I get really stressed about perfection sometimes. In my own life, I find this happens in several areas again and again:
- When I'm prepping for a speaking or professional development engagement
- When I'm prepping for the first day of school (which, for me, is today)
- When I mess up as a parent
Conversely, there are other areas of life that are important to me that I don't tend to feel intense stress-pressure about:
- When I mess up as a husband
- When I'm reflecting on my shortcomings as a writer
- When I'm looking at how my business as a consultant/writer is doing
Interestingly, my stress with the first group seems to provide me with no improved outcomes. I'm far from the speaker, teacher, and parent I'd like to be, just as I'm still improving as a husband, writer, and entrepreneur. The stress-pressure doesn't make a difference in terms of achievement.
But stress does make a difference — in my enjoyment of my life, in my health, and in my performance in other areas (e.g., when I am stressed about an upcoming speaking engagement, I'm a worse dad and husband).
So if I know that stress doesn't result in increased growth, and that it actually retards growth across my life, here's the question: why do I still get stressed?
Why I get stressed
It comes down to fear, permanence, and what I'll call idolatry for want of a less-loaded term.
First, I'm stressed because I'm scared of the consequences of poor performance.
Fear makes me believe:
- If I'm not the best speaker they've ever heard, people will talk badly about me after I leave, and I'll lose potential future engagements.
- If I don't set up and execute the first day just right, kids will drop my class or I'll be making up for my mistakes all year
- If I don't figure out X parenting dilemma, my kids will be scarred for life.
Secondly, this fear isn't of temporary negative outcomes; I'm envisioning permanent problems: “lose potential future engagements”… “making up for my mistakes all year”… “scarred for life”…. 
Beneath the fear and the belief in permanence is a deeper thing: idolatry. Don't get hung up on the religious connotations; it's just that I take good things and turn them into ultimate things, things that, deep down, I'm desperate for. Some of these things may be quite noble, and some may not. I think this is a human thing.
My “idols,” in the stress areas above, are some you may relate to: I want people to like me; I want a good school year; I want to be a good dad.
The problem isn't that I want those things — it's that I want them too badly. I have what St. Augustine called “disordered loves.” 
Why I don't get stressed
On the other hand, in those areas in which I tend not to stress as much, it's usually because I have a sense of security, process, and grace.
- Crystal is the most committed woman I know; she wants a great marriage mixed with a best friendship, like I do, and she's shown me over the past seven years that she's willing to work with me to get there.
- The readers I write for are those undeterred by my occasional typos and perpetual sharing of rough-draft thinking. They've shown me over the past three years of running this blog that they exist; they are who I am serving.
- This whole “blogging as a means of helping others — and supporting a family, too” has shown itself to be a real thing over the past three years. Last year for the first time, the blog earned more than I do as a teacher, and I see opportunities for sustainable growth in the future.
In short, I have plenty of evidence to make me believe these things will stick around (security), and when I look at the years of being a husband and a writer and an entrepreneur, I see a story of many mistakes but also lots of improvement (process). When you juxtapose a messy process with a sense of security, you get grace — good outcomes despite subpar inputs. Grace is sort of an antidote for stress.
How you and I can be less stressed in the future
If I had the magic answer, I wouldn't have much to write this article on 🙂 I know it starts with reminding ourselves of some truths.
- If I'm doing it right, the participants in my next speaking gig will get a less polished product than those in speaking gigs two years from now. It's a process. All I can do is the best I can given reasonable, responsible, non-idolatrous amounts of time invested before an event. In short, being a great speaker is a process — just like being a great teacher and dad.
- Experience is important. In the areas of stress, I'm undervaluing my experience — 30+ speaking engagements, 8 years of “first days,” 5 years of being a dad — whereas in the areas of non-stress, I'm properly trusting in it. I don't “wing it” every day as a husband and writer and businessman, but I also don't fall prey to the lie that, if I just micromanage well enough, I can produce perfect outcomes. In other words, turn experience into a healthy sense of security.
- Messing up isn't permanent. Let's say that, in some bizarre realignment of the cosmos, I show up at my next speaking engagement and give the absolute worst performance ever witnessed by any of the participants. They literally all walk out of there afterward saying the same thing: that was a horrendous train wreck. Or that my first day of school involves every class going completely off the rails. Or that I snip and snap and get crabby at my beautiful daughters for a week straight. In all of these worst case scenarios — and it is comforting to picture them because they remind me of the fact that I would have to really work to make such perfectly wretched outcomes a reality — there would be ways to salvage the ship. My work as a speaker, teacher, and dad wouldn't need to be over.
That last one was supposed to land at grace. But it didn't. And, since I'm writing this at 9:53pm on the night before the first day of school, I'm going to leave the grace bit up to you.
I do hope this reflection helps you think more clearly about your stress; too many teachers are too stressed out.
- Actually, the only time I do get really stressed about writing is when I'm writing a book — largely, I think, because books feel so permanent (and because I place too high a value on not sounding dumb in them).
- Augustine writes about the disordered loves in his Confessions.[hr]
Thanks to Tim Keller, whose book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power is a great primer not just on idolatry in the religious sense, but on human psychology in general.
I felt like I was reading about me. Tears came and then I gave thanks for you and your beautiful truths. To the best first day of school….ever.
Tracey, messages like this sure make a day special. Thank you so, so much.
Maura Fitzgerald says
Good luck this year. Very appropriate article – I was observed today in class (we start much earlier than you) and I was stressing out for the very same reasons you gave for your first set of stresses. I wanted it to go as well as possible. I was aware of every mis-step, stutter, trip, self-correction, etc. Nice job with the blog.
Thank you, Maura!
Your words remind me of a book by Brene Brown that I read this summer, called Daring Greatly. She says that we buy the message that if we are lacking in any way, we are defined by that lack. She’s a big fan of being “good enough.” I’m right there with you, and I appreciate your thoughts about grace–a great reminder for the beginning of the year. Thank you!
Thank you, Dave. This was a tough day with much anxiety. I appreciate that you are honest and real about your teaching. I am always encouraged and inspired when I read your posts.
Thank you so much; I never know how posts like this will be received. It is good to hear they encourage others — that is my goal.
Joanne Roark says
Great reflections Dave….thoughtful, real and compassionate. Keep ’em coming.
Just like Maura, being observed really produces a lot of anxiety for me. There is a need so far under the surface that nothing can prevent this anxiety – a need to be revered as an intelligent and effective teacher. A fear that the opportunity to “impress” will go horribly wrong. Ironically, it is this anxiety that often causes me to be less effective since I’m not tuned in as much to the students as a result of my distractions with my self. As I am implementing a lot of new strategies this year, it is helpful to be reminded by your blog that my students next year will benefit much more than this year’s students from these new strategies (as a side note, it is not much consolation to know it is out of my hands if the admin or teacher observing me isn’t taking “process” into consideration as they observe me).
Lastly, it was from a talk by Timothy Keller a few years back that I came to fully accept a profound and counter intuitive key to life – lasting happiness and fulfillment in our own lives comes from putting our effort and focus on helping others experience happiness and fulfillment. We are so fortunate as teachers that everyday we are distracted from ourselves and get paid to equip kids to find lasting happiness and fulfillment.
James, this was so good to read; and you are right that eval/observation systems that don’t consider process aren’t that honoring to the profession.
We have a great job; thank you for reminding me, James, as I’m a tired man tonight!
Geri Beckman says
Thank you for helping me bring these “big” truths into the workplace with specific examples. I am reading Tim Keller’s book on prayer right now, and he references the “disordered loves” in it. I’m just like my students; I need examples I can relate to!