The Flaws of Perfectionism
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
Problem identification and hypothesized solutions
Last week, I read through my past posts and wanted to delete everything. I haven’t been happy with a single upload, and the fact that my imperfect work is public makes me thoroughly uncomfortable. So... I'm going to write about it.
Despite perfectionism being the go-to joke answer for "tell me about a weakness," I think it's a valid response. To state the obvious, perfectionism involves wanting everything to be perfect. Except... nothing ever is. So, since perfection rarely exists, perfectionism = the pursuit of a moving, never-attainable target. Here's the family recipe:
Jokes aside, instead of ensuring top-tier creations, true perfectionism makes delivering or turning in work difficult— it's never "good enough to be done." And if nothing is ready to share, then voila lot of dissatisfactory work-in-progress.
I'm not pinning the ideal on carelessness or apathy, but perfectionism stands as the opposite, just-as-undesirable extreme. The characteristic fine-tuned attention to detail and desire to produce good work exists a few notches back towards the center too, but without the stress and anxiety.
Although I still struggle with perfectionism in all aspects of life, the following suggestions have helped me dial it back to a slightly healthier level.
Find I'm-so-proud portions
Identify one part of the larger picture you're proud of. A stellar paragraph, witty phrase, vibe-capturing visual... anything.
Detach yourself from your work
Imperfections in your work are not linked to character flaws. Re-read the statement and start working on believing it. For so long, I attached academic performance and feedback to my sense of self-worth, and I viewed constructive criticism as a personal judgement. You can't improve without feedback, so separating the two is essential.
"Send" a lot of imperfect work quickly
Akimbo's Emerging Leaders Program pushed the idea of failing fast and often to overcome the fear of failure. The same concept applies to the fear of imperfect submissions. Send work when it's really good, not perfect. The repetition will chip away at the fear over time.
An easy way to practice is through low-stake outlets, like a personal blog. When you challenge yourself to a frequent and steady output flow, nothing you produce can be perfect or you won’t meet deadlines (self-imposed, in the blog example).
Have you ever rushed a paper or presentation and then experienced a better-than-average result? Again, to clarify, I don’t mean not preparing at all. But being short on time, willpower, or focus forces a stop at prepared and prevents you from crossing into over-prepared territory. Once you cross that line, each hour of effort generates little return and detracts from more valuable priorities—sleep, hobbies, friends, or something else on your long, over-achiever to-do list.
Set time limits
Evaluate how much time you realistically need to complete something. Set a timer, sprint to the end, and respect the time's-up alarm. If you really need more time to complete whatever you're working on, extend the work block by 30-minute increments.
Identify the real worst-case scenario
In high school, I often entertained the following train of thought: I need to spend all night on this paper because otherwise I'll fail the assignment, fail the class, get kicked out of school, disappoint my family, lose all my friends, and ruin my future. Upon realistic evaluation, that chain of events doesn't even hold one scenario down, much less the rest of the way. Pause and think: what is the worst that can happen? Usually, nothing much.
Ironically, yes, I published this post late...because I wasn't happy with it. I write as a reminder to myself as well, since I don't always take my own advice. So in clichés: show up, better late than never, and focus on progress over perfection.