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.


Make Your Own Basics

Cook it first, maybe? Or is that not a “basic”?

If you’ve ever tried to master anything, you’ve learned the importance of “the basics”.  And there are a few things about the basics that it’s important to remember, re-learn, or learn the first time if you never discovered them.

I’m going to share it a little anecdote here.  It concerns a monk who went to study martial arts.  There are many variations of this, but I’ll simplify it.

For many months, the monk’s teacher told him to stand at a large bowl of water and slap the surface to see if he could keep it level.  Invariably there would be waves in the water.  Some were created by the slaps he made, others by wind, and so on.  He found this boring but he kept at it.  Then when he was allowed to make his way home to see his family, he was attacked by thieves.  Instinctively he defended himself with expertly-delivered slaps, perfectly placed where they could do the most damage, and made good his escape.

Learning the basics of any pursuit is an experience colored by our perception of how difficult the activity is, what we want to learn it for, what we think we’ll gain by learning it and so on.  But invariably, everything you do is built upon a relatively few number of fundamental concepts.

Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most imaginative and prolific minds the world has ever known, once remarked that, “Simplicity is the highest form of sophistication”, and it’s as true today as it was then.  One of the reasons for this is that it’s sometimes difficult to push our own egos out of the way for long enough to forget about dazzling our audience with our technical skills, and just deliver what they need.

When it comes to your success, the same rules apply.  That’s one of the reasons why I wrote The Right Question.  Out of the countless thousands of self help and success books out there, all the great ideas they contain really only come down to a very basic concept when you’re discussing your results.  The rest of it is nice to know, but they aren’t basics.  They aren’t what you need to know.

One of the reasons is because “the basics” change depending on who’s teaching them and what their expectations are of the student.  To one group of students learning music, the basics will consist of memorizing the notes on the staff, and not much else.  To others, the basics will consist of being able to not only name those notes but sing them when they see them.  In this regard, there’s no such thing as a basic in the sense that absolutely everything can be reduced to something even simpler.  You have to draw the line somewhere.

The Right Question was written with this concept in mind.  Ultimately the result you want in life is success in whatever form it means to you.  And regardless of your thoughts on setting goals, the Law of Attraction, motivation or anything else, what you achieve is the result of what you do.

That’s why I suggest you spend time thinking about your own basics, and make sure that they’re comprehensive enough to keep your skillset sharp.  Don’t bore yourself.  And don’t choose things that are easy for you already.  You want to progress in life, in whatever sense of that word means the most to you.  Ask yourself what the basics are in terms of your family life, for example.  Is it better quality time, making the most of what you’ve got with the people you love?  Or perhaps you think that your communication could be better, letting those you love know how you feel.  And when it comes to your money, the basic things that make you a success at your job or business could always benefit from being emphasized.

We all make our own basics.  Make a list of what’s helped you become good at what you do, or what you haven’t mastered yet that will help in the future.  And make that basic skillset fundamental but comprehensive.  Like a broad, flat rock – basic, but broad and strong enough to support whatever you choose to pile on top of it.  Those are your skills, your ideas, your commitments, and your life.

The Simple Life

Do you know how it is that large zoo animals are trained not to break loose and rampage through the streets?  I’m no expert zookeeper, but I’ve heard the old saw that elephants can be kept from running away as an adult by the same thin rope that held them as a youngster.  The reason for this, so it goes, is that once the elephant figures out that it can’t get away when that rope is there, it gives up and doesn’t bother trying anymore.

I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that you can keep cattle in a pen by a similar method.  I used to live in a small prairie town and ended up knowing a thing or two about this.

Before the days when electric fences could be run with solar power, the farmer would have to run power to the fence from a nearby shed or house.  Obviously this could get a little inconvenient.  But farmers are a lot more innovative than most people give them credit for.  In this instance they noticed that if an animal contacted the fence a couple of times while it was electrified, it would avoid it from that point on even if it didn’t have power to it.  In short, a couple of zaps was enough to keep the cattle from challenging the fence again.  Moreover, the animal would keep others from making the same mistake.  The upshot, as you can guess, was a much lower power bill for the same result.

