that elicit deeper trust and joy in others.

But I have done this on the unshakable foundation of self acceptance, not for how successful I am or am not, but for who I am as a child of God—fully loved and deeply accepted as I am, not as I should be.

When I get clear on this truth, I am much more empowered to grow, to take risks on my journey of transformation, knowing that when I step up the plate and strike out or ground out or hit a fly ball and go out, I’m still a perfectly loved and valued person who belongs on the team of life. My place is secure.

That freedom motivates me to be my best, to know who I am in every situation and live it out with confidence and courage, even if I don’t do it just right every time.  Because the fear of failure has been removed.  I even allow myself to expect it from myself.

“Errors, of course, are part of the game.  They are part of our truth as human beings.  To deny our errors is to deny ourself, for to be human is to be imperfect, somehow error-prone.  To be human is to ask unanswerable questions, but to persist in asking them, to be broken and ache for wholeness, to hurt and to try to find a way to healing through the hurt.  To be human is to embody a paradox, for according to that ancient vision, we are ‘less than the gods, more than the beasts, yet somehow also both.’  Spirituality begins with the acceptance that our fractured being, our imperfection, simply is:  There is no one to ‘blame’ for our errors–neither ourselves nor anyone nor anything else.  Spirituality helps us first to see, and then to understand, and eventually to accept the imperfection that lies at the very core of our human be-ing.”  (The Spirituality of Imperfection:  Storytelling and the Search for Meaning, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, p. 2)

What this means is that we stop theologizing and religionizing perfection and imperfection.  Instead, we learn to embrace our humanity without negative judgment, simply what is.  And we allow ourselves to go on the journey of life with patience as well as resolve to become more and more whole, while living with our cracks.  And we ramp up our courage to actually admit, “Nobody’s perfect.  Neither am I.  And that’s okay.  I’m still valued and loved and accepted as I learn to grow and develop into my healthiest self.  I belong on the Team.”

If I can do this, I can then step up and, using all of my growing skill and wisdom, boldly and freely swing away.  I can let it rip more often because whether I hit it out of the park or into a fielder’s waiting glove I am still loved and deeply accepted in who I am as a valued child of the universe, to myself and to God.  Period.  I’m on the Team.

Next time I’ll talk about some of the significant implications of the spirituality of imperfection and building on this unshakeable foundation of Self.  Stay tuned.


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