A Challenge To Perfectionism (and Another Reason to Get Excited about the Super Bowl)


The Falcons are playing in the Super Bowl.


How cool is that to read? If you’re not a longtime fan or a wanna-be ATLien like me then you have no idea how much fun that is to type out. In a year of sports that has been headlined by underdogs and comebacks, there might not be a better story than Atlanta’s own Matt Ryan. After taking his team to the NFC Championship in 2012 (and shortly after getting a big contract extension), the Falcons’ starting quarterback went the next four years without leading his team to the playoffs. His level of play began to show some diminishing returns, possibly showing his worst season of his 9-year career in the 2015 season.


In case you haven’t followed the Falcons much this year, I’ll give you a brief recap. In 2016, Matt Ryan nearly doubled the number of touchdowns he threw in 2015, cut his interceptions down by more than half, and led the NFL’s number one scoring offense. In addition to steamrolling opponents on the Falcons’ way to Super Bowl LI, he’s also the league MVP. To give you additional perspective on how shocking this is, more people at the beginning of the year placed bets on the Cleveland Browns to win it all than on Ryan’s Falcons.


How did things turn around for Matt Ryan, a player who was thought by many to have had his best days behind him going into 2016? Two weeks before the regular season started, ESPN Magazine’s NFL preview had an interesting interview with Ryan in which he detailed the changes he had started to make in his game during the offseason.


The story, which at the time it was published was probably buried under another lead about Cam Newton’s latest fashion statement, went unnoticed until halfway through the season when Matt Ryan began being seriously considered for League MVP. Seth Wickersham, a senior writer at ESPN, had this to say of Ryan:


For years, when he discussed his craft, it was fascinating as he delved into the magnitude of responsibility on each play. But it was also a little sad. You could feel the pressure building inside him as he spoke, almost making the game a little more complicated than it needed to be -- the curse of the over-invested.”


Sports journalists tend to report on teams and athletes with a bit of a Hollywood flair, pointing out the sort of things that could make it to the big screen. The narratives these writers and anchors carve out can seem a bit contrived but they are good at getting the attention of the casual viewer with gripping headlines of heroism. Imagine then, the disappointment of some of these writers when Matt Ryan, after the worst season of his career, said this:


“See spots. That's my thing now. The older I've gotten, the more that's become my thing. Don't worry so much about where defenders should be or where they're supposed to be or all those kinds of things. Just see spots.”


What does he mean by “seeing spots?” Almost exactly what it sounds like-- throwing to the guy that’s open. In other words, taking the best shot available. That was his epiphany. He didn’t turn his game around by composing a statistical algorithm, climbing up the monastery steps on a snow-capped mountain or going Whole30. If anything, Matt Ryan’s approach to football became more simple. He just started seeing spots.


Most of us will never play a professional sport like Matt Ryan but almost all of us will feel the pressure to be great. Like Ryan, we’ll spend our time planning our next steps disproportionately to the time we spend taking them. Perhaps you’ve put off applying for a job because you want to get your résumé just right. Maybe there are passions God has placed in your heart but you’re waiting for a “sign” before you really go after them. Maybe there are stories you want to write, people you want to reach, events you want to plan, dates you want to go on, or places where you want to live but the fear of failure is simply too much.


As a friend of mine once said, you should never let perfection get in the way of what’s good. When speaking on a matter-of-fact level, none us would classify ourselves as perfectionists but the way we live our lives would say otherwise. We do it to ourselves, refusing to exercise the best parts of us because we focus too much on the ways we come up short. We do it with God, denying ourselves to him because of our shame.


If we’re serious about doing good and beating perfectionism we have to start at being okay with failure. There have been a number of books written on this but it’s also a biblical principle (read Proverbs 24:16 if you want a nice zinger about failure). If you are not afraid of getting rejected for a job interview, how many more would you apply for? How many projects, creative or otherwise, would you undertake once you decided to do it for yourself and not for the approval of others?


Let’s start “seeing the spots” in our own lives.


// Justin Patton