Five Ways to Fight Perfectionism

I was nine years old when I first tangled with perfectionism. (At least, it’s my first remembered encounter. My mom probably recalls something different.) I got a “C” on a grammar test. While most kids would accept that grade with delighted relief, I didn’t. I felt like a failure. To me, a “bad” grade wasn’t a letter grade; it was a mark against my moral fiber. I spent the next week berating myself and dedicating hours to understanding the laws of verbs and diagrams. I was determined not to suffer anything less than an “A” going forward. 

As far as I know, I didn’t. I established and maintained a pristine honor roll status. But the achievement did nothing to combat perfectionism. Perfectionism lingered, a constant presence needling me with the thought that I wasn’t good enough and would never be good enough. To fight that idea, I would need succor other than achievement and determination. I would need God and His grace and wisdom. 

Throughout the years, God has not only provided wisdom and grace but also proven Himself a much more faithful and kind companion than perfectionism. Perfectionism belittles. God lifts me up. He gives me, as one of our new songs from Austin Stone Worship says, “a better word.” God reminds of the better way. That way encompasses a lot of things, but the following five came to mind during a recent bout of perfectionism.

Decide Whether to Create or Be Perfect

Perfectionism cripples. It puts the act of creation at a towering height. Every word, brushstroke, string of code has to be perfect at their inception. If they’re not, the artist/writer/insert other maker topples headlong into perfectionism and its downward spiral of doubt, guilt, and self-inflicted railery. Rather than confront the perils of creation, the maker refuses the climb. They choose safety and comfort over the risk and danger inherent to the creative process. 

But safety and security are poor comforts, especially to the person called to create—and I mean “create” in the broadest sense, from architectural drawings, business plans, and mathematical theorems to murals, choreography, and memoirs. I realized that truth as I sought to put thoughts into words and drawings as an undergraduate. It came with a complimentary epiphany: I could create, or I could be perfect. I could not, however, be both. I could either accept the messiness of creation, along with its risk of failure, or never attempt anything ever again for fear of it being “imperfect.” I decided on the former. The act of making, despite its risks and dangers, was and is infinitely more satisfying than the pursuit of perfection. 

I like how Neil Gaimain juxtaposes perfectionism and creation. In an interview with Tim Ferriss, Gaiman says, “What you cannot fix is the perfection of a blank page. What you cannot fix is that pristine, unsullied whiteness of a screen or a page with nothing on it, because there’s nothing there to fix.” Exactly. My first draft, whether it be writing or art, may be a wreck. But it’s something. I can work with it, mold it into shape.

Choose Humility or Pride

Perfectionism produces pride, too. The perfectionism, though, may not appear as blatant self-promotion, as in the statement, “Look what I did.” Instead it hides beneath a mask of false humility by deflecting praise.

The deflection works a strange magic. It feels right to acknowledge other writers, artists, and creators as more skilled or gifted. And maybe it is. It’s good to recognize and celebrate other people and their gifts. And yet—something about the deflection remains off-kilter, wrong. A friend helped me realize one part of the issue; he told me deflecting a compliment was like trampling on a person’s gift. If he went to the time and trouble to recognize my talent, I should accept his compliment as I would any other thoughtfully given gift, with gratitude and grace. To do otherwise was to hurt the gift-giver and to deny them the opportunity of engaging with me and the thing I created.   

The other part of the issue resides in a denial, conscious or unconscious, of God’s handiwork. Deflecting a compliment is, at best, a diminishment of God’s gifts to me. It downplays my abilities, says they’re of little importance. But they matter a great deal for God gave them to me, and He gave them to me for a reason. At worst, the deflection conveys a wish for other talents, to be made in a different way. It suggests I know better than God, which is both prideful and hurtful. How would I feel if one of my creations stepped off the page and asked, “Why did you make me thus?” I would feel hurt and betrayed, and if I, with my flawed love and incomplete knowledge, feel that way, how much more would God feel, the One who made me in faithful loving kindness and perfect knowledge?

