When Kelsey Joy Buell was 7 years old and learning to play the violin, she already showed the hallmarks of a card-carrying perfectionist.
If she played a wrong note, she would immediately stop playing, go back to the beginning of the song and start over again. This habit baffled her violin teacher, who encouraged her young student to brush off the mistake and continue playing through to the end.
In a culture that values high achievement, the little girl’s commitment to excellence would typically be celebrated. But during a parent-teacher conference, another educator - this time Buell’s third-grade teacher - told her parents that their daughters’ unyielding perfectionism actually concerned her.
“Kelsey spends too much time perfecting every assignment,” the teacher said, adding that her behavior could prevent their daughter from reaching her full potential in school and in life.
Today, Buell says that quest for perfection was “very much something inside of me. It might have stemmed from being competitive. I was a musician, a performer. I was competitive with myself, and I always wanted to be my best.”
But as can be the case with many perfectionists, she too often dismissed her own human error as a complete failure, rather than an opportunity to learn and keep moving forward.
These early life lessons helped Buell’s family and teachers gently steer her toward a work ethic that made it OK to make mistakes. Today, Buell says she still strives for excellence, but she no longer gets down on herself if something goes awry.
Now a motivational speaker, career coach and talent optimization consultant for her own business, Kelsey Joy Speaking & Consulting, the Fargoan will share lessons from her own journey during The Chamber's Women Connect livestream presentation, “Paralyzed by Perfect,” from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23.
While we know women haven't cornered the market on perfectionism, Buell believes females are more prone to compare themselves to other women - and decide that they somehow fall short. "I think women look towards other women and think, 'They always seem to have it together,' when, in reality, we are all just beautiful messes."
Buell’s goal is to motivate women to not only stop comparing themselves, but to overcome the perfectionism that gets them “stuck” and keeps them from attempting new challenges.
One important lesson she'll share from her own journey is that in her quest to execute a project or plan flawlessly, she can wind up not doing anything at all. In a recent Instagram post, she says she’s combatting that perfection paralysis by committing herself to “massive imperfect action” in 2021.
For instance, rather than overthink the planning of an event until she’s talked herself out of it, she will go forward and just do it - even if there might be a mistake here or there. “Sometimes done is better than perfect,” she says.
Buell also talks about prioritizing which areas of our lives need "100%" and which areas of our lives can sometimes get by with less effort.
Contrary to what we are often taught, that sometimes means acknowledging we can't always be the all-star at work. “There's this concept that you have all these elements of your life: work, spiritual, health, family, friends. If you were juggling them all as balls, you’ll find that work is a rubber ball and the rest of them are made of glass. If you drop work, it can bounce back, but you drop your family or your health … it might even shatter,” she says.
Buell sees this prioritization of what really matters as a sort of “burnout prevention.”
“What’s interesting is when I talked to professionals about their burnout stories, so many wound up failing at home or health because they were putting 100% of themselves into their work,” she says.
She also believes that people who allow themselves to be fallible are allowing others to also show their own humanness, which can build understanding and connection. “The more perfect you are, the less transparent you are,” she says.
Buell saw her own progress on her journey through the instrument that had once exemplified her perfectionism: her violin. Now an accomplished violinist and singer who has performed the "National Anthem" in packed stadiums, she embarked on a much smaller and more personal concert tour by giving sidewalk concerts to nursing home residents during the pandemic.
Her generous act was covered by The Forum and several TV stations. When Buell watched videos of her performances later, she noticed “there were plenty of wrong notes.”
But unlike the performances of her childhood, she accepted the occasional clinker and kept her focus on what really mattered: brightening the lives of others. “I just did it, because I wanted to give back and it felt really good. I think I gained more out of it than the residents did.”
In fact, the experience helped her form an anti-perfectionism battle cry: “Stop ‘fiddling’ around and just do it,” she says. “Just get it done.”
Tickets are $20 for Chamber members and $40 for non-members. Register at https://fmwfchamber.chambermaster.com/eventregistration/register/7069