Quick question. What would happen if in some Star Trek/Dr. Who plot come true, we all, as a civilization, woke up one morning and the neural circuits of perfectionism—the ones that have us tearing our hair out every time things don’t turn out precisely to the “t” how we pictured—vanished without a trace, peacefully, in our sleep? Yes I know, nit-pickers, with the different time zones there is not just one universal “morning” and we’d all wake up at different times, and it would be more of a staggered start to this living-without-perfectionism thing, but hey, you’re missing the point.
If we re-routed our unrelenting pursuit of an air-brushed existence from which no one wins and everyone suffers, would civilization as we know it come to a screeching halt? Or, would we, in fact, freed from the shackles of perfection-paralysis, benefit from a wider view of possibilities on how to make things… better?
Wait—make things better? Isn’t the perfectionist the very person for the job of improving things? Isn’t that what perfectionism is all about? Won’t we all become apathetic slackers if we were to let go of our perfectionistic ideals?
No. The opposite of perfection isn’t imperfection or mediocrity; it’s reality. It’s possibility. It’s all the magnificent points that exist all around the bull’s eye. When psychologists suggest striving for excellence over striving for perfection, they are not trying to take away our ambitions, drive, and desires to succeed, they are trying to preserve our sanity and keep us in the game. Because when our expectations for everything being perfect don’t match up with reality (and honestly—do they ever match up?), we blame ourselves and give up. Or get stuck. Or depressed. We can’t regroup from the hitches. How do we get moving again? We can be the moving part: Reality won’t budge, but our expectations can. We are lowering the stakes of what it means when things don’t go as planned, rather than lowering the standards of what matters to us. This is how we create true working space.
Working with reality—the mistakes, flaws, hiccups and wrinkles—gives us the information we need not only to persevere, but to start again more effectively. This is how we succeed. So instead of concluding: “That didn’t work at all!” We could think: “That didn’t work yet,” or, “Some of that worked, and some of that didn’t, what’s my next step?” Yes, reality can be messy, and progress can be slow, and attempts can fail and people can need to go back to the drawing board, but if these are the givens of life, as unassailable as the physical properties of space and time, we are going to be more resilient and successful if we expect the hiccups and are prepared for their appearance, rather than experience them as a surprise each time. We might not succeed in the big way we imagine right away, but hanging in through the process is how we strive for excellence over time.
So when we embark on a new project, instead of falling into the lure and trap of perfectionism, thinking “this will be the time when everything turns out right,” we can do ourselves a favor and decide that flaws or glitches—rather than being a detour, something that shouldn’t have happened—are a given. Here are some strategies for how to keep reality in your game plan:
Do An Accurate Assessment: Don’t Pull the Plug on the Project: Pull the Plug on the Perfectionist.
If our inner-perfectionist were cheering us on from the sidelines, that would be one thing, but when it’s a rant not a cheer and it sounds like: “This isn’t right, this isn’t good enough, what are you even thinking with that??” we need to pull the plug—not on the project, but on the perfectionist. To counteract those negative messages, get the facts. Ask yourself different questions and really answer them: What is working? What are you enjoying? What is the purpose of what you are doing? Are you meeting that purpose? Or, if things aren’t working so well, don’t give up—ask yourself why it isn’t working. Maybe this is a clue about where you need to head next.
Increase Tolerance for Growth and Process by Not Judging Too Soon.
Though we all want those instant, perfect, voila moments, most things take time and don’t look like much at first. From great oaks to Nobel Prize-winning research to making a cake, we start with humble beginnings nurtured by patience and persistence. So when you stop to do a spot-check and see the unfinished or rough spots, rather than judging how this is falling short, keep moving forward to what’s next. Don’t confuse the unfinished-ness of the moment as a sign of the health of the project overall; it’s just a step along the way. And each step is crucial in and of itself. This is what we tell our children when they are working on book reports, their swings in baseball, college applications and they say—”I can’t!” We know it’s not that they can’t, it’s that they’re just not there yet.
