The Curse Of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is like black magic; it appears to hold with it the promise of greatness, but in practice tends to cause more issues than it solves. I used to think that the only way to write a high-quality article was to spend hours stressing about the perfect idea, researching the topic to a T and crafting perfect sentence after perfect sentence. The result was 10+ hours of effort invested for decent writing, void of flow and tragically inconsistent in its voice.
This article is to help you break the etheric chains of perfectionism that hold you back from accomplishing your dreams. And yes, perfectionism DOES hold you back from accomplishing your dreams, but more on that soon.
Perfectionism is an attitude/belief that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. It can be conscious or subconscious, the subconscious variant being the most devilish. Like most attitudes and beliefs, perfectionism drives behavior. It may manifest in the form of meticulous attention to detail, obsession over living up to a subjective internal metric of success, anxiety over sub-par performance, or elitism in action and external expression. Perfectionism elicits a sense of moral superiority; that one’s work, appearance, status, etc. is so important that it deserves the absolute finest.
A common perception is that perfectionism is synonymous with advanced quality and performance. Somebody who takes the time to account for every detail, every nuance must be a master of their craft and therefore worthy of respect and admiration. I won’t argue that time spent ensuring something is good is wasted. We all remember those laughable presentations where the speaker couldn’t have spent more than 15 minutes on their PowerPoint and subsequent talking points (protip: don’t be that person).
Attention to detail and care for one’s work are critical if that work is to have any impact. Novelists spend years crafting their writing, actors employ a bevy of appearance-enhancing techniques to become screen-ready, chefs test and fine-tune their recipes over many iterations to create the ideal gustatory experience. There reaches a point, however, where effort spent refining one’s work tappers off, return on investment declines significantly and the magic of perfectionism that once seemed so promising becomes a self-imprisoning hex.
The curse of perfectionism begins with an inability or unwillingness to objectively assess one’s behaviors as outcomes begin to stagnate or even decline. Stagnating progress is a natural curve in the growth arc and is not an issue in and of itself. The issue or “curse” is when one stubbornly refuses to turn the rudder of behavior, to drop perfectionism, when collision appears imminent. This can happen for a variety of reasons, a few being ego, lack of awareness, self-doubt, self-sabotage, fear, low skill-set and low urgency.
I’ll share a story of personal experience to illustrate this point. Some friends and I were at a sports bar a while back. It was karaoke night and all the brave, tipsy souls were signing up to sing renditions of whatever songs tickled their fancies. My friends signed up and it looked like everybody singing, even when it wasn’t that good, was having a great time. I had been in choir years prior and was a good singer at the time (keyword being “was”). As such, I had built an ego around “Michael is a good singer.” I also knew I was severely out of practice, and to sing any karaoke would expose the cracks in that egoic identification. So, since my singing wouldn’t be “perfect,” I didn’t. I sat there and enviously watched everybody in that bar, friends included, sing songs they enjoyed, receive props for their efforts and have a heck of a time.
Perfectionism holds us back from achieving our best selves because it suffocates opportunity, stopping progress dead in its tracks. This may be failing to do something at all as in my case, or fiddling with superficial details until the original intent behind the endeavor is lost in a mire of anxiety. Luckily this curse has a cure and we can stop this unhealthy obsession with perfection and get back to growing and, more importantly, living.
The cure to perfectionism lies in a 10,000 year-old vial of snake’s venom hidden below the Mayan ruins of Lamania in northern Belize.
Just kidding, a universal cure doesn’t actually exist and you’ll likely need to butt up against the frustration and lack of production perfectionism yields until you find a personal solution. Here is a quick and easy mantra that may help:
“Good enough is good enough.”
The truth is that perfection doesn’t actually exist. Each time you get close, the goal post moves. Recognize, via self-awareness, humility, gratitude, etc., when what you have is good enough. Learn to be okay with a 99% and when to let that final 1% go. It can be a relationship, creative project, business proposal, Sunday brunch outfit – it doesn’t matter. Stop chasing the illusion that perfection is hiding just around the corner, silence the cultural noise that life should be this magical fairy tale where everything works out as intended.
Growth emerges from trial and error and the best way to learn is to take action, assess the outcomes of that action, tweak your approach and try again. This doesn’t mean to be lazy or complacent or settle for mediocrity. It means to trust in the process, to be okay with the fact that learning is frustrating and awkward, and to understand that mastery in anything is acquired only over a long span of time and through lots of effort.