Senior Strategist

Progress over Perfection

We’ve all been there: unfairly expecting perfection out of ourselves even when we know better. And it starts young.

Just this week, I was having a conversation with my eight year old daughter whose team had won their softball game 17-2. I asked her if she’d ever thought about pitching before, as the team currently played using a machine pitcher. But without even thinking about it, she simply replied, “No, I’m not good at it—watch,” she proceeded to pick up the ball and try her hand at a new skill: an underhand pitch.

It seemed ludicrous to me that she’d expect to be good at something without ever having learned the skills needed, practiced those skills, or evaluated her progress over time. When I asked how she expected to be instantly good at underhand pitching, she only shrugged.

Whether that be trying something new and thinking you’ve failed simply because you didn’t have immediate success or learning about something once and deciding that once was enough to know all you needed to know about a topic, focusing on a one-and-done approach can stunt growth and discourage new learners. Like so much else in life, learning is a process. And as learning professionals, it’s vital that we recognize the necessity of setting our sights on progress instead of perfection.

Why progress over perfection matters

Regardless of your age or prior knowledge, learning something new can be intimidating. Focusing on progress, however, can help a learner avoid spinning their wheels by becoming too wrapped up in long-term goals or unreachable ideals. With large-scale learning initiatives, it can be daunting and overwhelming to look at the long-term objectives. Imagine you’re at the bottom of a tall staircase. The top of the staircase might seem far away, difficult to reach, insurmountable. However, focusing instead on the stair in front of you makes each step of the way easier to reach, manageable, and possible. And before you know it, that step-by-step incremental progress will bring you to your goal.

As learning professionals, we can help learners focus on progress by breaking up larger initiatives into smaller, achievable benchmarks. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge your learners (or yourself)! By striving for growth and continued improvement or by honing and advancing your current skills, you can get better and better without the impossible pressure of being the best.

At Maestro, we have two core learning principles that help us focus on progress.

Principle 1: Learning exists to create change

An effective learning initiative should not simply deliver knowledge, but it should also deliver results (i.e. change). Ultimately, the goal of a successful learning initiative is for learners to take what they’ve learned and apply that knowledge every day. Implementing their new knowledge into their work or their lives is a continual progress that creates positive change.

But in order to move forward, you need to know where you’re going. When beginning a learning project, it’s important to think critically about what you’re trying to accomplish and consider the steps needed to get there. Implement strategies that drive results, produce tangible achievements, and create change. This cannot be done by focusing on perfection or a one-and-done lesson. Change is created through a focus on progress and continued growth.

Principle 2: Learning is a process, not a one time event

Speaking of, we know that learning is a process. Seldom is someone able to read a book, take a course, or watch a video and then immediately enact a new skill perfectly on their first try. Instead, learning is a cycle—an ongoing process in which learners apply and hone their knowledge over time.

The view of learning as a process is inspired by Kolb’s Model. Kolb divided learning into four distinct phases. First, you learn something new. Second, you think about what you learned and how you might use it in the future. Third, you apply your new knowledge to a situation or a task. And fourth, you reflect on your experience and opportunities for continued learning. If these phases are repeated properly, frequently, and in different situations, you eventually can improve upon your abilities to reach a level of mastery. This is why our learning solutions typically follow a similar model and attempt to tap into all four phases of learning. But the focus isn’t on the potential mastery down the line—the focus (for the learner and the learning professional) is on the process. Mastery is an effect caused by the repeated process of learning, retention, application, and reflection. To be successful in this endeavor, learners must set their sights on continuous learning and not the destination of perfection.

No matter what—we want to be better

Whether it be tackling a global, large-scale learning initiative, teaching your sales reps how to demo a new product, or just picking up a new instrument–learning something new means we want to be better. And a tendency to focus on perfection is just another embodiment of this desire to be and do better. The issue with focusing on perfection though is that it can stop you before you’ve even started and create unnecessary pressure.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t lean into the desire to be better! In fact, capitalizing on the positive inclination to be better can lead to tremendous growth and personal or professional development. This means remembering that learning is not a destination but a process that, when done right, creates continued positive change. So you don’t need to jump to the top of the staircase or become a competitive softball pitcher, you just have to take that first step or throw that first ball.

See all four of our Learning Principles

We’re intentional with our approach to learning so we can create innovative, beautiful experiences that make an impact. Check out our Learning Principles to learn more about the foundational beliefs that shape our work.

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