The Pitfalls of Perfection

I always thought that perfectionism was the inability to complete something because you got lost tinkering with the details in an attempt to get everything perfect, even when certain elements or perhaps the entire project were not all that vital. And this is certainly a part of perfectionism: a tendency to get hung up counting the leaves on the trees even if the forest is burning. Missing deadlines because you were off searching for that perfect word, or maybe spending hours weighing the benefits of various font choices. What about all italics?

I have definitely succumbed to these pitfalls of perfectionism before and I am sure I will again. It is enticing to call it “perfectionism” because that elevates it above mere “procrastination,” which is all it really is when we get down to it:

“I’m a perfectionist, you know, a real artist, and I take pride in my craft. That’s why I spent two hours on Google researching kerning and four hours finding the right background color. It’s the perfect shade of off-white, a little gray with just a touch of beige to warm it up. I call it: ‘a touch of greige.’”

 “Sounds like you’ve put a lot of work into this. Can I see what you have to far?”

 “Oh, I haven’t actually written anything yet.”

This is a pretty insidious form of procrastination because it allows you to feel like you are hard at work, even though you are accomplishing nothing. (Before I get hate-mail from font fanatics and web designers, yes these details matter, but they have to serve the content, not prevent it from being created in the first place.)

I find that it is relatively easy to spot the detrimental effect of this kind of perfectionism, at least in retrospect. If I exert a ton of effort for a long time and get nowhere, I can usually see that it’s time to try a different approach. Learning this lesson and applying it in the future might be a bit trickier, of course, but I’ve had some success realizing when I’m counting leaves or spending way too much time watching Lorem ipsum dance on my screen like a time-lapse of typographical evolution. (See how the vestigial serifs eventually drop away?)

But there is another version of perfectionism, the one I sat down to write about before I spun off into lame font jokes. It goes something like this: I want to create something, I want it to be perfect, but I realize I can not make it perfect, so I don’t try.

I can’t tell you how many times this form of perfectionism has stopped me before I even started. One, because it’s been countless times, and two, because it usually happens below the conscious level. This strain of perfectionism is so often fatal to our endeavors precisely because it typically goes unnoticed. It can kill a nascent project in utero and we don’t have a clue it happened.

When I was a teenager, I gave up on my dream of playing guitar because I couldn’t play like Jimi Hendrix. I don’t mean that I had a hard time envisioning a time when I could possibly reach the level Jimi was on. I mean I bough a Hendrix fake book, tried to play “Bold as Love” and “Manic Depression” on my Grandfather’s thick-necked acoustic guitar, failed miserably of course, and promptly gave up on my dream of playing guitar forever. Ridiculous, I know. I was attempting to emulate a man who was pretty much my god at that point in my life, and because my guitar’s neck was bigger, my fingers undoubtedly shorter (dude uses his thumb?) and, oh yeah, I didn’t know the first thing about playing guitar, I put my instrument away. I had a little talent, but at a time when getting through “Mary had a little lamb” would have been quite an accomplishment, the fact that I couldn’t play “Wind Cries Mary” crushed my spirit. I’m grateful I didn’t know about Victor Wooten, Jaco Pastorius, or Les Claypool when I first got my bass.

It is easy to ascribe this experience of believing you should be able to do anything, perfectly, with zero effort, to our teenage years. It is much more pronounced then, but this trait stays with most of us into adulthood. Perhaps our thought process is a little more nuanced than: “I can’t do this, it must be impossible, and it’s probably stupid too,” but I am sure there are things we don’t attempt to do simply because we believe we can’t do them. Or maybe we can do them, but we can’t do them well enough. Or maybe we can do them well enough, but that’s not good enough.

We can laugh about a 15 year old kid getting upset because he isn’t the greatest guitar player of all time on day one, but at the same time we might stay in our seats at a party because we think we’re not good enough at dancing to get out on the floor. We can settle on store-bought sauce for our pasta because we’ve never tried to make pesto before. We can put our easel away because our last painting wasn’t exactly a masterpiece.

When you stop to think about it, not trying something because the result may be imperfect seems so illogical, so downright silly. But how often do we really stop and think about it? For me, it’s closer to a reflex than a reasoned act. I feel a tug to write a novel, but instantly dismiss it because I know after all my efforts I won’t have produced The Great Gatsby. Even if I could, Fitzgerald already did it, so what’s the point, right? So instead of writing something that would be less than perfect, I go buy a book that’s pretty good, read it cover to cover and enjoy it thoroughly.

Where do we get this idea that we have to be perfect? What in this world is really perfect? Well, maybe everything is perfect, but that’s a topic for a different essay. When did good become not good enough?

Take a moment and consider how much you love a good book, a good movie, or a good song. And it extends way beyond what we could call “art.” Think about the value of a good business model, or how about a good relationship.

“Good” seems like such a watered down word, but it should be high praise. You don’t have to be an etymologist to see how close “good” is to “god.” It’s akin to the divine, yet we seem to so easily dismiss it. If I tell you to “have a good day” you might think this is just a throw-away line, some polite but meaningless statement. But with the right mindset, this is an offering of benediction. If you know me, you’re probably aware that saying somebody is “good people,” is just about the strongest endorsement I can make for someone.

So that’s all well and good, but isn’t striving for perfection what makes us better? Doesn’t it keep us growing and getting better, instead of settling for the satisfactory and mediocre? I think the answer is yes, as long as the quest for improvement doesn’t become a perfectionism that stops us from performing.

CompassI like to think of perfection as a direction, not a place. You can move towards the East, but you can never get there. If you’re standing on the coast of Japan facing the Pacific, you may think it is “The West” on the other side of the ocean, but in truth that immense expanse of water and what lies beyond it represents a whole lot of East that you can travel through.

You may say: “OK, so the Earth is round and East and West are in a sense infinite, but how does your little metaphor hold up if you use the other cardinal directions, smart guy?”

Alright, with North and South there are obviously poles. We can reach a place that is as far North as it is possible to go, i.e. as perfect as it is possible to be. But a few things happen when you are at this point. First, the pole is really cold and really lonely. We’re not exactly built to live there. Yeah, it’s all sun all the time for months on end, but I’m sure that gets old fast. Then, it’s the longest night you’ve ever experienced. Beyond all that, at magnetic North the whole concept of North loses meaning. Does a perfect being concern itself with being perfect? Does perfection desire and strive? In this sense, wanting and trying to be perfect is self-defeating. Beyond that, if you’re standing at the North Pole, there’s nowhere to go but South.

I’m trying to keep my perfectionism at bay and writing for this blog is great practice. I feel like declaring that leaves me wide open for criticism, but it is the approach I have to take if I’m going to consistently create posts. We have to accept that trying to do our best is all that we can do. I for one have a hard time with internalizing that lesson, but I’m working on it. Perfect can be the noun that stops me from doing my work or the verb I enact when I try to make my work a little better.

This may be a long, imperfect ramble about perfectionism, but it helped me to get over mine. I hope it might help you too, and maybe even offer some entertainment. What can you do today that you’ve been putting off because you can’t do it perfectly? Maybe good is good enough, and it’s got to be better than nothing.

Have a good one.

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4 Responses to The Pitfalls of Perfection

  1. John January 11, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    This is too true. Too true that it hurts me to admit that I totally relate. Too many projects started as good ideas but got caught up in the strive for perfection only to never be finished.
    This blog is good. Really good. The author has something very good. It’s good to see.

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