Remember the Source of Confidence

Perfectionism often produces crippling fear and pride. It also frequently suggests people “control their destinies.” Everything, from the smallest, most trivial decision (Should I have avocado toast or granola for breakfast?) to the largest, most transformative one (Should I accept this job or marry this person?), depends on the individual. They are the captains of their ships, and when it comes to their work, they are the sources of inspiration and confidence.

But such sources are finite and fallible. Confidence crumbles for all sorts of reasons—failure, sure, but the size or scope of project, fatigue, and doubt, too. And inspiration? Inspiration is a fickle friend. It snubs invitations to visit, no matter how the person strains. When either confidence or inspiration dissipates, the illusion of control shatters. The world will not conform or perform to the maker’s perfect equations. Life proves more complicated than they ever anticipated. 

Here, the difference between what the world says and what the Bible says becomes vivid. The world says to wrest control back by planning harder, working longer hours, taking a retreat—to do whatever it takes to achieve the picture-perfect career, lifestyle, etc. The Bible says different. It says God is in control of everything, including me and the ins and outs of my days. He, not me, strengthens and sustains when disorder—imperfection—descends. He is my ultimate source of confidence and inspiration, and a never-ever running out one at that. God is and always will be my source of sustenance, confidence, and inspiration whether the work comes easy or hard. He remains constant, a perfect, fixed point upon whom I can rely. 

Decide to Rest Instead of Perform

Perfectionism also says I am the sum of my work. It’s an easy lie to believe, particularly in a culture that urges me to be the best, to pull myself up by my bootstraps, to work and work and work, demand my rights, break through the ceiling, etc. When I believe those things, I shoulder a burden I was never meant to. Rest becomes a distant memory or merely the means of greater efficiency and productivity. It no longer restores, for it is no longer connected to God, the One who conceived of and instituted rest in the first place. 

The longer rest remains disconnected from God, the harder it becomes to cease from toil and strife. Josef Pieper, in his essay “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” offers an explanation. He says, “We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence … The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refused to have anything as a gift.”(1)

To correct the lie, I have to remember the truth. In Christ, I am God’s daughter. God made me for more than work, even if that work makes His name great. He made me to know Him, to so enjoy being His daughter that I can’t help but make Him known to others. He made me to reflect Him. He also gave me unique talents and skills, not so that I would be consumed by them, but so that I could enjoy them and use them for His glory and other people’s good. And—He gave me rest and play and wonder, things I have to receive as the gifts they are. I do not work for those things; they come unbidden, without effort, a means of grace, not ability.

Embrace Community

Finally, perfectionism isolates. How can it not? Its chief goal is to be, not the best, but the most perfect. It dismisses collaboration and community because the successful perfectionist should be entire to themselves. They shouldn’t need help or desire to be known as a real person, a person with struggles and flaws and yes, imperfections. 

If that posture doesn’t produce isolation, perfectionists’ unrealistic standards should. Some perfectionists manage to keep their standards under control and apply them only to themselves. But even then, they can be difficult to bear. No one wants to spend time with a self-righteous prig whose aim in life is perfection. In other cases, the perfectionists assume their standards should be everybody’s standards. But that’s not fair. No one can live up to a perfectionist’s standards. Even if they could, they shouldn’t. They were made in a unique way, and they should use that uniqueness to grow into the person God created them to be, not the person the perfectionist says they should be. (Which, let’s face it, is basically a mini-me of the perfectionist. Who wants that?)

But the reality, according to the Bible, is that humans were made for community. God embedded it in humanity’s design. Admitting I need help and other people is not some great moral failure; it is good, right, and true. When I welcome people into my work or join them in theirs, beauty results—and I’m not talking about the end product, although it almost always improves with other people’s input. No, what I speak of has to do with the people of God. I see them as God sees them. I witness how He knits us together, the same way He knits me. The sight fills me with awe, and in seeing it, I respond by turning away from isolating perfectionism and toward a community where I belong. 

Over the years, I’ve discovered many truths to counter perfectionism’s lies. But the most convicting, life-shattering one is that God has entrusted me with a certain amount of time, with certain talents and gifts. That means I am not an owner but a steward, a humble servant, a recipient of God’s manifold grace. My gifts are not for me and my benefit but for God’s glory and people’s good. When I keep that truth in mind, perfectionism loosens its grip. I step into a space brimming with possibility and create with the joy and confidence my Father and King so abundantly and graciously supplies.