Create, Scale and Prioritize: Is This a Difference That Makes a Difference?
Because we can get hung up on the smallest details, needing every part of a project, meal, or aspect of our appearance to be perfect, and then miss the boat because—mixing metaphors—we missed the forest for the trees; we need to budget and decide if this part of the project needs so much time and attention, or if all of the extra effort on this particular part could be better spent elsewhere. A good way to figure that out is to ask: Is this a difference (my spending this extra time) that will make a difference in the long run? Yes, your resumé was perfect, but if you’re late for the interview—well, you get the point. Rather than siphoning off your energy to pay the perfection meter, imagine how much better those resources could be spent, advancing the bigger goal of the project.
Focus on the Ride, Not Just the Destination.
We resist enjoying what we’re doing by insisting: “I have no time for enjoyment, I have a job to get done!” But whether we’re preparing for our child’s birthday party, repainting a room, or preparing for a speech, we’re more likely to do better when we can find the enjoyment or purpose in what we are doing. When we are tense, we feel threatened, it narrows our field of vision and we’re more likely to get cranky and stuck on insignificant details. When we are enjoying what we are doing, our vision broadens, our enthusiasm helps us do better, and bonus: We are much more fun to be around.
Dispense With All-or-None Thinking by Using the Concept of Some (Highlight What’s Working and What’s Not).
What sends us down the chute of failure and despair and convinces us we should abandon a project, or at least procrastinate working on it, is finding one thing not going well and then precipitously jumping to the conclusion that the whole thing is shot. Think in parts. If a leaf of a tree, or even a branch gets damaged—does that condemn the whole tree? Make use of the word “some”: Some things are working, some things are not. Take note of both.
How Important Is This Task—for Now, or Forever?
Another helpful place for the notion of “some” is whether the success of this project or endeavor will impact all of your life forever, or whether some things will be impacted by the success of this project, but other things will remain unchanged. The pressure on the perfectionist is that every moment of stepping into the spotlight, every outfit, every lipstick choice, every word you write—from the note to the drycleaner to the editorial to the New York Times—is a moment with a permanent scorecard. Not everything can be of paramount importance in your life. Should the Iron Chef fuss about how well he makes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Probably not. Some things do count more than others; when something doesn’t count—let it go.
Destigmatize Mistakes: Learn From Them, Don’t Crumple Up the Test.
While you’re busy beating up on yourself about the fact that things aren’t perfect, don’t cover your eyes. Especially in business, somebody else is learning from your mistakes and flaws (in addition to learning from your successes), so why not be the one who learns those things first—after all, you’ve got the front-row seat. Kids that I see don’t want to look at the B-tests, they crumple them up rather than learning from them. Take a deep breath and dare to look at what you did wrong; that’s the surest way to not do it wrong again.
Don’t Compare, Connect.
Perfectionism is also fueled by latching on to a hero/nemesis picture of a person you admire/despise. Your strong feelings are coming from idealizing their life as perfect. You aren’t seeing that person for who they really are. They may have some charmed aspects of their lives, but even celebrities have tough chapters in their memoirs. So, if you’re going to compare, compare to real human beings, not only snapshots of the best moments. But better yet, don’t compare, connect. What you are coveting about another person—their marriage, their job, their sense of humor—find a way to enjoy that you get to be in the company of that thing or attribute that you admire. And if you’d like it for yourself, be a good student—don’t begrudge the person or put yourself down for not having it, but instead see if there are ways that you might cultivate some version of it for yourself.
The French philosopher Voltaire said: “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” Maybe we don’t have to wait for brain surgery or a Dr. Who appearance to eliminate perfectionism from our minds. When we see how much better we can do, and how much better we can feel without it, it’s a no-brainer. Here’s to our better living through freeing ourselves from the need for perfection.
(This blog also appears on The Huffington Post.)