The Problem With Perfection


 I think a lot about perfectionism.  I come from a family of perfectionists and have perfectionist tendencies, so I've grown up seeing its pros and cons, its promises and its dangers. I have come to believe that perfectionism is just as often the enemy of excellence as it is the hero of achievement.

According to Google, perfectionism is the "refusal to accept any standard short of perfection." Defined as a philosophy, it is "a doctrine holding that religious, moral, social, or political perfection is attainable, especially the theory that human moral or spiritual perfection should be or has been attained."

This definition makes me uncomfortable, especially since I recognize perfectionism as a philosophy I adhere to consciously (and even more so subconsciously). I have a hard time accepting imperfection in myself, others, and the rest of the world at large. This can cause me to feel frustrated, impatient, and melancholy about the imperfect state of things, even when I can not or should not have any impact on them. These feelings aren't unique, but are common to perfectionists, high achievers, and those with "type A" traits.

One of my biggest problems with perfectionism is that to be a perfectionist, you must believe that perfection is definable, measurable, and achievable.  And the more I learn about the universe, the less I am inclined to believe that there is very much that exists that is "perfect" as the word is commonly defined: "having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be; absolute; complete; completely free from faults or defects, or as close to such a condition as possible." Perhaps math can be perfected, but in the flawed complexities of our daily lives and our confusingly interwoven decisions, how can we really be sure that anything is truly perfect, or as good as it can be? And if you often can't define perfection in the first place, then how can you measure your attempts to achieve it? And if you can't always measure your attempts to achieve it, why try in the first place?

The key to solving this quandary is to redefine our ideas and feelings towards perfection. Instead of accepting only one outcome as the exactly perfect one, we should do our best to observe the cause and effect of that one outcome as just one part of a whole, complex system, and continually tweak all parts of it to improve upon it until we reach a desired goal. 

In a recent episode of his podcast "This is Your Life," Michael Hyatt explains what I mean in a much more concise (dare I say, "perfect?") way than I have (emphasis mine):

Yeah, I’m a recovering perfectionist. It’s tough because I’ve talked about this in other contexts, but I’m really committed to creating wow, exceeding people’s expectations. That can sometimes lead me to perfectionism, which means I tinker with things forever and I don’t ship them.

So one of the things that has helped me is to realize a couple of things [...]. One is to realize that in the world of the Internet (this doesn’t apply, by the way, to heart surgery or other issues where you pretty much have to get it right the first time), for the rest of the goals we’re in, you can ship it and improve it. Think of it as kind of permanent beta.

For example, we launched the course today, the 5Days course. We had some glitches this morning. I think of the metaphor of a launch. When NASA is trying to launch a rocket, when it’s trying to get off the pad, there is enormous vibration. You’re not quite sure if you’re going to die (I’m told) or if the thing is going to really get into orbit. That’s how sometimes the launch of anything is. It’s a little bit messy on the front end, but you can tweak it.

So the most important thing to get over perfectionism is, I think, just to realize you’re never going to have it perfect. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Sometimes the things you notice that keep you from shipping whatever it is you’re trying to do are things other people aren’t going to notice. 

Something (this has helped me a lot) is better than nothing. I can wait until I get it perfect, and that day will never come. I’ll never accomplish anything. I can do something that maybe isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty darn good. Then I can improve it over time. That’s my philosophy now.

Is perfectionism holding you back from doing something instead of nothing? How can you redefine your understanding of perfection to accomplish more?

photo credit: h.koppdelaney via photopin cc