April McMurtrey of Learn Reading: “Accept Imperfection”

Accept Imperfection. In our interactions with others, we must remember that people appreciate knowing us IN our imperfections, even more than as an ideal, perfect, unattainable (false) image. Imagine how you would feel if you saw your role model with a dish or two in their sink, or their hair slightly unkept, or with their […]

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Accept Imperfection. In our interactions with others, we must remember that people appreciate knowing us IN our imperfections, even more than as an ideal, perfect, unattainable (false) image. Imagine how you would feel if you saw your role model with a dish or two in their sink, or their hair slightly unkept, or with their shirt coming untucked. Suddenly we might feel better knowing we are not the only imperfect people in the world. Accepting imperfection as we strive for progression, is important not only for ourselves, but also for those who look up to us.

Many successful people are perfectionists. At the same time, they have the ability to say “Done is Better Than Perfect” and just complete and wrap up a project. What is the best way to overcome the stalling and procrastination that perfectionism causes? How does one overcome the fear of potential critique or the fear of not being successful? In this interview series, called How To Get Past Your Perfectionism And ‘Just Do It’, we are interviewing successful leaders who can share stories and lessons from their experience about “how to overcome the hesitation caused by perfectionism.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing April McMurtrey.

April McMurtrey is the president and founder of ‘Learn Reading’ — a comprehensive reading curriculum designed for emerging, struggling, adult, or dyslexic learners. Her mission is to reach the millions of struggling readers around the world, instill in them the belief that they CAN learn to read, then teach them how to do so. As a professional dyslexia therapist, reading specialist, educator and consultant, April’s primary motivation is to provide reading instruction for all learners, regardless of age, in a way that will not insult their intelligence and to set them up for success in the real world, quickly. For more information, visit: LearnReading.com.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was excruciatingly shy as a child — like, hide behind the skirt of your mother shy! So, you might find it strange that, even though I was the most unassuming child you would ever meet, I had a secret desire to be publicly admired. For some reason, that timid girl craved praise.

In fact, I have a vivid memory of siting in my first-grade classroom, in the front row, watching my teacher as she taught the class. I was not listening to a word she said. Instead, I was indulging in a daydream that has left me in all these years.

I dreamed my teacher looked at me with a huge, admiring smile. She took me out of my seat and with her arms locked underneath mine, she began swinging me around the classroom! While she was swinging me, she was exclaiming with pride, “Oh, what a wonderful child!”

I don’t know why I craved this kind of public praise as a child. But aren’t we all, deep down, a little like that girl? Maybe the desire to be liked and admired never completely leaves us. Maybe that’s partly where our desire to be perfect comes in. We want to be praised and admired.

My backstory would include a few dozen years of gallant efforts to overcome my shyness and develop a self-confidence that is not contingent upon the admiration of others. It would also include a deeply rooted desire to be a teacher.

Over the years, I would slowly learn to develop from the girl being swung, into the teacher doing the swinging.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“No one has learned the meaning of living until he has surrendered his ego to the service of his fellow man.” — Thomas Monson

That quote has three important points to ponder: 1. The meaning of living 2. Surrendering our ego, and 3. Service to our fellow man. I cling to this beautiful truth — that a truly meaningful life is one in which we strive to focus our gaze outward, rather than inward.

As I start each day, I try to remember one word: people. I try to remember that every email, every phone call, every human interaction is an opportunity to love and lift another person. I’m not perfect in this practice, and find myself looking inward often, but I’m confident that this quote is true. I believe that at the end of my life, if I’ve done my best to look out, reach out, and what I call ‘love out’, my life will have been meaningful to me, and to those within my sphere of influence.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The books The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl have significantly impacted my life. They have taught me about the powerful potential for good that mastering our minds can have.

In each memoir, the writer describes how they struggled and fought to control their thoughts during horrific trials and amidst terrible suffering. They not only managed to remain in control of their thoughts and actions, despite what they felt, but that control empowered them to help and lift others who were also struggling to survive.

These two powerful examples of triumph and love have helped shape my deepest desires. I believe they were among my first heroes, and where my daily goal of “people watching” (or looking outward instead of inward) first derived.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

The first character trait that I think was instrumental to my success was compassion. Without it, my business would never have been formed.

Several years ago, I was searching YouTube for what adults would find if they were searching for help learning to read. What I found bored a hole in my heart so deep and profound, that I could not stop thinking about it for days. That hole and those longing learners became locked inside my heart and could not escape my thoughts.

