There is a paradox in the idea of perfection: on one hand you think you have very high standards and on the other the pressure of perfectionism keeps you from actually achieving your goals. Perfectionism can keep you from trying things out of fear that you won’t be able to create something worthwhile. We feel stressed, frustrated and convince ourselves to entirely give up because if it’s not perfect, then what is the point?
Lots of artists and creative people in the beginning stages of their craft enjoy creating for fun and for the sake of the process; perfectionism sucks out your creativity and replaces it with doubt and fear. And no, I am not suggesting that we should not push ourselves or set goals. However, there is a tremendous difference between assessing your skills and deciding what you need to improve in order to grow versus simply demanding perfection. (read Part I of this article)
What is perfectionism about?
At the core, perfectionism is about fears of failure and rejection and trying to keep ourselves protected. Perfectionism is a defense that tricks us into believing that it protects us. If we perceive the possibility of an attack, we get back into our shell to protect ourselves. When we engage in this never ending cycle, we self-sabotage and set ourselves for failure.
We are afraid to finish a project and show it to the world because then, not only do we worry about the possibility of failure, but also feeling rejected by the rest of the world as well. It’s interesting that this is the same failure and rejection that our perfectionism was supposed to help keep us protected from.
Perfection, pressure, and failure.
Perfectionism works by means of using pressure. Can you think of a time when pressuring yourself led you to perfection? Failure always feels personal. We forget that there are lessons of success that demand our experience of failure. If we discard failure as a lesson not worth learning, how are we supposed to perfect our skills and figure out in which direction to head? It’s interesting that most books describing success stories have a commonality: they all talk about failure and taking risks.
Logically, we understand why, but we find a way to rationalize doing the opposite by telling ourselves that those are special cases which don’t reflect the reality of our lives. This way, we make ourselves believe that their accomplishments are simply out of reach. In reality, there is not a lot of difference between us and them except that the ones who write those books choose to accept themselves as imperfect and carry on with their mission, whereas the rest are crippled by the lies their perfectionism tells them.
Changing your perspective
Successful people strive for excellence rather than perfection. To them, failure is an opportunity to learn more and the goals they set for themselves are smaller (than say, perfection) and incremental, as is their success. They are consistent in their efforts despite obstacles because they understand that they will never know everything and there is always room to improve and grow.
It is wise to find out what your limitations are because once aware you can accept where you are and continue to push yourself further and grow. If you are worried that by accepting your limitations you are lowering your standards, think again. When you lower your standards it is implied that your original perfectionist expectations led to success. Isn’t that why you’re reading this article?
Striving for excellence demands expertise in an area which implicitly leads to a lack of knowledge in many other areas. You cannot do it all, but you can focus on one thing and put consistent effort into it. In “Outliers, the Story of Success” Malcolm Gladwell talked about the 10.000 hour rule which suggests that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to find your stride and be where you wish to be. Various studies also found that people who kept practicing despite failures, improved the quality of their work and showed increased creativity; rather than push themselves into a corner for not achieving perfection, they felt free to experiment and be creative.
Join me next time, in the last part of this series, to talk about how some people cope with perfectionism and what others do to work through it and overcome it. In the meanwhile see if you can figure out how you rationalize your perfectionism. Do you think that excellence can be a more attainable goal (vs. perfection)? What’s the difference (for you) between the two and and what strategies could you use to employ a change in your perspective?