 

(1) Josef Pieper, “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1948)



Doctrines and Disciplines Available Online Today!

The Austin Stone Institute is excited to announce the release of our newest written resource!

Doctrines & Disciplines is a new 227-page workbook written for The Austin Stone Development Program (ASDP). For those unfamiliar with the program, ASDP is designed for people who are serious about growing in their knowledge, love, and obedience to Jesus Christ. As a member of a learning cohort, students pursue intimacy with and conformity to Christ through the practice of spiritual disciplines and the study of systematic theology over the span of eight months. From the program’s conception in 2008, over 2,000 students have completed The Austin Stone Development Program!

What’s the story behind Doctrines & Disciplines?

In 2015, Jake Riddle and Rex Hamilton began the process of codifying the program curriculum into a printed resource. The 2015 version was comprised of four workbooks and designed for a centrally-administered program. 

In 2017, The Austin Stone Development Program adopted a new administrative structure and began offering the program at each congregation of The Austin Stone, rather than one central location. New teams were assembled to lead the program at each location. And with all of the changes, it was then decided to revisit the curriculum, too. 

ASDP, in all of its iterations, has long been a seminal catalytic experience for countless people within the body of The Austin Stone. Students—many for the first time—learn doctrine, practice spiritual disciplines, and learn directly from people like Kevin Peck and Matt Carter. Along with the central elders of The Austin Stone, the ASI team understood that the new administrative structure and program scope necessitated a new set of program materials. In the spring of 2019, the ASI team began the process of formally revising the curriculum to be released by the commencement of the program in the fall of 2019. 

We set out to create a single workbook that would draw from and reinforce some of the most effective activities developed within the program over the past 10+ years. We wanted to make a simple, effective, and scalable resource that would enhance each student’s learning experience, while also making the program more manageable to carry out.

How is this resource laid out?

Doctrines & Disciplines consists of 18 individual chapters and corresponding resources for each of the doctrines associated with The Austin Stone Development Program syllabus. Each chapter represents a specific topic of study. Students generally spend time reading, completing activities, attending a lecture, and discussing the chapter’s content with their cohort. 

The chapters are: 

  1. Doctrine of the Word of God Pt.
  2. Doctrine of the Word of God Pt. 2
  3. Hermeneutics: Bible Study Methods
  4. Doctrine of God 1: Incommunicable Attributes
  5. Doctrine of God 2: Communicable Attributes
  6. The Trinity
  7. Imago Dei
  8. Doctrine of Sin
  9. The Person of Christ
  10. The Work of Christ
  11. The Person & Work of the Holy Spirit
  12. God-centeredness of God/Christian Hedonism
  13. Unconditional Election
  14. Doctrine of Salvation 1: Calling, Regeneration, Conversion, & Justification
  15. Doctrine of Salvation 2: Adoption, Sanctification, Perseverance, & Glorification
  16. Doctrine of Providence
  17. Ecclesiology
  18. Eschatology

 

Every chapter has been designed with similar recurrent components. For instance, each chapter begins with a checklist of reading assignments and activities for each session.

Each chapter also includes a Scripture Study with the intention that students will be given ample opportunity to investigate different passages of Scripture by using Bible Study Techniques taught in Chapter 3. 

After the associated Scripture Study, each chapter then includes a variety of different activities and case studies aimed at directing users to practice applying doctrinal truths to a variety of unique situations. 

Finally, each chapter concludes with key terms and questions associated with the topic at hand, along with ample space for users to write down notes from the reading and lecture. 

Who was involved in creating this resource?

It takes a lot of people and a lot of time to create a resource of this length. 

Doctrines & Disciplines was:

  • written by Jake Riddle
  • content edited by Lindsay Funkhouser and Anna Sargent
  • theologically edited by Todd Engstrom
  • copy edited by Lindsey Lundin
  • designed by Shawn Bueche
  • proofread by Rebecca McCoy
  • printed and bound by One Touch Point Printing in Austin, TX

How can I get a copy of Doctrines & Disciplines?

