Ever spent too long on a Powerpoint presentation, quit a project or found yourself going over an essay for the tenth time? Perfectionism creeps into every facet of our lives. We want to be perfect at work, we’re obsessed with our appearance, we want stellar achievements, and the followers to go with it. We even imagine our perfect partner: that ideal being who meets all our needs.
I used to wonder what was wrong with ‘perfection.’ In a world full of average, surely people producing great work can only be a good thing? But the problem is not what perfectionists produce – its where the need for perfection comes from. Our desire for perfectionism is not because we are looking for perfection.
It emerges from the feeling that we’ll never be good enough.
For some of us, that creeping sense of being unworthy springs from childhood. Desperate to raise highly accomplished children, parents can be overcritical, triggering guilt when the child falls short. Others, despite plenty of early encouragement, still lack confidence in themselves, and in how people see them. Henry Nouwen says, “A little criticism makes me angry, a little rejection makes me depressed. I feel like a very small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of the waves.”
We will do almost anything to calm this storm. We work long days, we fawn to those in authority, we re-do completed tasks ad infinitum. We tell ourselves it is this task which, once perfected, will finally bring a sense of completion for our bruised psyches. We hope these labours will bring a lasting feeling of accomplishment. And so, we fall into the Sisyphian trap, condemned to roll our rock up the mountain, only to watch it roll back down each time. Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, suggested we have an eternity of repetitive tasks ahead of us.
This is the perfectionist trap: our desperate desire for perfection but no real sense of what it will take to achieve it. And no understanding of how to break the cycle – when to accept being good enough.
I used to think some people were perfectionists, and others not. Now I think we all have perfectionist tendencies. For some, it kicks in when the pressure’s on, for others it chronically addicts them to doing more and more. And it doesn’t only affect us – it can place impossible expectations on our colleagues, even suffocate our children.
‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,’ were the words my Dad often said, when I was about to short-circuit a chore. What he meant was: don’t rush, do one thing at a time, find satisfaction from doing things well. He was training me in how people would expect a job to be done. This is what psychologists call ‘constructive perfectionism,’ where we learn from our mistakes and, over time, develop self-discipline.
Brené Brown defines the other side of perfectionism: ‘if I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimise the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.’ It’s not fulfilling, but is where we want to show that all is well with the world. Psychologists call this kind of high-stakes, goal-setting behaviour ‘destructive perfectionism’, and it probably lies behind many of today’s mental health problems. To combat this, Brene Brown recommends an honest vulnerability which celebrates our gifts of imperfection while Kristin Neff recommends the approach of self-compassion.
Here’s a simple example:
I love cycling. If I behave as a constructive perfectionist in the way I ride, then this means I will watch my times each day I’m on the bike and focus on improving my personal best. This is fun at a low-stakes level, means I am adapting my skills continually, and adds a little healthy personal competition. I am competing with my real self.
When I slip into a destructive perfectionism gear, I become more preoccupied with the performance of other cyclists, their kit, their times, what they look like. How I compare with them. I’m competing not with myself, but with the image of myself that I hold, versus the image of others I imagine. It is maladaptive, where fear of failure is more powerful than excellence-seeking. And deep down, I know I’ll never win that battle.
Sometimes we are so committed to perfecting a task, when fail to accomplish it properly we quit. This could be because we began with a goal that was simply too big, or because we were not confident to ask for help when it would have made the difference. We collapse into all-or-nothing behaviours. Its why people say, “either I become brilliant, or I’m worthless.”
This can make us give up, but it can also prevent us starting. In Piers Steel’s ‘Procrastination Equation’, only 36% of people actually begin what they believe they should start. Instead of tackling a task, we choose behaviours which deflect (who’s for desk-tidying?) and become ashamed when we realise we’ve put things off, or missed the deadline. These achieve-it-or-give-up behaviours are often associated with bad goal setting.
