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Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist was the second and much-anticipated book from my 2018 Summer Reading List for Weary Moms. It seemed that almost everyone who entered the giveaway already had a copy of this on their nightstand waiting to be read. It’s telling of our need for this book that so many of us can’t find the time to read it. As is my habit, I downloaded the audiobook from Audible to remove any possible excuses for not reading it, but I also bought the paperback because it’s just that good. There were enough parts needing highlighting and underlining that a physical copy was necessary.
Here’s my review.
Present Over Perfect Background
From the earliest of ages, most of us are indoctrinated into the school of success: our hard work leads us to achievement and accomplishments, which in turn bring accolades and opportunities. Opportunities, when capitalized on properly, lead to success. Do well in school, win awards and scholarships, get into the best universities, get on the Dean’s list, ace the exams, get the highest paying job, work yourself silly so you can advance quickly, etc., etc., etc, until you can retire happy and rich and sail off into the sunset.
It’s the basic path most of us find ourselves pursuing at some point in our lives, constantly, whether we realize it or not—striving for acceptance, kudos, acknowledgement, admiration. To be seen, to be noticed, to be respected, to be loved.
Unfortunately, it’s a never-ending cycle. If we don’t get these things we’re seeking, we keep pushing, believing that if we just do a little better, give a little more, then we’ll be ‘there.’ Or, if we manage to get ‘there,’ if we’ve made a name for ourselves based on our competency, our accomplishments, our capacity—well, then, we’re kind of stuck, aren’t we?
Because if our self-worth is tied to people believing us to be these things, then surely we can’t let them down. We have to keep giving more and more to preserve what sense of self worth we’ve earned.
Ironically, those who love us and think the world of us—no matter what we achieve or accomplish—are the ones who pay most deeply when we get caught up in the whirlwind of proving ourselves to the world.
I think this is the place Shauna Niequist had landed in when she penned Present Over Perfect.
She’d spent her whole life proving how competent, tough, and reliable she was, and the world had started to take notice.
Everyone wanted a piece of her: more book deals, more speaking engagements, more projects, more everything, and she—like so many of us—believed she could, and should, do it all. She’d become addicted to the drug of pleasing people, but the people she wanted to please most—her husband and kids—were only receiving whatever scraps of herself she had left to offer after fulfilling what she perceived to be everybody else’s expectations of her.
Present Over Perfect describes her journey of recover from this addiction. Shauna shares how she learned to stop worrying quite so much about what everyone thought of her and spend a season of her life saying no to everything.
Choosing to be Present Over Perfect means choosing your best yes
Finding your best yes requires a lot of saying no. When we say yes to everything, we erode our ability to give ourselves fully to anything, we’re spread too thin. We never have a chance to be present because our mind and bodies are constantly racing from one activity or thought to another.
As Shauna writes:
“Be careful how much of yourself you give away, even with the best of intentions. There are things you cannot get back. Things He has not asked you to sacrifice.”
Shauna Niequist, Present Over Perfect
As Shauna learned to say no to the frantic pace of her life, to slow down and be present and enjoy all of the gifts that had been laid our before her, she discovered the beauty of this simpler way of living. She discovered the joys of playing with her children, spending time unproductively, connecting with her neighbours around the basketball hoop in her driveway.
All of these things were there all along, waiting to be noticed, to receive their due attention, but in the effort to keep up with all the demands of everyone else around her, she’d been missing them.
“My faith has not failed me, but I think maybe I have failed it. Our beautiful, historic faith tradition is built on feasts and holidays, Sabbath and evening prayers, a rhythmic beautiful life with God. And many of us, myself certainly included, have stomped on the accelerator of our own lives and obliterated all evidence of that lovely path laid out for us. But the pattern remains if you squint. If you are willing to be creative. If you are fed up enough with the noise and the speed of the alternative.”
Letting go of perfectionism allows you to remember who you are
When we get caught in the cycle I described earlier, it’s really easy to lose sight of who we are—who we were created to be. We start to see ourselves as the world sees as, or at least, how we imagine the world sees as. As the sum of all our accomplishments, our contributions, our talents. How much do we bring to the table? How much do we sacrifice? How hard are we willing to work?
Yes, we are called to become smaller and to put others ahead of ourselves, but we must be careful in doing so that we are doing so for the right reasons. Are we doing it so that He might become larger? That others might see Him through us? Or are we secretly doing it because we want people to think that we are good, worthy, valuable, special? As Sarah Mackenzie asked in Teaching from Rest, “Whose well done are you working for?”
When we truly lay all of these ambitions aside and slow down long enough to hear the small still voice inside us, we find this: our true selves. We can cover our true selves up, but then we miss out on so much of what He has planned for us.
“You were made by hand with great love by the God of the universe, and he planted deep inside you a set of loves and dreams and idiosyncrasies, and you can ignore them as long as you want, but they will at some point start yelling. Worse than that, if you ignore them long enough, they will go silent, and that is the real tragedy.”
Embracing the present
Sometimes we worry that saying no means we will miss out on opportunities. We can stop worrying. It does mean that. Unfortunately, there are just too many opportunities to go around to say yes to them all. But when we look at it as choosing our best yes, instead of just as saying no, we see that saying no allows us to be even more of a blessing to those around us.
“I’m reveling in the smallness of my capacity. This is it. This is who I am. This is all I have to give you. It’s not a fire hose. It’s a stream.”
Overall, Present Over Perfect is a fantastic book, and one that I’d recommend reading multiple times. There are many nuggets of wisdom there that may take time to take root in our souls. If you are an overachiever or a perfectionist, this is a must-read for you.
Want to get your copy?
I loved listening to the audiobook edition of Present Over Perfect, read by Shauna Niequist. Grab your free copy of the audiobook with a free Audible trial and start listening right now.
There is also a study guide available here. I have not checked this out so I cannot speak to its quality.