Kennedy: The fine line between perfectionism and perseverance

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, in an undated picture, is often remembered for what is commonly called his "Man in the Arena" speech, in which he praises the value of making an effort. / AP Photo

Words are vessels for ideas. Two words — perseverance and perfectionism — have been chasing one another around my brain for some time.

They are both potential paths to better results, but one is filled with virtue and the other is fraught with peril.

If I could wish one virtue for my two sons, it would be perseverance. I think it's the most durable (and desirable) trait a human can have.

What is life, after all, if not a series of tests of our will to persevere, to stay the course when things get difficult. Perseverance is the screwdriver in your toolkit, capable of prying open possibilities when you're stuck, tightening your resolve when things get tough and loosening your emotions when things are tense.

Perfectionism, on the other hand, comes from a darker place. It is a character flaw not a virtue because it's all bound up with your ego. People who seek perfection are often too concerned about what other people think of them. One of the side effects of perfectionism is anxiety. It's the carrot on the stick that you can never reach, dooming even valiant effort as a failure.

Eventually perfectionism metastasizes into a fear of failure. This results in people attempting to live a risk-averse life that deprives them of the fruits of perseverance.

Recently, I bought my older son, who is 21 years old, a frameable copy of President Theodore Roosevelt's famous "Man in the Arena" quote. I hope he hangs it up in his apartment and consults it when times get tough.

Roosevelt said: "It's not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again; because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.

"... (Be the person) who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails when daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

When I was my older son's age, I spent part of a summer selling Bibles door to door in Indiana. For a timid person, like me, it was like someone with a fear of flying being strapped to the wing of an airplane. I failed at the job, but just being "in the arena" against my biggest fear — social anxiety — gave me a small spark that helped me later on.

When I decided to become a journalist, the risk-averse perfectionist in me said, "Don't do it. You're too timid. You'll fail."

After a decade of practicing the craft of journalism, I was given the opportunity to write a column. But instead of being a critic — the traditional columnist role — I wanted to search out ordinary people who were battling in the arena of life.

I called the column Life Stories, realizing that the word "story" implied striving against some conflict in their life. Over the last 30-plus years, I've found courage and meaning from telling the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

These are people who have persevered and have stories worth sharing. They are not among "the timid souls who neither knew victory or defeat" for fear of being imperfect in the attempt.

Venturing boldly into the arena is really all we can ask of ourselves. And all that God expects.

Contact Mark Kennedy at [email protected] or 423-645-8937.