While this resource is optimally intended to be used within the context of The Austin Stone Development Program, the ASI team has made this resource available for purchase to anyone interested in owning their own copy.

Copies of Doctrines & Disciplines can be purchased here 



Refuting the Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

September 18th, 2018 marked the twenty-year anniversary of a book that many have read or at least heard of: John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. If you haven’t heard of him, John Maxwell is a fairly famous former pastor and leadership expert. In 1998, I was a young youth pastor, eager to learn and grow in my calling, so when I heard that Maxwell was releasing a book on leadership, I bought it and read it quickly, hoping to find some nugget of truth that would take my leadership to another level.

The idea behind the book is that certain laws of leadership are irrefutable. The word “irrefutable” literally means “impossible to deny or refute.” His argument is that there are certain aspects of leadership that you can take to the bank—they’re true, all the time, every time, no matter what.

That is a pretty bold claim.

I remember reading about a particular law of leadership that Maxwell said was irrefutable and, personally, it was pretty discouraging. He called it “The Law of the Lid.” The idea is that an organization will only grow to the level of its senior leader. If, as a leader, you’re an “A,” you can lead your organization to an “A” level of effectiveness, but a “C” leader will only lead his/her origination to a “C” level, etc.

This “irrefutable” law was discouraging to me because I’m a decent leader, but I’m definitely not an “A level” leader. I can preach, but let’s be honest: my name is Matt Carter, not Matt Chandler. And folks, those are the things I’m decent at. There are several aspects of leadership (organization, systems, etc.) where I’m downright awful. I was discouraged because, according to John Maxwell’s irrefutable laws of leadership, whatever ministry God called me to lead was doomed to mediocrity, capped by “lid” that my ineffectual leadership placed upon it.

As I write this, it’s been twenty years since I’ve read the book and what I’ve discovered in those twenty years is that although there is some truth to the “law of the lid”, to say that it is “irrefutable” is a big stretch. I founded and pastor the Austin Stone Community Church and I can say with all honesty that she has far surpassed the effectiveness of the leadership level of her senior leader—and so can the organization you lead.

Here’s how to refute the irrefutable law of the lid:​

Lead in Plurality

Every leader has weaknesses. You can spend all your time trying to improve your area of weakness (there is some value here), or you can bring people around you who are gifted in ways you aren’t. This takes humility and a willingness to actually let others lead and receive credit for successes. Most leaders I’ve seen “cap” the effectiveness of their organization have been unwilling to truly delegate or, if they do, still require all decisions to be funneled through them. ​

Have Real Accountability

As you lead in plurality, give those leaders permission to honestly address your areas of weakness and failure. Receive that critique with grace and kindness, then change those things to the best of your ability. Most leaders I’ve seen who have placed a lid on their organization, never allowed themselves to be challenged or critiqued. This lead to a stagnation of their personal growth and their organizational growth was likewise hindered. Again, this takes real humility and Christ-likeness. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it in the long run.​

Surround Yourself With and Develop Young Leaders

The culture is changing rapidly. While there are things that are relevant for every culture (the Bible, the church, etc.), the way that people receive and process those things are radically different from generation to generation. Surrounding yourself with and developing young leaders allows us to change in appropriate ways with the changing tides of culture. This takes time, effort, and a whole lot of listening and learning, but it’s worth it. Too often, leaders refuse to do this and find themselves ineffective in reaching a changing culture.

If you’ll do these things, you’ll continue to grow as a leader in health and effectiveness, and your organization will grow right along with you.



Doctrine and Discipline for Leadership Development

Innumerable resources are available to leaders wanting to invest in their personal development. Many books have been written for leaders, from classic books, such as Blanchard’s One Minute Manager and Drucker’s The Effective Executive, to newer works such as Brown’s Daring Greatly and Scott’s Radical Candor. Commutes to and from work and appointments can be turned into leadership seminars by listening to TED talks or podcasts from leaders like Micheal Hyatt and Carey Nieuwhof. Even web surfing can be redeemed for personal development by pointing the address bar to Seth Godin’s blog or Harvard Business Review.