Setting unrealistic goals has been a feature of education for so long, it’s become an art form. Our procrastination muscle twitches when we are challenged in a meeting to set a target which, even as we fill in our appraisal form, we know there’s no chance of reaching. How can we feel motivated to even begin?
I’m always surprised when I talk to friends in other professions who tell me they don’t set goals. They understand their job and its responsibilities and are trusted to just get on. Instead, we’ve made an industry out of manufacturing an arbitrary target or wrenching a goal out of some new wonder metric.
And while perfectionism is ingrained in the way that we go about our lives, society is set up to trigger the same feelings too. Doctors and nurses and social workers and teachers all expect to work hard, against tight deadlines, often in difficult conditions. They understand society’s expectations of them, but are sick of arbitrary targets which impinge on their ability to serve people in the way they dreamt of. This creates a kind of institutional perfectionism – unrealistic expectations of our professionals.
When it comes to starting new tasks, we tell ourselves we will begin when conditions are more favourable, or we’ll apply for the job when a better role comes along. People are sometimes stuck in their career because they are waiting for the perfect possibility. Looking for a flawless way out of their predicament, they find that this new opportunity has too many shortcomings, too many ‘not-quites.’ It’s like going for a walk and unfolding an OS map to help you find your way, then finding large tracts of white that you know should be coloured with tracks and routes an contours. In life, we can’t seem to make a start until we are sure the gaps are filled in. Except we suspect we might be waiting forever.
If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word – Margaret Atwood
SIX PRINCIPLES FOR KICKING PERFECTIONISM
1 | Remember ‘perfection’ is not ‘excellence’
Perfection and excellence are not the same thing. We follow perfection imagining how something will appear to others, we strive for excellence for its own ends. I used to think that perfectionism was a virtue, associated with producing quality work, but I’ve since realised that excellence (becoming really accomplished in your chosen domain) involves learning that it is not all about the perfect finished product, essay, speech or presentation.
In fact, I think that what you are looking for is almost the opposite of this mentality. Having the confidence to submit a work-in-progress, and then take on feedback (early enough to make a difference to the final piece), will mean that our work can be perfected through the help of others. When we kill the instinctive fear we have of feedback, then we can move on from saying to ourselves ‘I’m not showing this because I’d rather nobody told me what was wrong.’
“Don’t go expecting Plato’s republic, be satisfied with even the smallest progress.” Marcus Aurelius
2 | Know what motivates you
When you try to stay in school later than everyone else, you are more motivated by what others might think when you leave early.
When you want to stay late to get a piece of work completed when its quiet, you are more motivated by focusing on the task, not what others think.
When you go over your slides for the tenth time, finding yourself going over the same ground, you are more motivated by wanting to seem impregnable to the audience.
When you tell yourself you are not allowed to use more than four slides, you are more motivated by getting the message across, more simply.
3 | Use the vocabulary of ‘good enough’
Good enough is the intersection between my rate of improvement and the time I’m spending on it. Between how good my powerpoint is getting and how much I am missing my partner, or hearing my children’s requests to play. Somewhere between those two, there has to be a sweet spot.
Good enough is when we make a distinction between the ‘critical’ and the ‘extra’. Of course, my work will never be good enough, so it helps to define what, at an early stage, is going to be good enough. Make this your barometer for when to stop. If I’d known this in my twenties, I’d have saved so much time.
Good enough means calling my work ‘first draft’, and then sticking that on top of my presentation, like an alibi. A passport to escape the imposter feeling. The words first draft gives me permission to slip away from my desk earlier than I would otherwise. Because then I’ll have the confidence to say, when I present, ‘don’t worry, it’s only my first draft’.
Good enough is recognising that our daily work is not an interview-to-impress. We don’t have to be better than everyone else, all of the time. That’s not only annoying, it kills any sense that we’re a team.
