“Perfect is the enemy of good.”
Jen writes a first draft of a speech she has to give in front of her class. She hates it. She fusses over the language for hours, never quite satisfied with the way each sentence sounds. If she can’t make it perfect, she considers taking a zero for the assignment. John, a woodworker, whittles away at a new chair, chipping here and there, always spotting a small imperfection. The chair isn’t finished until it’s perfect, he thinks. Meanwhile, the chair keeps getting smaller and smaller. What do these people have in common? They’re perfectionists.
When is someone a high achiever and when are they a perfectionist? Perfectionism can be an unhealthy trait that actually prevents you from realizing your potential. Always pushing to do better is a natural product of being passionate about something, whereas perfectionism is a cruel saboteur that taunts us with unachievable ideals. “Why even try to paint?” a perfectionistic voice might ask. “You’ll never be Picasso.” But even Picasso didn’t become Picasso overnight.
Perfectionism sounds good on paper—after all, many successful people obsessively strive to reach a standard of excellence. However, there is a point of diminishing returns, when unrealistic standards actually prevent you from progressing. If you’ve never started that project because you were too worried about the finished product being perfect, perfectionism might have reared its ugly head.
“Culturally, we often see perfectionism as a positive. Even saying you have perfectionistic tendencies can come off as a coy compliment to yourself; it’s practically a stock answer to the ‘What’s your worst trait?’ question in job interviews” said Amanda Ruggeri, writer for BBC Future.
The benefits of perfectionism may be overstated. A study examining the traits of professional athletes found that practice, not perfectionism, was the biggest predictor of athletic success.
Ruggeri continues: “Perfectionism, after all, is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world. It is built on an excruciating irony: making, and admitting, mistakes is a necessary part of growing and learning and being human. It also makes you better at your career and relationships and life in general. By avoiding mistakes at any cost, a perfectionist can make it harder to reach their own lofty goals.”
A Rise in Perfectionism
Rates of perfectionism are on the rise among college students since at least the 1990s, one study found. Katie Rasmussen, a child development researcher at West Virginia University, has found that about 40% of kids and adolescents are perfectionists and that the trait is reaching epidemic levels in our society. Some scholars believe that the climbing rates of perfectionistic tendencies reflects a shift in cultural values toward individual achievement over anything else. In short, we live in a society where you are what you do.
Idealism can be suffocating. Many people give up on hobbies or other pursuits because they are not as good as they’d like to be as quickly as they want to be. But any natural talent must be cultivated over time, nourished by the small rewards of gradual improvement and the pleasure of the task itself. Rome was not built in a day, they say. And it’s true—the city known for the greatest display of architecture the world had ever seen was built brick by brick over the course of a thousand years.
Faced with failure, perfectionists tend to throw in the towel more easily because they cannot cope with mistakes. This is when the need to be perfect has reached an unsustainable level.
Adaptive Versus Maladaptive Perfectionism
Part of the problem in understanding perfectionism is that there may be two different types. Recent research found that there are both adaptive and maladaptive forms of perfectionism. An adaptive, or healthy, perfectionist is someone who strives to meet a high standard for themselves, but does not take it as a personal failure if they do not succeed. Maladaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, take an outcome personally, and are also more socially-oriented, meaning that they strive to be perfect so as to avoid negative evaluation by others.
The issue appears to be not in the pursuit of perfection, but in the response to imperfection. Maladaptive perfectionists may descend into self-flagellation and depression if they do not meet their high standards, whereas healthy perfectionists will move on and integrate the learning experience.
Process Versus Outcome
One way that maladaptive perfectionists tend to trip themselves up is by focusing on things that are beyond their control. “What will people think of me?” “Will there be a full audience at my piano recital?” “What if the weather is bad during the baseball game?” This mental energy would be better allocated toward things you can control, such as preparation.
A quarterback could throw a perfect spiral to his receiver (process), and the receiver might drop the pass (outcome). If the quarterback dwells on the drop and the consequent impact on his stat line, he could get discouraged. Instead, he could walk away from that realizing that he made the right throw, it was dropped, and he has to move on to the next play.
Sales professionals who emphasize outcome over process dwell on the number of sales they’ve made. Better would be to focus on the number of calls you make to prospective clients. The latter is within your control, the former is not.
Perfect is the enemy of good, but it is also the enemy of fun. While drive, determination, persistence and resilience are all important traits to develop in life, so too is the capacity to have fun and enjoy what you are doing. The ability to be playful and curious in our actions, even while striving to improve, is crucial if we are ever to remain committed to a goal.
A study on motivation at Columbia University states: “Curiosity is a form of intrinsic motivation that is key in fostering active learning and spontaneous exploration.”
No matter what we are doing, it is important to maintain spontaneity and playfulness that keeps everything fresh and fun. That is how humans stay motivated and truly learn. Without fun, curiosity, and enthusiasm, one will inevitably burnout.
Before you pridefully declare yourself a perfectionist, consider what you might be really saying. Do you mean that you are someone who strives to do your best? To improve a skill with enthusiasm and curiosity? Or are you someone who gives up when they can’t be perfect, who burns out because their unrealistic standards have taken the fun out of what they do?
At A and H Insurance, we emphasize the personal relationships we have with our clients. It is this relationship that has sustained us as an industry leader for over 60 years. While we maintain a standard of excellence, we are always striving to do better and finding new ways of delivering the best service to our clients. It’s fun for us.