In school we are graded on our work. If you work hard, listen and do exactly as the teacher says, you can get 100%. When you do, congrats! You’ve reached the end line. That’s exactly the place you want to be, and you should try everything to continuously maintain those marks.
This is the paradigm we’re taught, so it’s only natural that some of us start to apply the same principles to life. Because we think that life is like school, you start to believe that there is a way of life that earns you an ‘A’. That there is an ideal state of being that you should continuously be in. I call this the ‘plateau of perfection’.
The existence of the plateau of perfection means that if you work hard, eventually you will reach some sort of nirvana. Of course, no one can really tell you what this is because it doesn’t exist. But in the meantime other people may give you their opinions on what flawlessness is, and you may take some of their opinions on board (“It’s getting into an Ivy League school”, “It’s getting an Olympic medal”, “It’s earning a six-figure salary”).
Now, the issue with this kind of mindset is that it’s very black and white. If in any way you deviate from this illusory plateau, you are failing. And when you’re failing at life, what is the point in doing anything?
This leads to several toxic behavioural patterns known today as perfectionism. You become scared of falling from white into black territory, so you try everything to avoid feeling like you have. You are less likely to start something new because you don’t like to do things unless you are good at them. Even if you do begin learning a new skill, the moment you realise how behind you are compared to other people, or find yourself struggling to learn something, that is black territory so you quit. You don’t take criticism well because any sort of critique means that you have failed, that you haven’t achieved an ‘A’ in what you are doing.
This is all a big shame, because you are running away from opportunities to develop as a person. From my experience I have come to learn that there is no plateau of perfection. Growth is an infinite, continuous process, more like this:
Now, the idea that there is no plateau of perfection in life may be a daunting concept for some people. If there is no end-point what’s the point of even doing anything? If you find yourself thinking this, then probably you are what I call an ‘end-ist’. You see life just as set of goals, and have a tendency to miss out on the enjoyment that comes from the actual process of doing things (if you do find identifying with this description, I highly encourage you watch this Alan Watts video).
I too used to be like this, but not anymore. Now I believe that our purpose in life is to savour all elements that emerge in the present moment. As such, infinite growth presents a wonderful opportunity to forever experience new and exciting things. Think of it like you are running a leisurely marathon. As you jog along you will pass a variety of sceneries – parks, forests and buildings – all of which you can relish as you go along. This is the beauty of continually developing.
Also, you may have noticed that life works in a funny way. The moment you start to plateau and think that you’ve ‘made it’, it throws at you challenges that encourage you to grow even more. And it will do so for the rest of your life, reminding you that there is no plateau.
This is why we hear experts say that they are still learning something new everyday. They are humble because they know that there will forever be things that can be learnt. There is no room for arrogance because whatever we believe to be ‘true’ will eventually all shift and change.
Personally, I find the growth mindset extremely liberating. There is no need to rush to get to any end point, because it doesn’t exist. Instead, enjoy looking at the different sceneries as you jog along your chosen path.