Perfectionism is Totally Flawed

For many years, I was what the average person would call a “perfectionist”.  This meant at the time that I wanted to make sure everything was just right before I’d call it acceptable.  I wanted every detail perfect.  I prided myself on my perfectionism.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now fully understand that all I was doing was revealing how afraid I was that things wouldn’t be good enough.  I was worried that people would judge my standards as being too low if I allowed something to be called ‘finished’ when it wasn’t perfect.

However, I want to illustrate some glaring problems with the pursuit of perfection, and what perfectionism really is.  It can kill your progress, delay or completely destroy your chances of success, and make you frustrated and unfulfilled long before you enjoy any progress at all.

That word – progress – is a very important clue as to how you can break free from being a perfectionist and instead become somebody who Gets Things Done.  Because let’s face it, every moment you spend making a perfectly good thing “perfect” is a moment you’re wasting, that you could be spending making something else perfectly good.   You know it, I know it, everybody knows it, and you aren’t fooling anyone by trying to make us all think you’re as perfect as whatever you’re working on.

We all want to be known for who we are, not necessarily what we do.  But you need to understand that people already judge you through their own ideas of what you’re doing and who you are.  Even for this reason alone, there’s no such thing as perfect.  Can you stand in front of the Mona Lisa and point out things you don’t think are good?  Of course you could, if you had made your mind up that the painting wasn’t “perfect”.

But maybe there’s an important clue as to the difference between the average person and a Leonardo da Vinci.  He ultimately reached a point where he decided that his work was good enough.  He probably felt every bit as reluctant as anyone else about calling it a day, since there was a brush stroke here that could have been a little more precise, and there’s a color there that could have been a bit darker (or lighter).  But if he had been a “perfectionist”, nobody would ever be able to appreciate his talent because we would have never seen it.  And that’s not a good ending for anyone.

You need to understand that perfection is the state of constant progress.  Anything else is stagnation, and stagnation when measured against progress appears to not be stagnant at all but in fact moving backwards.  So while a perfectionist is putting yet more finishing touches on that report or design project or app, someone else is already submitting it and getting the kudos (and getting paid!).  Perfection is the state you reach when you understand that nothing in the world is ever going to be good enough, and it’s also already just absolutely fine the way it is; and not only that, there’s nothing that can’t be improved upon.  Does that sound contradictory?  It shouldn’t.  Perfection is what we achieve when we express our love and curiosity and desire for something better through our focused action.  The song you’re writing?  It’ll never be perfect.  Give it to me, somebody who loves drums and percussion as well as bass and guitar, and I’ll be wishing you had done a drum roll here or there, or taken one out, and wouldn’t it have sounded better with a minor third on top of that chord…on and on.  It never stops.  Practically no musician who hears it will be able to resist hearing what they would do with it.  That app you’re coding?  There are probably a hundred things you should be taking into account and aren’t, but that’s what feedback scores and comments are for.  Sure, it might not work as it should on everybody’s device, but if either Microsoft or Apple refused to release anything that didn’t have bugs we’d all still have Windows 95 or Macintosh…actually no, we wouldn’t even have those.

People are more forgiving and accepting than you think they are.  One of the reasons for this is that on some level we all appreciate the struggle to make things better, regardless of what you’re working on, because we’ve all been through it.  As far as I’m concerned, anything that isn’t necessary for survival qualifies as art, so it doesn’t matter to people like me whether you’re trying to fix a carburetor or paint a mural; you need encouragement, and we’re happy that you’re trying, and we may not directly benefit ourselves from what you’re doing but somebody somewhere will and that’s good enough.  Besides, if what you release is truly awful, you’ll probably know before we do.  Maybe you’ll have the integrity to try and make up for it and maybe you won’t.  Either way you’ll have taught us something.

During the process of writing The Right Question, I would often go back to various chapters and try every trick in the book to make sure they worked.  I second-guessed myself a million times when I finally came up with the wording of the Question in the first place.  I asked myself over and over again, “Is this really saying what I want it to say?”  So I’d change the wording, and apply it to a situation, and I’d find that it wouldn’t be as efficient.  The Question may not be the most eloquent-sounding thing ever written, but I guarantee it’s the most powerful sentence in the world.  That’s because this process took literally years.  It wasn’t something I threw out on my coffee break or over a beer at the beach one day.  And while I’m sure that no matter who reads it there will be something more they wished I’d said, or something else anyway, the fact remains that I reached a point where I read it to myself, out loud, over and over, and decided, “This is what I want to say.  This is the most powerful sentence in the world.  It’s going to help people,” and I let it go.

If you’re waiting for your labor of love to be perfect, identify what it is you’re afraid of.  Maybe you’re scared to be identified with your creativity as something less than perfect, or maybe you don’t want somebody getting the wrong idea of what your standards are.  You need to realize that letting it go is part of that process we call perfection.  It’s necessary, it’s normal, and besides, we’re waiting to see what part of the world you’re hoping to make just that much better, no matter how tiny.

Good people appreciate that.


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