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The Last Lecture: ‘The fear of imperfection stifles growth’ and negative feedback is not a bad thing, professor tells Northeastern grads

Professor Daniele Mathras recommends embracing a “Rose, Thorn, Bud” framework to share your positive experiences (Rose), your disappointments and vulnerabilities (Thorn) and excitement for the future (Bud).

Daniele Mathras delivers last lecture in an ampitheater.
Daniele Mathras, associate teaching professor of marketing, delivers the Last Lecture during Commencement Week on Northeastern’s Boston campus. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern University associate teaching professor of marketing Daniele Mathras is a perfectionist. 

She’s trying to deal with it.

“I’m a perfectionist, and I like to say I’m a recovering perfectionist,” Mathras told students at Northeastern’s traditional Last Lecture on Tuesday. 

“It’s a work in progress,” Mathras continued, noting that she stayed up until 1:35 a.m. tweaking her slide deck for the lecture. “And I think that that’s the point that I want to make out of all of this.”

The Last Lecture is a tradition that became popular in the mid-2000s after Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, delivered his final lecture at the school after discovering he had terminal cancer.

The lecture was turned into a book titled “The Last Lecture,” which became a New York Times bestseller in 2008. Since then, universities across the country have adopted their own last lectures for graduating students. 

With final exams over, grades submitted and commencement ceremonies being held, it’s understandably a time when many students might want things to be “perfect.” 

There’s certainly lots of pressure for things to be that way in life — whether from social media, our peers and institutions or from within. After all, Mathras noted, who likes to be criticized? 

How many different things in life require applications or tests over which we obsess? And we definitely want certain professionals like copy editors, surgeons or engineers to be perfect.

“Perfectionists have a tendency to succeed and really contribute — attention to detail can be really helpful for some fields,” Mathras said.

But Mathras also pointed out inherent contradictions in our ideas of perfectionism.

For instance, we emulate influencers with their impeccably curated social media feeds, and then say we like them because they are “real” and “authentic.” Similarly, striving for perfection can sometimes lead to procrastination, never finishing tasks, or even a sense of paralysis — not to mention poor mental health, Mathras said.

“The whole idea here is that rather than striving for perfection, iteration and learning and growth is a better path,” Mathras said. “The fear of imperfection stifles growth.”

So, how do we overcome this fear? 

Mathras suggested several strategies.

One is to think of yourself as exhibiting different zones — stepping from your “comfort zone” where you feel safe, in control and confident; to a “fear zone” where you are presented with the unfamiliar and uncomfortable; to a “learning zone” where you handle those fears by acquiring new skills; and arriving at a “growth zone” where you set new goals upon mastering the skills.

Another strategy is to seek out negative feedback and develop a growth mindset. 

“With a growth mindset, there’s no such thing as failure — it’s my chance to learn and grow,” Mathras explained.

Furthermore, Mathras recommended accepting the idea of “good enough,” and sharing your imperfections at the same time as your successes by embracing a “Rose, Thorn, Bud” framework to share your positive experiences (Rose), your disappointments and vulnerabilities (Thorn) and excitement for the future (Bud).

It may not always work out — Mathras started the lecture by noting she stepped outside her comfort zone by wearing white clothing … and promptly “got pen all over myself.”

After all, nothing’s perfect.