All of these resources help a leader grow. Christan leaders, however, should take care not to be so inundated with leadership books, podcasts, and blogs that they fail to focus on two important ways they can grow in leadership: the study of Christian doctrine and the practice of spiritual disciplines.

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Book Review: Rosaria Butterfield’s “The Gospel Comes with a House Key”

In anticipation of Rosaria Butterfield’s hospitality seminar on June 1, we read her book The Gospel Comes with a House Key.

“The gospel comes with a house key,” (11) begins Rosaria Butterfield in her book by the same name. She says the phrase is more of a process. By viewing one’s home as a key to sharing the gospel, strangers can become friends, and friends can become family members of God.

Butterfield explores that idea throughout The Gospel Comes with a House Key, using her life as an illustration. At the same time, she weaves in the gospel that undergirds and informs her family’s daily rhythms of hospitality. She intertwines the two on purpose, for Christian hospitality must always point to Jesus. Without that upward direction, hospitality becomes counterfeit and incapable of welcoming diverse worldviews, suffering with the brokenhearted, and inviting people to experience the healing found only in Christ.

Butterfield’s exploration of hospitality happens organically, meaning people glean principles and insights as they read the book. Some of those principles receive mention here. Butterfield’s book, however, contains many more.

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Training Writers to Lead

Writers who follow Jesus believe that God has given us life-changing truth to share and a dynamic medium through which to communicate that truth to a broken and hurting world: the written word.

Countless leaders throughout history have pointed to famous books, letters, and writings that have significantly impacted their lives and missions. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, cites Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day as an “impossibly perfect” literary work that influenced Bezos to push himself to achieve. Pharrell Williams, a prolific performer and producer, describes Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist as an epiphany that sparked intense reflection on his chosen life path and community. J.K. Rowling, author of one of the most beloved children’s series of all-time, credits Jane Austen’s Emma with making her a better thinker and writer.

Talk to anyone on the street, and they will likely have at least one book, essay, or treatise that profoundly influenced their worldview. The power to affect lives when a creator pours time, attention, and creativity into their work can create echoes of impact that will only be fully understood in eternity.

As believers in Christ, we have the greatest source from which to draw inspiration and understanding. We have the greatest model of humility, intentionality, and creativity. We have the greatest message to share!

We have the ability to make an eternal impact through our words. What an incredible gift and weighty call we’ve been given in Christ.

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Three Components of Biblical Leadership

To lead people effectively, a leader needs to understand how the gospel should inform their leadership. A primary element of such leadership involves listening to where a person is and communicating where Jesus wants them to go in a gracious yet challenging way. Leaders listen and speak. A biblical leader helps people process through the appetites and affections of their hearts, provides doctrinal and biblical content, and gives tangible steps of forward obedience. As this happens, the leader takes on three roles: teacher, shepherd, and coach. They instruct in doctrine, help shape character, and offer practical wisdom regarding action.

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Are Writers Leaders?

“Are writers leaders?” My instinct says, “Yes.” Writers can lead people for good or ill, and Christian writers can lead people either to or away from God. But instinct isn’t enough to validate an opinion. Opinions require some foundation for them to be not only believable but also arguable, defensible. I can say writers are leaders, but if I can’t point to reasons why that is, I’d be better off lapsing into silence.

Fortunately, I’ve done some thinking on the question and devised two ways to approach it, particularly as the question relates to Christian leadership. Other avenues exist, of course, but I’ve chosen two to keep things simple and to prevent rambling for an age. The first perspective comes from examining a biblical figure; the second, from literature itself.

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The Fear of Avoiding Failure

Most leaders have, at one point or another, experienced the fear of failure. Ed Catmull, the recently-retired president of Pixar and Disney Animation, says that we should have an even greater fear of being a leader who avoids failure at all costs. In his wonderful book on creative leadership, titled Creativity, Inc., Catmull states that “mistakes are an inevitable consequence of doing something new.”

Avoiding failure inevitably results in stagnation. We do the same old thing over and over again because it has proven to work. But innovation and growth require a degree of risk. The most successful leaders experience and learn from failure on a regular basis. To quote Catmull again, “If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: you are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy … dooms you to fail.”

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