Perfection was cute when we were little. Sure...it was all about being perfect when the task was laid out for us and all we had to do was it. Perfectly. I remember...
...the sting of preparing for months to recite your poem in the special assembly and then messing up one word. I remember classmates pushing back tears because they weren't perfect. And it didn't matter that they were dressed to the nines (or whatever that means for an eight year old). White button-downs and clip on ties were spotted with tears of frustration as heads hung low.
...the sometimes fun side of perfection - sitting sandwiched on the floor between my moppy matching bowl-cut brothers, necks craned uncomfortably, but willing, in front of our video game of the week. Jumping noise, punching sound effect, "Ohhh!!! I almost had that!!!" Flying whir, jump kick, "Damn, this is so hard, but I know we're gonna beat the end guy tonight!" The comical video game tones streamed out of the television for hours and mixed with our commentary. We wouldn't quit until we perfected each board leading up to the end guy and would not quit until we perfectly beat him. We typically figured out how to slay the horn-laden beast at the end once we figured out the perfect combination of hits and jumps. There was usually a script to figure out and as soon as we did, we followed it until we perfected it.
As kids we are constantly given positive feedback for being perfect. Spelling bee perfect. Coloring in the lines perfect. 100% on every test perfect. Obviously, aiming for 100s is not a bad thing, but there are times to be "perfect" (however it's defined given the task at hand), and there are times where perfect is rigid and confining and downright boring. Someone already set the perfect bar over there. You can see it, and so you know exactly what you are doing and where you are meant to end up. There isn't a real challenge. Perfect doesn't always cut it. And I think that perfect is sometimes used as a cover. We are scared to screw things up, and so we strive for perfection.
We sometimes say "To hell with it. I'm not doing anything if we can't ensure that we handle it perfectly."
In my 10 years of working in organizations, I have seen this excuse a lot. In particular, I've seen it used in order to avoid dealing with issues around race and diversity. The statement above should not be lauded. Without thinking, it might sound to you like the person saying it is taking it all very seriously and wants to make sure that all goes well. However, if you think just a bit harder, you might ask, what are you afraid is going to happen? And what if it does? Or, what is the risk of NOT doing anything about it? Isn't that a larger failure?
You guys know how much I love role playing through writing. :) Cue the imagination-inducing wavy lines for a conversation I have wished I could have with those scared of really taking on issues of diversity in organizations:
Perfect Pete: Ugh, I know it's a problem and that we really need to discuss diversity issues, Jen, but I don't feel comfortable moving forward unless we know exactly what is going to happen.
Messy Jenny: Pete, you're never going to know exactly what is going to happen. Issues around race and diversity are big issues, and personal issues, and people will respond in a variety of ways.
Perfect Pete: That's what I'm afraid of.
Messy Jenny: So what? So what if it's a little messy? These issues are messy! They are not simple. They need to be hashed out and that is never an easy process for any group of people with varying experiences.
Perfect Pete: I just feel really uncomfortable about it. What if someone gets upset?
Messy Jenny: Then we deal with it as a community. We support that person and try to understand better where he/she is coming from. The process of dealing with the discomfort and the hurt will be learning for all of us.
Perfect Pete: Oh, I don't know...
Messy Jenny: Would it help you to feel more comfortable if we had an experienced facilitator to lead the discussion?
Perfect Pete: Maybe, but we probably can't commit to anything now.
Messy Jenny: Pete, you're such an awful stick in the mud!!!!! :)
That felt good. Thanks for indulging me. Stick in the mud?! I know...when I get mad, I really lay it down.
Do you see my frustration? Perfect Pete needs everything to go so perfectly that he isn't willing to take risks - and in the end, the organization continues to struggle with issues of diversity. Nothing changes, nothing gets better. Because we don't know how to ensure perfection, we are paralyzed and we choose to do nothing. In places where perfection is held up, you don't have people taking risks, thinking creatively, or innovating. You have people who are afraid to move an inch in the wrong direction. This is not what anyone would want to create within an organization (at least knowingly, right?).
I know that people will have you believe that you must have a serious expert to lead any group in discussions around diversity, but I disagree. Okay, you have to be good at building a safe space and knowing how to ask good questions and to deal with moments of sensitivity, but I think that a lot of us can do this (and what are we saying about our future as a society if we are saying that only the handful (proportionally speaking) of diversity training experts can help us to get to a better place?). I believe that we, as a people, are going to struggle with issues of racism, homophobia, and other biases, until we each take personal responsibility for dealing with these issues. And responsibility doesn't mean hiring someone else to come in for a day to deal with them. Responsibility means doing what you need to do to get comfortable in talking about these issues *yourself*. And not being scared to bring these issues up when relevant, in the workplace. Waiting for perfection - someone else to come in and fix everything with a magic wand? That's never going to happen and your organization will sizzle with frustration and fragment right before your eyes.
Dealing with racism is not easy. Yes, it often feels scary if you're not used to thinking about it and talking about it. So, find a group (like Swirl!) that will be supportive and forgiving if you want to practice. But please, please don't wait for an expert to come in for a one-off discussion to make you feel better that you tried to do something. It's not enough, and won't be enough until you sit with the issues like I did with my brothers and our video games - for many days, over many hours - and really try every which way to beat it.
Talk to me: have you been able to get your organization to deal with issues of diversity in a meaningful way? What did you do? Please post a comment and share with the rest of us!