I found what seemed to be millions of adult learners who were desperate to learn to read, but their only options on YouTube were, to me, entirely inadequate. I could not get their desperate plight out of my mind! I soon realized that with my training, now coupled with a desire to help, I could NOT NOT do anything! The compassion I felt for those hard-working, non-reading adults was what watered the seed of Learn Reading. I started the whole program — for them.

The second character trait that I believe was instrumental to my success was drive. As soon as I decided to develop Learn Reading, my life, my energy, and my schedule went into overdrive. I began staying awake at night thinking about every possible nuance and strategy. I’d get up early and put those thoughts on paper. I’d spend all day trying out my ideas on my students, mulling over new possibilities, starting over, adding more, revising, improving, and progressing. Then, I’d lie awake all over again pondering possible next steps.

I began wearing shoes around the house (which I don’t normally do) because I would literally run from making dinner or folding laundry, back and forth to my office to write down notes. I’d fly from one end of the house to the other, over and over, to jot down ideas as they came! The ideas would come so fast I felt as if I had to run to keep up with them! In my journal, I call this chapter of my life, “running shoes”.

Overdrive, hyperdrive, super drive. I was definitely — driven.

Thirdly, I’d say being teachable definitely contributed to my success. I knew what I knew, but that knowledge largely remained within the limits of teaching reading. I did not know how to launch an online academy, how to market my business, how to create instructional videos, or a plethora of other mysterious but mandatory requirements. It was imperative that I acknowledge my naivete and become teachable. If not, I could rely solely on my ability to teach reading, but that reach would fall about 35 million people short of my goal.

Essentially, I could help 35 people, or 35 million. The gap rested upon my willingness to become teachable.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Let’s begin with a definition of terms so that each of us and our readers are on the same page. What exactly is a perfectionist? Can you explain?

As I see it, a perfectionist is someone who can only be satisfied with perfect results. It is someone who feels they can only move on from a project if it’s been completed in perfection.

For instance, a scrapbooker who’s a perfectionist might work on a page of photos, adjusting and readjusting the layout, until it is perfect in their eyes and before they can move on to the next page. A teacher may expect perfect spelling in their students and feel unsatisfied with anything less. Or a homemaker may clean and organize their home until it is perfect and feel ill at ease, even unto compulsion, if anything becomes out of place.

The premise of this interview series is making the assumption that being a perfectionist is not a positive thing. But presumably, seeking perfection can’t be entirely bad. What are the positive aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?

The positive aspects of being a perfectionist are the usually seen in the results of their efforts. For instance, you would see perfectly laid out scrapbook pages, perfect spelling, and a perfectly clean and organized home.

Exceedingly high expectations often lead to great results!

If I need a job to be done without flaw, I will hire a perfectionist.

A few years ago, I interviewed some painters for a geometric design I wanted painted in our entryway. Who do you think I trusted for that job? I hired the painter who seemed to pay the highest attention to detail and who would measure, remeasure and measure again — to make sure the design was perfect.

There is a place for perfectionists in this world! They are needed and appreciated!

What are the negative aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?

There is a cost to being a perfectionist. It is this cost that must be analyzed, and it is the cost that is often determined to be — too expensive.

An example of the cost of perfectionism could be seen in a mother who is planning a dinner party and wants her home to be perfect for her guests. She banishes her children to their rooms as she cleans and prepares. If they come out for lunch and leave any crumbs, they are yelled at. If they leave the toilet seat up when they use the restroom, they are scolded in tones that make them shrink. The cost in this illustration is the wellbeing of the children. To them, those crumbs and that toilet seat are more important than they are. That emotional toll is quite a cost indeed.

From your experience or perspective, what are some of the common reasons that cause a perfectionist to “get stuck” and not move forward? Can you explain?

As a reading specialist who has worked with struggling students for the last 30 years, I have watched thousands of students “get stuck” when reading. This happens for several reasons, but one of the biggest is because the students are results driven. These hard-working, intelligent students have a false belief that they will only be successful if they read without flaw. They mistakenly believe that the reward should lie solely in a perfectly flawless reading of a passage.

What we aim to teach all readers is that the reward is in mastering the process of reading, not in mastering specific words. If they master the HOW of reading, the WHAT will automatically come. However, if they only want the WHAT, (for instance, a specific list of words) then they will be losing more than they have gained.

For instance, if a student wanted to read a list of 10 words perfectly, he could employ several methods of doing so, including memorization and recall techniques that could ensure his mastery of those 10 words. However, if that student tried to read that same list of words later in context, out of order, or mixed in with other words, the student would likely have trouble because they did not learn HOW to read the words, they just learned to read THE WORDS.

This kind of goal is extremely limiting.

