Charly Haversat: How Can We Let Go Of The Need To Be Perfect? As a former pro runner, Charly Haversat would fixate on an unattainable goal: perfection. She discusses the crippling effects of perfectionism, including how it can prevent learning from failure.
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Charly Haversat: How Can We Let Go Of The Need To Be Perfect?

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Charly Haversat: How Can We Let Go Of The Need To Be Perfect?

Charly Haversat: How Can We Let Go Of The Need To Be Perfect?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about setbacks and how expecting perfection can actually make it harder to learn from and then cope with failure.

CHARLY HAVERSAT: Anybody who is driven to excel at anything - whether it's sports or music or the arts or dance or, you know, fill in the blank - that there is that quest for perfection. And it's a bit of a double-edged sword because it's that quest that makes you amazing. But it's also the quest to perfection that can destroy you.

RAZ: This is Charly Haversat. And she actually describes herself as a reformed perfectionist.

Yeah, so how did you become that?

HAVERSAT: Well, I think it probably evolved over a couple of major events in my life.

RAZ: Charly Haversat picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HAVERSAT: My conversion to a reformed perfectionist happened many years ago at Madison Square Garden. I was a professional athlete. And one year, I qualified to run in the indoor track and field championships. The event was well attended. It was televised. And as a long-distance runner, I was in awesome shape.

It was the national indoor track championships.

RAZ: Wow, so that's a big deal.

HAVERSAT: It's a big deal, yeah. I qualified for the 3,000 meters. There were I think seven or eight of us who qualified. You know, my parents had travelled to New York City, and they were way up in the stands. And, you know, my coach at the time - obviously, he had spent an enormous amount of time preparing me to get ready to go.

RAZ: Yeah.

HAVERSAT: And the race was really late. It was the last event, I think, of the evening before the relays. And I don't think I ran until 10 o'clock at night. So I had all day to kind of, you know, work through the - getting myself into the zone, so to speak.

RAZ: And how did you do?

HAVERSAT: Yeah, it was pretty clear within the first minute that I was not only not going to win but was going to struggle that evening. But as the race progressed, I wasn't having a great night. And I came in dead last on national television in front of a huge crowd.

RAZ: Did you feel like a failure because you came in last?

HAVERSAT: I did, yeah. I did feel like a failure.

RAZ: So you - you finish this race. You're feeling really bad. But then what happens? You start to reflect on it. And how does that change your perspective? What - what happened?

HAVERSAT: So there's an expression in running that you're only as good as your last race. So the point is that you - if you've had a good race, you need to celebrate and move on to the recognition that you're going to need to run again soon, and it might not go that well. And the flipside of that is when you don't run well, you just need to move on. You need to, you know, try to trust your training and just continue, you know, with the next steps.

And it's really just about how do I personally deal with failure? Because, you know, it could be a failure. I can try to package it in terms of, you know, it was still a pretty good night, and I got there. But it was still - I came in last, and that wasn't my goal. And I needed to figure out how I was going to literally move past that.

RAZ: Yeah.

HAVERSAT: You know, I beat myself up on my performance. But the reality is, is I had trained really hard. I had qualified to compete. And I - you know, I finished the race. And some days that's all you can ask from yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HAVERSAT: Now, although this is a personal story, it resonates beyond me. We don't have to look very far to recognize how obsessed our culture is with perfection. The term Photoshop is tweeted hundreds of times a day. We spend billions of dollars every year in search of flat abs and shiny white teeth.

Soon after my race at the Garden, a researcher by the name of Bob Goldman did a survey of elite athletes. He asked them if they would be willing to take a drug that guaranteed them a gold medal but that would kill them within five years. Over 50% of the athletes said yes. Goldman was shocked at those results. And to make sure that he had accurate data, he repeated the survey another five times over the next decade with exactly the same results. So I'm going to ask you a question. If we really think that perfection is an illusion, how do we explain why 50% of elite athletes are willing to die in exchange for that one perfect performance?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAVERSAT: Deep in our hearts, we all know that there's no such thing as perfection. But it's almost as if we've come to expect that perfection is not only possible, but it's probable, that if we show up and do it, we'll eventually be perfect. If I post enough great pictures on social media, people will think I have a perfect life. If...

RAZ: Yeah.

HAVERSAT: ...You know, if I Photoshop this picture - it's just - it's quite fascinating because I think if you got people, you know, one-on-one, they'd all know that it's not attainable.

RAZ: In other words, like, the world that we live in now, especially younger people with social media and this perception of a perfect life - which, of course, is an illusion. We know that.

HAVERSAT: Right.

RAZ: It actually is making this worse.

HAVERSAT: Yep.

RAZ: Like, because perfection or the illusion of perfection seems to be real - even though we know it's not - does it mean that we're more risk-averse? We don't - we don't even want to risk the possibility of failing.

HAVERSAT: Yeah. So I think that there's two parts, is I think it kills people's desire to take calculated risks. And then I think it also creates a culture where we don't want to admit we failed. And that sometimes has some really, you know, negative consequences.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HAVERSAT: I was once at a soccer game that was typical of 10-year-olds. The kids were all over the field. And at any given point, you had no idea who had the ball. During halftime, an exasperated parent turned to me and said, these games are a waste of our time. It's not like any of these kids are ever going to go play professional sports. We've come to expect a World Cup soccer performance out of a game played by little kids. And we're sending our children the message that when they don't deliver that performance, they shouldn't bother to play at all.

We can make a huge step forward by giving our kids a break. The pressures that our children feel from sports pale in comparison to the social and academic pressures they face as they grow up in a globally complex world. If we give our children permission to pursue good enough, we will grow adults who, as the future CEOs and political leaders, are willing to compromise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So, I mean, this is the thing, right? Like, on the one hand, you know, striving for perfection can drive people crazy and can lead you to be sort of destructive in some ways or to, you know, kind of neglect relationships and other things in your life. But on the other hand, striving for perfection can mean really working hard at something, really trying to do it well, you know, whether it's running or whether it's your profession. I mean, even if the result isn't perfect, the striving for that perfection means that the result is probably going to be really good, right?

HAVERSAT: It is. And I would argue that the striving for is what the goal is, and not the perfection in itself. And that's where, you know, I keep coming back to was it good enough? And I've had a lot of conversations about the term good enough because it implies that people settled or that they gave up. But I look at it as, like, a point in time.

It's - you know, going back to my Madison Square Garden race, for that moment in my life, it was plenty good enough. And it didn't mean that I wasn't striving. It didn't mean that I wasn't giving things, you know, 110%. It didn't mean any of that. So when I think about people who are striving for perfect, let's be happy about the process and not necessarily the outcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Charly Haversat. She's a former pro athlete now turned consultant. You can see her full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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