When I write, my writing (always on paper first) is full of crossings out. Some of what I write I hurl instantly at the bin, some I put to one side to scour for titbits later. And every so often I find, several pages in, a sentence which might have a fraction of what I’m looking for. While it’s frustrating that it took all that time to get there, I also know I couldn’t have written that sentence on page 5, had I not made my messy way through the jungle of pages 1-4. In fact, my imperfect early pages are a necessary part of the process of producing that sentence on page 5. My perfectionist self wants to wait until it is perfect, but my real self knows that the bad stuff is part of the journey. You can’t have one without the other.
In the podcast The Poet Laureate Has Gone To His Shed, Simon Armitage interviews JK Rowling, saying that writing longhand into notebooks is important: “It’s good to build up an archaeology of your work that you can look back on it – even if it is just about seeing your mistakes and where you went wrong. Deleting everything just leads to the idea that everything was perfected right from the beginning.”
If you insist on perfect, you’ll produce no work at all. Calling your work first draft – or even ‘zero draft’ (the one before your first), helps you creep past your inner editor. This way you have created something to perfect, rather than trying to create perfection from scratch.
4 | Learn the art of disappointing
When I first began writing, it was important to know what others thought. Praise encouraged me to write more, whereas criticism cut my output. But it wasn’t long before I began to realise that what some people enjoyed, others found dull. And because this had little to do with its quality, I knew I couldn’t let people’s feeling control my writing. I had created my very own prison of perception, and this insight was like being released.
Instead of those people who matter, we chase many who don’t. We somehow imagine everybody has a right to shape what we make, so we care far too much about the opinions of others. Realising that this attention does not determine our worthiness, releases from us the pressure of people’s expectations. And when we are afraid of disappointing, we cannot produce our best work.
In the problem with being perfect, Mel Robbins describes the fear of disappointing people. We think that once we produce something perfect, no one will criticise us. We think that what we want is perfection, because people will somehow the wonderful, productive person we are. But this is perfectionism at its most protective – trying to defend us from all criticism.
Letting go of perfection means moving past the fear of what the observer is thinking, and back into the joy of the work. If we could just stop posting something that looks like perfection, and share instead the messy truth, we might release some of the pressure to be perfect. Living an imperfect life takes some courage.
5 | Delegate more
When we are stuck in a perfectionist mindset, we often say we can’t delegate because ‘we need things to be done properly’. Start by challenging your beliefs. List the things that you believe must be perfectly done. Next to each item write down why you believe that this activity must be perfect. Are you resisting delegating to a colleague because you don’t trust their ability? How might you overcome this? For example, you might feel easier about this by separating tasks into low stakes and high stakes and begin by delegating just one low stakes task per week. Then track how this goes – not just the task, but your ability to step back and not micromanage your colleague.
6 | Have lots of ideas, not one perfect one
If you write down a list of 10 things (anything!), and then split these into the first third, the second third and the third third, you’ll probably find that your most original ideas come from the final third, and the least interesting from the first third.
When we try to generate new options and ideas the first set are already familiar to us because they travel along neural pathways we know. Only after we exhaust what is familiar to us do we produce our most interesting options. James Altucher reminds us that when we exercise at the gym, our muscles don’t start to build until we break into a sweat. The same thing happens with the idea muscle. Somewhere around idea six, our brain starts to sweat.
And so it is with the rest of our thinking. It’s easy to lock ourselves down into a binary cul-de-sac of only two possible ways forward. We need to find more options. Holding back from perfecting one thing, converging around a single idea, helps us to develop the idea muscle. In the short term it may not take us to a finished-quality single idea, but over time we become more aware of ideas, more elegant in our thinking, more useful in meetings. Our contributions become more skilled – the very thing in fact that our idea of perfect was trying to create.
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We aren’t actually interested in perfect work, believes philosopher Alain de Botton. And because the problem didn’t begin with producing great work, work cannot provide the solution. We want to feel accepted, but not by our bosses, so neither the perfect pitch nor the slick seminar will provide peace. We need to allow ourselves to know that we are accepted, before we begin the next project. Only when we acknowledge that we are worthy – because of our qualities, our close relationships and our life experiences (the things that make us ‘us’ in other words), then will help us know what good enough really means.