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The Limitations of Perfection

The minute there is a right and wrong way of doing things, you start to fear failure.

by Ken Blanchard

During the first week of January, our family goes to Aspen, Colorado, to participate in a week-long ski program titled "The Magic of Skiing," run by Tom Crum. Tom, an expert in aikido, a Japanese art of self-defense, is the author of The Magic of Conflict.

In aikido, if someone goes to punch you, you are taught not to block the punch. When you try to block a punch, you are using resistance -- your power and strength against the other person's power and strength. That sets up a win-lose confrontation. Instead, teachers recommend stepping aside with an accepting and pivoting movement. This will use the attacker's energy against him or her.

The key to all of this is to learn how to be centered mentally, with both mind and body relaxed and alert. It is in this state of heightened awareness and connectedness that thinking mechanics cease and the flow, or zone, begins.

You can let go of some of those interfering technical thoughts on the ski slopes by focusing on simple physiological responses like breathing, according to Tom. All great athletic movements are done fluidly, without tension. If your breathing is full and continuous, so is the body's state of movement and relaxation. If the breath is held or shallow, the body's movements will be correspondingly rigid and discontinuous. Smooth and powerful breathing will result in smooth tempo and graceful skiing.

Applying this principle to skiing, try "breathing in" as you approach a turn and "breathing out" as you make the turn, suggests Tom. In the process, visualize your breath and energy heading down the hill.

Tom's program shows how skiing is very much like other aspects of our lives. In most cases, you are not reacting to what someone else does but are focused on what you are doing. You are in charge. Tom teaches you to get out of your evaluative role in life and, instead, to experience, enjoy and learn.

One of the things that I have relearned from Tom is the limits of perfection vs. the power of discovery. Tom emphasizes this difference throughout his work.

When you get caught in the perfection trap, you evaluate your performance based on some model. In other words, there is a right and wrong way of doing things. The minute there is a right and wrong way of doing things, you start to fear failure. You don't want to be "wrong." As a result, you often become unwilling to take a risk. When that happens, your focus is on excessive control and judgment. You want to play it safe.

Tom works a lot with schools. When he works with youngsters in kindergarten, he never asks for volunteers. Why? The whole class would jump to their feet. Young children have not learned about perfection yet. They don't even think that there is a possibility of looking like a fool.

It's very different when children get to high school, says Tom. When you ask for volunteers, no one will step forward. They are afraid of being judged. They have learned that there is a right and wrong way to do things, and they should be careful about "sticking their neck out" and volunteering. Why the difference?

Young people understand the power of discovery. When you see a child learning to walk and they fall, when they look up, what do you see? A tremendous grin. They do not evaluate themselves. They just think learning to walk is fun. "I guess that didn't work. Maybe I ought to try something else." They do not evaluate their performance but are into experiencing the moment. They are spontaneous. They are willing to risk. Why? Because they have not learned about perfection. Judgment has not entered their life yet.

The limits of perfection and the power of discovery helped me to see that we need to relearn our spirit of discovery in organizations. If we are to be truly learning organizations, then all of us -- including managers -- need to drop our evaluative and judgmental sides. We should look at everything as an opportunity to learn and discover.

There are no rights and wrongs; there are just experiences. If people are free to learn from experience rather than being fearful of being judged and put down, the potential performance of your organization would amaze you.

About the author

Ken Blanchard is chairman of Blanchard Training and Development Inc. in San Diego and author, with Michael O'Connor, of Managing by Values (Berrett-Koehler, 1996).

© 1997 Blanchard Management Report, Blanchard Training and Development Inc. Telephone (800) 728-6000, ext. 5201, fax (619) 743-5030.

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March 97 Quality Digest