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The Cowardice of Perfectionism



People who become perfectionists don’t do so because they have high standards but because they have low confidence. They don’t trust their own judgement and instead use an external standard in an attempt to avoid the discomfort of relying on themselves.


Perfectionism is a distraction from achieving your goals. It is not merely that it is good in theory but just unrealistic in real life given our limited time and resources. Even with unlimited resources and all the time in the world, perfectionism is irresponsibility cloaked in the guise of accountability.


Work hard and you will succeed

We are always told we should be doing our best. After all, if we do less than our best and don’t succeed then seemingly we have only ourselves to blame, right? Maybe that last little bit we held back would have made the difference between success and failure?


But what if the issue isn’t that we didn’t do well enough but that we were doing the wrong thing?


By definition doing our best means that we should have a high standard for our work. But the only standard that makes sense to judge an action by is how well it makes progress towards a desired end goal.


Doing something useless perfectly well is not as good as doing something highly useful in a mediocre way. True progress is measured not by seeing how far you’ve gone, but by seeing how far you’ve gone relative to where you need to get to.


Going 10 miles when driving from Miami to Fort Lauderdale is great progress. Going 10 miles when you are driving from Miami to Seattle is nothing. In both cases, those 10 miles may have been perfectly driven but we can only judge their success relative to getting to our destination.


We fall into the trap of perfectionism when we stop holding ourselves to the high standard of staying on the path towards a greater goal and instead focus on the immediate outcomes of individual actions and decisions.


Shades of Gray are Scary

The reason we fall into this trap is that the world is uncertain, there are rarely black and white solutions, only shades of grey. The way to achieve our goals is not clear so it’s difficult to be sure that we are measuring progress accurately.


We have no guarantee that the decisions we make are bringing us closer to or farther away from our goal. We have to trust our judgement even knowing that we could be wrong. There is always going to be some uncertainty as to whether a decision we make is the correct one.


When we are children and learning something for the first time, we look to an external standard to decide how well we are doing since we don’t yet have the experience or knowledge to judge that ourselves. But because it is an external fixed standard, it is somewhat artificial.


It’s purpose is to serve as a crutch more than as a reference.


In an educational context this is fine. Whether learning a skill/technique or something less defined like being entrepreneurial or artistic, we compare ourselves against these external standards as a guidepost. That’s how we learn.


But as we gain more and more experience, we begin to develop the skills and the judgement to know when to follow the standard exactly and when to deviate.


When a child is playing a sport, they follow set plays and fixed techniques. But when a professional plays the same sport, they constantly adjust their actions based on the changing situation. They use their judgement by calling upon both unconscious physical reactions from years of training and intuition based on years of experience.


When we don’t trust our judgement we revert back to this childish desire for clarity. We begin looking to someone else to tell us when we’ve done enough.


Black and White is an Opiate

The seduction of perfectionism is the comfort of clarity at the expense of a true measure of an action’s worth.


We assume that all quality is the same so the higher quality we achieve, the better it must be. In fact we begin to substitute a focus on the quality of our performance of an individual action for the need of having any goals in the first place.


The action becomes an end in and of itself.


This makes perfectionism a double temptation because it allows you to avoid two stressors. The first from the responsibility of having to use your judgement and the second from having to think about where you are heading, about what you are trying to achieve as the end goal. All this while being able to fool yourself that you are being productive.


But this sense of comfort is fleeting and comes at an increasingly higher price the more we do it. Making a mistake in our judgement becomes more emotionally dangerous because we are attaching our ego to our results since, having lost sight of a higher goal, our immediate results are all we have.


Making a mistake means that we are somehow lesser as a person which makes us even more fearful of mistakes and dependant on that artificial external standard. We enter a downward spiral of self-doubt and reactive decisions, all the while reassuring ourselves that we are on track because we are perfectly executing those short-sighted actions.


Perfectionism is not about the nobility of high standards, it is the cowardice of seeking safety, the safety of saying to yourself that you followed all the rules, so its not your fault.


It’s the ultimate check the box exercise. It is like operating your car with your eyes fixed on the speedometer, perfectly keeping to the speed limit as you drive off a cliff.


Accept Uncertainty

Instead of focusing on the immediate results we need to be comfortable with uncertainty. Which is another way of saying we must be brave.


We need to engage with reality by continually using our judgement to decide what the right course of action is at any one time and adjust that course as the situation changes instead of being overly concerned about the outcome of any one decision or action.


To go back to the car analogy, when we drive down the highway we continually adapt our position and speed to the situation on the road. We don’t collapse into self-loathing when we exceed the speed limit, we just calmly slow down a bit. We don’t panic when we encounter construction, we just move over.


The idea is not to put too much emphasis on perfecting any individual action or decision but instead aim for a perfect process.


A process that has high standards but not fixed standards. A process that acknowledges that the world is fluid and probabilistic not rigid and deterministic. A process consisting of reasonable decisions leading to actions with good enough results.


By doing this we detach our egos from our results. We are more able to accept the discomfort that comes with making mistakes. Treating them as information about the course we are actually on relative to the path we need to be on and not information about the value we have as people.


We owe it to ourselves to accept the messiness of reality and be courageous in the face of our self-doubt. Enlightened perseverance not blind perfectionism is the way to succeed.