Taming Your Inner Perfectionist

“A man would do nothing, if he waited until he could do it so well that no one would find fault with what he has done.” — Cardinal John Newman, British Clergyman

“I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” — Anne Lamont, American author and political activist

“People throw away what they could have by insisting on perfection, which they cannot have, and looking for it where they will never find it.” — Edith Schaeffer, American author

As Voltaire once pointed out, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Think about that. As I interpret it, here’s what he meant: while a desire for perfection is admirable, it becomes increasingly difficult the closer you get to the goal. At some point, you have to admit to yourself that you’ve done what you can, and accept that it’s good enough.

It may shock you to learn that I’m in agreement with Voltaire.

No, I’m not advocating laziness or sloppiness; never! I’ll be the first to admit that perfectionism has its good points. A desire for excellence sets a high standard for achievement , encouraging us to do our best in all things. This is absolutely necessary if you ever expect to achieve SuperCompetence.

However.
Perfection is the realm of the divine; it’s just not going to happen very often here on Earth. If you expect perfection in everything, you’ll never be happy—and you’ll never be as productive as you should be, because you’re hung up on getting it right instead of getting it done. Worse, a quest for perfection can paralyze you if you wait for the ideal conditions to get started. I’ve heard this called “paralysis by analysis.” Some people call it “vapor-lock”—just like you get with an old car.

Let’s check to see if you’ve let your inner perfectionist take over. Do you:

• Always run at 110% capacity?
• Leave no room for error?
• Criticize yourself constantly?
• Expect too much from others?
• Get depressed if goals go unmet?
• Feel a constant fear of failure?
• Get defensive when criticized, even constructively?
• Have low self-esteem?
• Wait until everything’s perfect before starting a task?

If most of these points describe you, then to paraphrase comic Jeff Foxworthy, you might be a perfectionist.

Too much perfectionism is dangerous, because it inevitably limits productivity. If you want to achieve true SuperCompetence and move up the ladder of success, you need to learn to control your inner perfectionist. Look: while sloppiness shouldn’t be tolerated, good enough usually is good enough — especially on the first pass.

Here’s what I mean. Any experienced writer knows that you never get a manuscript right on the first draft. It’s a fool’s errand to try: the purpose of the first draft is just to get the ideas on paper. If you go back and edit yourself after every sentence, you’ll never get anywhere. The real artistry comes during the rewrite, when the writer cuts here, adds there, reorganizes thoughts, and tweaks words until they approximate what she was trying to say in the first place. Note the word approximate. It’ll never be just right. Trying to make it so is another aspect of perfectionism, one that can be devastating to productivity. At some point, you have to let it go.

Here are some tips for taming the beast of perfectionism:

• Step back and take a look at the big picture. Quit focusing on individual pixels!
• Set realistic expectations. Realize that perfection is an option, not a requirement.
• Establish deadlines for yourself. You have to draw the line somewhere.
• Give yourself permission to be imperfect.
• Stop comparing yourself to other people.
• Accept yourself as a human being, who will make mistakes.
• Understand that no matter how well you perform, someone can always find fault.
• Give yourself credit for what you do right.
• Learn to accept criticism as it’s meant.
• Focus on what you’re doing now, not on past mistakes or future worries.
• Quit overanalyzing and waiting for the perfect conditions, and get started.
• Lighten up! Learn to relax.
• Ask for help when you need it.

It’s fine to shoot for the best that you can be. In fact, you should harness your perfectionist tendencies as a motivational tool—without taking it so far that it starts causing problems. Do your best within your time constraints; then, if you have extra time to work on something, go back and kick it up a notch. If not, stop worrying. Just keep reminding yourself: productivity is more important than perfection any day.

You won’t manage to rein in your inner perfectionist all the time; accept that, too. But you do need to immediately get back on the wagon when you fall off. Otherwise, you’ll alienate others, you’ll never be satisfied—and you’ll burn out before you get very far.

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