Avoid perfectionism

In theory, striving for perfection should foster success and happiness. In reality, it rarely does.

Perfectionism takes many forms: Needing to be perfect. Needing to become perfect. Needing to appear perfect. Perfect career, perfect relationship, perfect life.

For some, perfectionism arises from a mistaken belief that achievement is the best or only route to a good life, that happiness is a place and not a process. For others, it arises from a desire to win social approval by impressing others, avoiding criticism, not being seen making mistakes.

Whatever its source and whatever its form, perfection is impossible. What would it mean to have a perfect career, relationship, or life? No matter how you define it, there’s something you could change to make it even better. There is no perfect.

Even if perfection can’t be reached, could it be worth striving for? Maybe the higher you aim the higher you reach, even if you miss the target? Sometimes. But more often, perfectionism impedes success. Being afraid to put anything imperfect into the world stifles playfulness, creativity and experimentation, essentials for mastery and impact. Perfectionism encourages procrastination and inaction.

Not only does perfectionism often reduce success, it also reduces happiness. The problem often isn’t in wanting the ideal, but in needing it. When nothing but the best outcome is acceptable, disappointment is almost assured. And happiness is reduced not only at the destination but also on the journey. By straining compulsively toward an unrealistic goal, the present is sacrificed for the future, and perfectionism leads not to happiness but to anxiety.

But even if perfection isn’t worth striving for, appearing to be perfect could be desirable. But it isn’t. Working to impress others makes you accept their definition of success, focus too much on what’s easily measured, and base your self-worth on your achievements. If you believe your imperfections make you less worthy, your self-esteem will fall and you’ll be trapped in a cycle of perfoming, pleasing, proving. That’s not an ideal life, that’s an inauthentic life.

So what’s the solution? To free yourself from perfectionism:

  • Abandon the pretense of perfectability. You aren’t perfect, won’t ever be perfect, and don’t need to be perfect. Same with everyone else.
  • Bring awareness to your thoughts and actions, and notice when perfectionism is pulling at you.
  • Learn to prioritize and focus, so you can be excellent at what’s important and good enough at everything else.
  • Set your own goals.
  • Be optimistic, and aim high. Reserve your contentment for the outcome, not the process.
  • Define success based on effort, which is within your control, rather than outcome, which isn’t.
  • Don’t worry about what others think.
  • Be pulled by a desire for excellence, not pushed by a fear of imperfection.
  • View mistakes as necessary steps on the path to improvement, not as flaws. See each attempt as training for the next. Think mastery, not victory.
  • Derive satisfaction from giving your best effort to everything that matters. Let every act be a work of art, an expression of gratitude to your creator or the universe. Perfectionism is a burden; excellence is a celebration.

Today's Activity

  • Are you a perfectionist? Has it made you more or less successful? More or less happy?
  • Show the world that you are imperfect. Make a mistake in front of strangers. Admit a weakness to someone you care about.