I realized the other day that my daughter, Evie, understands something about joy that I am still struggling to wrap my mind around. She was playing on the floor with her toys and began sticking colored pencils into the various openings of this rattle ball she got for her birthday. The result was a spiky and magnificently colorful orb. She can spend a good five minutes doing this, which is impressive for a toddler.
But what I loved most about this particular playtime moment is how after she finished, her eyes lit up and she got this big smile on her face and she started clapping. She was absolutely thrilled about what she had just created.
She is always teaching me something.
I thought about how, theoretically, someone could walk up to her and tell her that what she had just done wasn’t that big of a deal and maybe she should just work a little harder to make her next creation a little more impressive—you know, to one-up the other toddlers. If she really wanted to prove herself marketable, she could at least attempt to maybe balance the colored pencils on top of the ball, or maybe organize them by color hue—that would draw an audience, for sure.
But my daughter wouldn’t care (and not only because she’s a toddler and wouldn’t actually understand what this person was saying). She wouldn’t care because she was already pretty darn proud of what she had accomplished, and it didn’t really matter what anyone else thought or even if anyone else saw it. She was happy with herself, and she was happy with the work she had done. And she went on and threw herself a mini-party in celebration.
I think about how hard I am on myself with everything I try to do. I think about all the striving and all the desiring to achieve. And when I do finally do something good, it isn’t quite good enough. I’m left feeling unsatisfied and disappointed—always picking out where I’m lacking instead of celebrating what I have.
If I was in my daughter’s place, I would have been critically squinting at my choice of colored pencils, thinking I should have added more. I would have second-guessed why I put that magenta one on the bottom and that orange one in the corner. I would have wondered why no one was admiring it.
Why do I believe the lie that if there is no approval and no perfection that there is no value? This perspective is honestly exhausting, and it sucks the joy right out of me. The funny thing about approval is that no matter how much I have, it is never enough. And striving for perfection is like striving to catch the wind.
Some of us are walking through this life being so extremely hard on ourselves. I think it’s time to ease up a bit and take a couple cues from Evie, who gets it. I think it’s time to allow a bit of happiness or excitement or pride to fill us just a little so that we can truly enjoy the beauty, the effort, the achievement. To let what we do be good and be good enough.
To look in the mirror and say, “Yeah, I do look good tonight,” despite the stray hairs that didn’t curl right. There is beauty in us anyway.
To agree that, yes, the day was hard with ornery toddlers who throw fits every time the word “no” is spoken or sassy teenagers or a full 12-hour shift. But we worked hard, too.
And when the day ends, we can begin to allow ourselves to rest easy in the truth that our effort was sufficient.
To sit back and admire a finished project and to recognize that we’ve achieved something.
It is good, even if no one cares to notice.
This is what my 15-month-old is teaching me about life. Sadly, I’ll most likely have to reteach her this very lesson when she’s older, when she comes to me with tears welling up in her frustrated eyes and asks me why she isn’t better. And I’ll have to tell her of this one tiny moment in her second year of life where she taught me to take joy in what I’ve done, in the work my hands have made. Even if no one else cares. Even if someone else could do better. Even if it isn’t perfect. We should never miss it or minimize it or tear it to the ground.
For there is value and beauty in what we do and who we are, and we shouldn’t take any of it for granted for a second.
Maybe as we learn to gaze a little less critically at our work or even our mirrors, we’ll let a little light back into our eyes and permit the beginnings of a smile on our lips.
Maybe we’ll even get to the point where we don’t feel weird about doing a little clapping.