We are inundated by the invitation and expectation of perfection – Be it subliminal suggestion or overt invitation, advertisers seduce us with the guarantees of a “Perfect Fit, Picture Perfect, Word Perfect, Perfect Blend, etc.”

While perhaps effective for advertising, perfectionism, or needing to be perfect is more likely to sabotage our success than guarantee it.

 Perfectionism is defined as setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.

  • Perfectionism is often driven by historical expectations of perfection, excessive criticism and lack of secure and loving attachment.
  • Perfection becomes the necessary criteria for love and self-worth.
  • Given we live in a culture that pushes perfection to sell products and invites us to believe that it is actually achievable, early scars and solutions are often re-enforced.

 Are You a Perfectionist?

While you may not view yourself as a perfectionist, I invite you to consider that in some way many of us carry some threads of this trait and get seduced and sabotaged by the myth of perfection in different aspects of our lives.

  • Some only struggle for perfection in their work world.
  • For some it is reflected in a chronic unhappiness with appearance.
  • Many accept their own imperfections but demand perfection in others- often their children.
  • Some give up on striving for realistic goals, defeated with the all or none perspective of achieving perfection.

 Don’t We Need To Strive For Perfection To Reach Goals and Achieve Success?

Actually striving for perfection compromises our goals.  The need to be perfect is more of an inhibitor than a motivator.

It is associated with procrastination, time management problems, clutter, worry, school difficulties and relationship problems.

  • I was working with some young people on a creative art project, when one teen announced she could not participate because she could not draw perfectly. Startled, the other teens looked up at her and laughed –“ Look at this. It’s not perfect.” She didn’t budge and in some ways physically and psychologically lost her connection with the group.
  • A young attorney, who needed his work to be the best, rarely met the deadlines. His work was brilliant but never useable. He had to leave the profession.
  • For one couple, intimacy became less and less possible. According to one or the other, it was never the right time. She never felt perfect enough. He never felt loved enough. Neither could budge. 

The standards for a person caught up in perfectionism are so high that success is impossible—too often efforts perpetuate a cycle of shame and guilt.

 Preventing Perfectionism from Sabotaging Success

It is not easy to turn down perfectionism as it offers the illusion of success as a way to regulate the anxiety of failure. Since most of us are defined by a variety of traits, one way to turn down perfectionism is use other healthy and viable traits we may have as alternative strategies.

 Patience

Consider being patient instead of perfect.

  • Patience is not a vote for mediocrity. It is the trait that allows for setting a plan toward a goal and sustaining it across steps that seem far removed from the goal.
  • Helmut Schmidt reminds us “ Whoever wants to reach a distant goal must take small steps.”
  • Patience allows for the mistakes, the ongoing practice, the missteps, the fatigue, the lessons learned, the new plan that perfectionism cannot tolerate- that are necessary for success.

 Curiosity

In his book, Curious, Todd Kashdan considers that curiosity is the work engine of growth. He notes that when Einstein was asked about his uniqueness, he did not speak of his intelligence or accomplishments, he spoke of his curiosity- he wasn’t striving for perfection.

  • Replacing perfectionism with curiosity is opening the door to possibilities and unexpected goals.
  • It is the student who is more curious about whether he can do another equation than worrying about getting an “A” who will feel less anxiety and do well.
  • It is the cook who decides to add something different to the recipe and is amazed with the results, rather than trying for the perfect meal.
  • It is the ability to stay on the diet or proceed with the plan driven by curiosity about how you will do the next day or whether the plan will actually work.

Unlike perfectionism, curiosity lowers the anxiety experienced when working toward a goal because it replaces fear of failure with proactive and engaging thinking.

 Creativity

  • Perfectionism is incompatible with creativity. Turning up creativity invites lowering perfectionism. It invites thinking “ outside the box,” and ignoring other details in order to hyper-focus on the creation.
  • Creativity makes room for achievements that perfection cannot provide.
  • As Adam Grant suggests in Originals, the greatest pieces of don’t come from sitting down to compose the perfect masterpiece but by quantity of creative ideas, many works and many dead ends. Mozart had a handful of masterworks; but, he composed more than 600 works before his death at thirty-five.

Passion

Be passionate rather than perfectionistic. Most of the truly great achievements we witness or even succeed at ourselves are a result of being passionate. The achievements of great athletes, musicians, writers and teachers may seem perfect but they actually reflect the result of passion and not the wish to be perfect.

  • Athletes talk of being in their zone and even when injured fight to do again what they love.
  • An extraordinary musician described that when playing, his goal was speaking with the music he was making.
  • Author, Russell Banks suggests that the goal of great fiction writers is to have their readers hear and see what they create.
  • The great teacher looks for the light of inspiration and understanding in her students not the Teacher of the Year Award.

 Replace perfectionism with vision and human striving…

Look toward your goal, learn from mistakes, tolerate uncertainty, give and take help, be grateful for the opportunities and enjoy the journey.