Can you find the flaw in the Navajo rug pictured above? Trust me, it’s there. It’s what makes the rug so beautiful.
Navajo rug weaving is recognized worldwide for its exquisite beauty, intricacy and attention to detail. Navajo rugs are perhaps the most sought after textile product of the American Southwest. Yet, the Navajo do something remarkable when they are creating these works of art. Before a rug is finished, the weaver will deliberately mess the whole thing up. S/he will place a mismatched thread or bead somewhere in the rug as a stunning mark of imperfection. Why do they do this? Why ruin a masterpiece in this way? The Navajo believe that humans are imperfect, and therefore human creations are imperfect. They intentionally create flaws in their most exquisite creations as a reminder of human imperfection. Instead of sweeping their weaknesses under the rug, they literally weave them into rugs – and the rugs are all the more beautiful because of it.
Perfectionists like me can learn a lot from the Navajo.
I’ve fallen into the perfectionism trap many times. I used to think that the point of life was to look perfect, to do everything perfectly, and impress the heck out of everyone around me. I thought that perfection was the key to everything I wanted in life. Love, success and personal fulfillment – those things would be mine, if only I could achieve perfect grades, put together the perfect outfit, and have the perfect response to the latest controversy on social media. I’ve put considerable work into being perfect throughout my life, always trying to go above and beyond what my teachers, my bosses and my friends have asked me to do. I’ve lost thousands of hours of sleep trying to think of ways to fix myself – make my physical flaws disappear, help me with my social awkwardness, figure out ways to make my work presentations more impressive and professional.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.
Striving for perfection may have given me short-term rewards in life but has never served me well in the long term. There has always been a shadow side to my achievements. I may have earned straight A’s and enjoyed the accolades for a while, but then I lived in fear of getting an A- or, heaven forbid, a B+. I started to panic at report card time, thinking that if I didn’t live up to my former achievement I’d be an embarrassment. This pattern continued throughout my life with anything I could be graded on (tests, dance performances, forensic competitions) and then insidiously trickled into my personal relationship and my own self-worth.
I started to “grade” myself as a friend based on what I did for my friends, and how much they liked me. If I made three friendship bracelets for Julie I waited to see how many friendship bracelets she made me in return and judged my own worth based on that. I’d tuck a note for Chris under the chemistry lab tables and the next day, I’d look for a note in return. The length of that note – if it wasn’t quite as long as the one I had written, let’s say – would leave me in a tailspin of self-hatred for days. What did I do wrong that my BFF didn’t make me enough bracelets, or that my crush didn’t write enough words down on paper?
I held on to perfectionism so tightly and for so long that I blocked true, honest human connection from coming into my life. Perhaps even worse, I blocked my own growth and happiness. I wouldn’t let anyone get close to me because of an unconscious fear that they’d find out I wasn’t perfect and they’d leave me. I also wouldn’t let myself try anything that I didn’t know I’d excel at, so I wouldn’t fail at it. I didn’t go after the job I really wanted, for fear I’d fail at it. I didn’t open myself up to the friend who moved to my town because I didn’t think I was as fun, exciting or adventurous as her other friends and that she wouldn’t want to waste her time with me. I just assumed that men would break my heart, because I wasn’t as pretty as the actresses they admired, so I kept boys at a distance and beat myself up for not being as beautiful as an air-brushed model. I’ve held myself to an unattainable standard, and therefore, happiness has been unattainable as well.
Trying to do everything perfect is a waste of time, energy and spirit. My quest for perfection has never brought me the love or acceptance I crave so much. In fact, my perfectionism may be the very cause of the fear and rejection I have experienced instead. By its definition, perfection is unattainable – and thus, I’ve never been able to achieve it. That fact in and of itself is demoralizing. Yet, even when I’ve come close to perfection with a well-planned special event at work, or a beautifully written essay, or a dynamically choreographed number that I directed and danced in, I didn’t get love from my efforts. I got some pats on the back, for sure. Maybe I even impressed people. But I didn’t connect with them. And love is impossible without connection.
I often ask, “What’s the point of life, if everything is perfect?” I think this question confuses people, because I get a lot of blank or confused stares when I pose it. Their confusion shows me that I am not alone in thinking that the pursuit of perfection was part of the point of life. Many of us have fallen for the giant lie that perfection and excellence will give us everything we truly want. We think that if we can just do or say the right things, we will be happy. But we all miss the mark. It’s not about doing or saying or achieving at all. It’s about living.
If we don’t push our muscles, they will never get stronger. If we never question the status quo, it will never improve. If we never stumble, we never grow. The beauty of life comes from the journey and the growth, not from the trophy and stagnation.
Why do we spend so much time in the pursuit of perfection? For me, it was because I’ve been looking for love and acceptance. I have mistakenly thought that if I was perfect, people would love and accept me.
After 40 years of experimenting, I can tell you inequitably that love and acceptance cannot be found on the road to perfection. It’s simply not there. You have to go down the battered paths in life. You have to fall down, skin your knees and bruise your heart. You have to explore the barren wilderness and the muddy, tear-filled waters. That’s where the love is found. That’s where you connect with others on an authentic level. That’s where you find yourself, and where you realize that you always had all the love you ever wanted – and more.
Let’s take a cue from the Navajo and embrace our perfect imperfections. Let’s not hide our flaws. Let’s build our blemishes into the fabric of our lives. It may just help us get everything we have ever wanted.