We teach our students that the reward is in the process, even more than in the result! When you employ the correct reading process, the results will inevitably arrive!

We celebrate ‘becoming’ a good reader. ‘Becoming’ is where the true reward lies!

Our students are climbing a mountain of knowledge. We teach them HOW to climb, so they can climb ANY mountain. Peaks and summits are wonderful goals. But it is vital to stop where you are in every climb, look down at what you’ve already accomplished, and enjoy the view!

‘Becoming’ is just as important as ‘arriving’ — probably more so.

One can take a helicopter to the top of the mountain, or cram for a test, or memorize a list of words. But that doesn’t make them a mountain climber or a more knowledgeable student. They have arrived at the goal, but they haven’t ‘become’ better for it.

If “becoming better” is your goal, then the arrival will happen anyway. And you get an infinite number of reasons to celebrate along the way!

Here is the central question of our discussion. What are the five things a perfectionist needs to know to get past their perfectionism and “just do it?” Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Analyze the Cost. We must allow honest introspection and answers as we analyze the cost of our perfectionism. For example, are we willing to allow crumbs and toilet seats to assume a higher priority than our children’s feelings and self-worth? This awareness of the cost of our priorities is often enough for us to realign them.
  2. Accept Imperfection. In our interactions with others, we must remember that people appreciate knowing us IN our imperfections, even more than as an ideal, perfect, unattainable (false) image. Imagine how you would feel if you saw your role model with a dish or two in their sink, or their hair slightly unkept, or with their shirt coming untucked. Suddenly we might feel better knowing we are not the only imperfect people in the world. Accepting imperfection as we strive for progression, is important not only for ourselves, but also for those who look up to us.
     — I remember being at a friend’s house one day, hours before she hosted a big party. I was wondering in the hours leading up to her guests’ arrival when she would start cleaning? She never did! And it was an amazing party! Everyone, including her and her family, had an easy, peaceful, wonderful time in that cluttered but happy house! No one cared, and everyone loved her! She was not thought any less of. In fact, she moved up several notches on the hero ladder in my eyes.
     — Since witnessing her example of what matters most, whenever I have gatherings at my home, I now feel more comfortable leaving the basket of laundry where it is, or the fridge handle smudged, or the Cheerio on the floor that I didn’t have time to sweep up. It is absolutely and ‘perfectly’ okay.
  3. Enjoy the View. If we are striving to improve each day, then aren’t we, as a result of our efforts, better today than we were yesterday? If so, shouldn’t such achievements be celebrated? If we look at where we are on our mountain, as compared to where we wanted to be before we got here, then we will see that we have achieved several goals and so we should simply stop occasionally and enjoy the view! There will always be more mountain to climb. Looking up with concern is natural. But we must train ourselves to look down in gratitude once in a while.
  4. Examine our Motives. Asking ourselves honest questions and honestly answering ourselves back, typically leads to personal progress. Such questions could be, “WHY do I want this to be perfect?” “Is my motive to exalt myself in the eyes of others? “Will my perfect performance help someone else?” If we can determine the root of our motives, it may help to shed light on why we are striving with such effort.
     — Honest contemplation can help us determine if result is worth the price. It can help us to know if the desired result is worthy of what the pursuit of perfection will cost us, or others. Being willing to examine our motives is the best way to see what truly lies beneath our behavior, and if we are willing to pay the price.
  5. Seek to Serve. Sometimes striving for perfection can be a positive thing, especially when it will benefit others.

I am extremely grateful for physicians who are set on perfecting a medical procedure, for drivers who strive to perfectly follow the rules of the road, and for parents who love me perfectly and without condition.

If striving for perfection will help others in important ways, then I believe that that unselfish striving will ultimately perfect us in the most important way. We will be ‘become’ better people.

People who consistently strive to help others — arrive — better.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would love it if we (myself included) could remember to ‘look out’ more.

It is so easy as we move through our days, hours, and minutes to look inward. Our thoughts may include, “What am I going to do next?” “What am I going to eat?” “How am I going to achieve this outcome?”

It would take effort, but I believe it would be effort well spent, if we looked outward instead of inward. We could learn to ask ourselves questions like, “What is he/she going to do next? Can I help?” “What are they going to eat? Can I share?” Or “How are they going to get through this? What can I offer?”

I would love it if we could each find a new person to love and lift each day. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we would each “look out”, “reach out”, and “love out” more?

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

I would love to have lunch with the secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona. I would love to discuss possible solutions to illiteracy in our country.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’d love to have them visit LearnReading.com! They can also join our Learn Reading Community on Facebook at https://facebook.com/groups/learnreadingcommunity.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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