Why do we put pressure on ourselves to get things right the first time?

Woman practising speech in front of room full of empty chairs.
Clare Gunning
Tue 10 Mar

I promised to report back on my experiment to focus more on being of service to others.

As I attempted to be more helpful I felt very clumsy. I would see someone who might need a hand and then hesitate, sometimes missing the moment to help altogether. Like, it is too late to offer to put an older woman’s bag in the overhead locker on a flight – when the bag is already in the locker. 

But as I got going I thought, there is more than one shot at this. It’s ok to double back once you’ve found some change for the busker, or you know what – at the end of the flight you can jump up quickly and get that heavy bag out of the overhead locker for the woman. Even though at this point my effort was so eager it sort of looked more like I was trying to steal the bag.  

Why do we put pressure on ourselves to get things right the first time?

Of course we are not perfect at things that are new.

I watch my 5-year-old son learn things like drawing, handball, riding a bike – and I am daily reminded of how far the gap is between the first time you try to do something and actually being competent at that thing.

And yet, if I decide to try something new, even something as vague as being more helpful to others, I expect immediate perfection from myself.  

I have that Eminem song in my head ‘you’ve only got one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime…’

Well not meaning to ruin a great song, but it turns out there are many shots in life, and I’m glad I persisted with being more helpful. Aside from working on my own perfectionism, I found a lot of joy in being a more useful member of society, and I think in maybe a handful of cases I actually did something genuinely helpful for another person. Phew.

There is a shadow side of service though. I discovered it can be used as a way of being passive about your own work. At times I used ‘helping others’ as an excuse not to achieve my goals for the day. Waiting to see an opportunity to help, if used as a way to avoid making your own path, is seductive and disempowering. 

I’ve realized I still need to have a sense of what I want to achieve in a day, otherwise I’m just using helpfulness as an excuse.  This realization turned out to be extremely inconvenient, as helping others at times became a procrastination tool. Damn. 

At the end of this month I’ve learnt two things. One: be kind to yourself when trying new things, and two: be helpful without giving up on your dreams.