My seventh grade home economics class taught me an important lesson, but it wasn’t how to sew.
Assigned with the task of creating a garment, I picked a pattern for what I thought would be a cute pair of shorts. I bought the fabric, pinned on the tissue paper shapes, and cut. Using a sewing machine, I punched a line of thread through the hem. The line, supposed to be neat and straight, looked as if I had traced rolling hills instead.
Fearing a bad grade, I told the teacher I intended the design. I even wore the terrible, turquoise, wavy-hemmed shorts the next day to class. My teacher, Mrs. Hart, gave me an “A”. I gained no skill in sewing. But I learned how to sell and reap the benefits of a convincing lie.
School, built on competition and measuring up, taught me external awards equaled life success. Earning a good grade was more important than learning how to sew a straight line, how government functions, or how water erodes rock.
The rewards I earned didn’t make me happy, they made me afraid. Instead of pursuing ideas or things that interested me, or seeking people who challenged me, I sought to maintain this illusion of success.
Decades after those awful shorts were re-purposed as dust cloths, I realized that competing to be right, to be perfect, to get the best grade or achieve the highest score on my performance review didn’t make me happy. Comparing myself to others, defending my opinions, or fighting to be “on top” exhausted me. I needed to redefine success. For me, that meant choosing discovery, connection, laughter, and wonder over accolades.
I aspire to contribute the best of myself. To do this, I must choose a contribution mindset every day. These five ideas instruct and inspire me towards this goal.
1. Authenticity IS perfection. Japanese artisans practice “wabi-sabi.” Beautiful objects are designed or engineered to celebrate the “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.” Hagi ware pottery used in Japanese tea
ceremonies appears unrefined. But the observant and knowledgeable participant will notice the mastery of the potter. Brene Brown, vulnerability researcher, and professor writes in her bestselling book The Gifts of Imperfection, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”
2. Facts evolve. Opinions don’t become “right” by winning an argument. Astrophysicist and “science communicator” Neil deGrasse Tyson, joked he drove the “getaway car” when scientists stripped Pluto of its planet status. But he refused the chance to participate
in a public debate to defend his view. He said, “I don’t have opinions that I require other people to have.”
3. Words have expiration dates. Consuming them without thinking causes indigestion. James Madison often called the father of the Constitution, wrote in a letter to Henry Lee in 1824 of the importance of seeking the meaning behind the words of the document, rather than focusing on the “changeable meaning of the words composing it.” He wrote, “What a metamorphosis would be produced in the code of law if all of its ancient phraseology were to be taken in its modern sense.”
4. An open mind seeks information and doesn’t have skin in the game. Sherlock Holmes, a famous fictional detective, and master of deduction refuses to theorize about a case until the facts crystalize. “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts in their minds to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
5. Curiosity turns “mistakes” into insights. Penicillin, corn flakes, Play-Doh, and even champagne were all invented by accident.
“If you have the choice between humble and cocky, go with cocky. There’s always time to be humble later, once you’ve been proven horrendously, irrevocably wrong.”― Kinky Friedman