A Note to Perfectionists

This past week at the food pantry was probably my busiest yet! We had one day of in-pantry demos where clients could learn more about battling hypertension on a pantry diet, a farm market with additional demos on diversifying eating habits along with another kid’s tent, and, finally, a cooking class where clients took part in practicing resourceful cooking techniques to make two delicious casseroles with an unlikely combination of ingredients.

A volunteers plays a game with clients to learn about when certain fruits and vegetables are in season.

I am happy to say that our “pilot” week went very well. Clients responded enthusiastically, and quite a few commented that the new nutrition education program addresses some prevalent needs in their community.  Lesson facilitators took smoothly to the new roles, and a couple volunteers mentioned that the experience made them feel like their individual skills and knowledge were acknowledged and valued. Sounds, pretty perfect, right? Well, it didn’t start out that way…

Flashback to the two weeks ago when we initially tried to pilot the farm market demos. Due to lack of communication, the time I had allotted for the activities was about an hour past the ideal time. Not that it mattered, considering I had neglected to firmly implement a new registering system that would allow clients to visit the demos without losing their spot in line. As I began to set up the demos in vain any way, I realized that the volunteers assigned to the demos were nowhere to be found. Nor were their back-ups. The only thing messier than the whole ordeal were the chocolate chips I was attempting to help kids put in their trail mix that had (shock!) melted in the 90 degree weather. In other words, the afternoon had gone from test drive to train wreck in less than 5 minutes.

The reason I tell this story is because I did do one thing right that day; I didn’t panic. I didn’t shut down, I didn’t point fingers, and I didn’t berate myself for dropping the ball. Instead, I decided to try out what every wise person has advised me to do my entire life: learn from my mistakes. I gathered up demo supplies and talked with my boss about scheduling a day to try them out “in-pantry” first. I started brainstorming how to bring more intrinsic value to the facilitator role so that volunteers felt a more personal commitment to the position. I contacted local pantries to gather advice on implementing a less chaotic registration system. I made a note to buy M&Ms next time we made trail mix.

If this had happened at the beginning of the summer, I probably would have broken down and saw myself as unfit for my new job. This is not because I’m lazy; it’s because I am guilty of being a perfectionist. So, let this be a lesson to me and my fellow perfectionists: Flawlessness is simultaneously an impossible and unintimidating goal, because it doesn’t allow for humility or learning. Movers and shakers are not great at what they do because they are perfect. They’re great because they’re adaptable and resilient. You learn very quickly in the non-profit sector that you are not going to do everything right, and some days, you’ll feel like you aren’t doing anything right. Mistakes will happen. Events will spiral out of control. Chocolate chips will melt, and that’s ok. What matters is finding the best possible way to meet your client’s needs, and sometimes the best thing you can do is admit that you’re current method isn’t cutting it. When you are providing essential services for other people, there is no time to get wrapped up in bruised pride or disappointment in yourself. Perfectionism isn’t going to help anyone.

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