If only our bodies worked the same way!  We could do a really good four-hour workout and that would be it for life.  No more health club memberships, a one-time visit is all we’d need. As we all know, however, things just don’t work for us humans quite that way…or do they?

If you’ve read The Right Question, you’ll have learned that I’m into results.  You’ll have learned that I’m very introspective, but when it comes to helping you change your life I am strictly business and that means we don’t stand around asking why, we rev up that mower and get the grass done.  But this topic does have some interesting angles we can explore.

You’ll also know if you’ve read the book that it’s the simplest things that can trip us up just as much as the most complex.  In fact, complex operations of any kind at all can be systematically reduced to a series of very simple steps.  I love simplicity.  Leonardo da Vinci, one of my all-time heroes, is credited with saying that simplicity is the highest form of sophistication.  Even if it wasn’t he who said it, we’re pretty sure that Einstein did say that if you can’t explain your idea to a six-year-old you don’t understand it yourself.  So let’s put on our da Vinci beard or Einstein wig and look at the simple things, and take it from there.

Is there something nagging at you that you ‘want to do someday’, but you haven’t really started on it?  I’m not talking about tackling the ambitious lifetime dreams here, I’m talking about simple stuff.  In the book I use the analogy of washing the dishes, but here, let’s read a book.

I love books.  I’ve got over a thousand, and would have double that number but I know enough about my life to understand that I don’t have time or space for any more.  (This is where I’ve implemented the rule of the Front End and the Back End, which you’ll learn about by reading The Right Question if you haven’t already).  Some of them are old textbooks which have been superseded by much more modern knowledge, but I still hang onto them.  When I open them I feel like I should be blowing the dust off and adjusting my fedora before I hold them up to the candlelight.  So let’s say, just for a bit, that you fancy yourself as the kind of person who wants to read more.  You have the time, but you just…well, you don’t.

Now a six-year-old comes up and asks you why.  Why don’t you read more, dad?  What’s stopping you, grandma?  And you think, Good question, sweetie.  Why don’t I?

Now you’re in Right Question territory.  I never give the Question away in the blog, that’s for those who buy the book only, but you’re getting close to the kind of thinking that moves mountains.  One simple concept at a time.

Now’s the time to use the Question and figure this out.  Just the first part of it will probably do.  What do you need to read, anyway, besides a book?  A comfortable place to curl up.  This might mean a cozy wingback chair, a papasan, or a huge cushion on the floor.  You’ll need lighting.  Do you have a lamp that you can read by?  I mean, having a book is only part of it.  For some people (e.g. yours truly) reading is almost a ceremony.  Is there some tiny little ingredient that’s missing from your overall idea of what it will be like when you do this certain thing?

Now that same inquisitive youngster asks why you don’t practice your guitar as much as you say you’d like to.  How are you going to answer that?  You wander into the room where you keep it, but you don’t seem to take it out of its case.  Is that because you don’t have a tuner?  Does it need strings?  Are you avoiding putting strings on because you don’t know how, and it hasn’t occurred to you that you could learn?  Maybe it’s in the wrong room entirely, and instead of keeping it behind the reading chair you might want to bring it into the den.  Perhaps you are a beginner, and you’re at the point where your fingertips still hurt when you play.  Maybe somebody told you to give up because in their opinion you just aren’t very good.  Well, that’s okay, they’re probably the same kind of people who might have brought the Costa Concordia a little closer to the island, and we all know how that turned out.

These are all things that the first phrase of the Question will identify for you.  It never ceases to amaze me how often we are tripped up by these simple, ordinary things.  I’m reminded of how the US government spent millions of dollars to come up with a pen that could write in zero gravity while the Russians spent a dollar on a box of pencils.  I have a Fisher Space Pen now, and pencils too, and I like them both.  But the pencil writes when it’s been left in my cold Jeep overnight at the ski hill, and I gotta be honest, the space pen sometimes doesn’t.

If you can solve your problem by just using the first phrase in the Question, great.  Those seven little words are magic, aren’t they?  And you haven’t even used the rest of the Question.  Well, no mind.  It’s there when you want to use it to clean out the fridge, and again when you want to make your first million.