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Teaching your Kids: Perfectionism Makes You Give Up Too Soon

The opposite of having grit and persistence, of course, is giving up. And that's not always a bad thing. There are many legitimate reasons to give up on any task: you've accomplished enough of it, the cost of continuing outweighs the benefits of succeeding, or you've lost interest in the goal. But there are some bad reasons to give up as well. One of those is a demon that's haunted Shawn Spradling most of his life.

Shawn grew up in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, a city of about six thousand people in the north-central part of the state, right in the heart of basketball country. At that time, school basketball teams for boys started as early as the fourth grade, and Shawn was quick to be among them. AND In those early grades, anyone who wanted to sign up could be on the team. But by Shawn's seventh-grade year, the teams were more selective, which meant to earn a spot, he had to make it through tryouts. That made Shawn anxious. "I was really concerned I'd get cut, primarily because it would be embarrassing, and I'd have to explain that," he recalls.

Tryouts were scheduled after school every day for a week. All the boys who wanted to go out for the team played together and went through drills for the first couple of days. By the third day, the coach started making cuts. At the end of the hour, names of the players remaining on the team were placed on the board. If your name wasn't on the list, you didn't make it. Shawn made it through the first cut and the second one. But going into the final day of tryouts, he was nervous. He knew how many spots were available on the team. And by now, he knew all the other boys and what their skill levels were. So he started doing the math in his head. And he didn't like his odds. "What if I don't make it?" he asked himself. The thought of being cut weighed heavier and heavier on Shawn, and that fear eventually overwhelmed him. He started looking for an exit strategy.

So on the last day of tryouts, Shawn simply didn't show up. Instead of going to the gym after school, he got on the bus like he would have on any other normal school day and went home.

When Shawn's father got home from work, he found his son playing basketball in the driveway. When he asked him why he wasn't at basketball tryouts, Shawn told him, "I just decided I didn't want to play." Shawn thought that would be easier to say—to himself probably as much as to anyone else—than it would be to explain that "I didn't make the cut, I didn't get picked, or I wasn't good enough." But Dad saw through that immediately. Shawn described his reaction this way: "He was absolutely furious with me, that I would quit on the last day."

Well, that night, Shawn's best friend, Brady, called him and asked him why he wasn't at tryouts. Shawn practiced his rehearsed answer once again like he'd given his Dad. And once again, his audience saw through it. That's when Brady told Shawn something he didn't expect to hear. "But Shawn, you'd already made the team!"

Apparently, the coach had confided in Brady that he'd been debating between Shawn and another boy named Jason. But he'd already decided to give the spot to Shawn. He just hadn't posted that decision yet. Unfortunately, since Shawn didn't show up on the last day of tryouts, he had to give the spot to Jason.

Well, you can imagine Shawn's disappointment, both in knowing that he could have been on the team and in ending his basketball career in such a cowardly manner. Looking back, Shawn knows that wasn't the only time something like that happened. For example, he told me, "I picked up a guitar a long time ago. But I couldn't play it perfectly right away. So I quit. I still have the guitar. And I still can't play it. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect. If I couldn't excel at it, I didn't even try." He admits, "I've missed a lot of opportunities in life because I was too afraid to disappoint myself and other people."

Another example he described was when he was a student at Cincinnati Christian University. "There was a preaching contest every year. You'd write a sermon and deliver it in front of a few of the professors. The top three finalists got to preach in chapel. It was a huge honor. At the time, I felt like I was gifted to preach, and several of my friends encouraged me to do it. But here's the lie I stood behind: I told them, and myself, "you know, I'm not a fan of preaching contests. I just don't think it's right to preach for a silly contest. It demeans the act.' But the real reason was that I was afraid I wouldn't get picked. I didn't want my name read off as "the guy who lost.' So I never even tried it. I still regret that decision."

Shawn only turned the corner in this battle a few years ago, at the age of thirty-five. He was offered the senior pastor role at Center Pointe Christian Church in West Chester, Ohio. But instead of jumping quickly at the opportunity to take his first senior pastor role, leading a congregation of 1,100, he spent weeks debating with himself if he was good enough. Then one day, while he was still wrestling with this decision, his mother told his wife, Janelle, "I think he'll do a really good job as long as he understands it won't always be perfect." And that's when Shawn finally had a name for his demon. It was perfectionism. He faced the truth as he described it, that "perfectionism had stolen a lot of my joy in life."

Shawn decided to take the job. He describes it as "a huge victory for me over perfectionism." He admits he still struggles with it on occasion. But he finds joy in the small victories now that he knows his enemy and is no longer as afraid of failing.

By the way, Shawn has held the position of senior pastor for more than 8 years now. And it looks like his mom was right. Things aren't always perfect. But he is doing a great job.

So, if your child struggles with perfectionism, share this story with them, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. Which is worse, having your mother or father disappointed in you for quitting or knowing you got cut from a team?

  2. What are you afraid of failing at?

  3. What have you not tried in the past just because you were afraid to fail?

  4. How do you know when it's time to give up?

Okay, in the next three lessons, we'll turn our attention to the value of hard work.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith