I admit it: My name is Peter, and I am a recovering perfectionist.
Though often used as the self-congratulatory response of job applicants (Interviewer: “What’s your most significant weakness?” Interviewee: “Oh, I’m a perfectionist. Everything has to be to an extremely high standard for me. I want my work to always be my best!!”), perfectionism can be a dastardly and debilitating habit. Procrastination, never-ending ‘near completion’ and unrealistic expectations of self and others can create toxic work environments.
This interesting news article (“Pressure to be perfect hurting musicians”), points to the physical pain, depression and performance anxiety suffered by classical musicians. This significant Australian study (see the original abstract here), demonstrates a significant relationship between depression and anxiety, perfectionism and physical pain in classical musicians, with 84% suffering performance pain at some stage and 50% reporting current pain. ‘Suffering for your art’ is the truth! It’s what most reasonable people have always thought is the by-product of all those tiger mums and sports dads.
One very interesting comment from Professor Kenny (who has created an inventory and scale for Musical Performance Anxiety) was that gifted young people had ‘had their identities foreclosed on them.’ That is, at a young age, everyone else decided who these young people should be – brilliant musicians – and they have followed that identity ever since. They never got the chance to be something else of their own choosing.
People and organisations get this wrong all the time – they seek after perfection and foreclose on their identities and productivity. Creativity, productivity and just plain life are messy and fluid. Although it can be really really great, you will never create the perfect system or the perfect result. Live with that. Accept it. Your neuroses will decrease exponentially, as will your pain – both psychological and physical. And if you find harsh, perfectionist task-masters in your organisations, have it out with them – results, not perfection, are what matter in organisations. Results that everyone can be proud of.
Perfectionism so often leads to nothing getting accomplished, because the law of ever diminishing returns means that once you pass the 80/85% mark, you’re spending ever-increasing amounts of time getting the last little bits just right. And that final .00005% is so horribly ducking and weaving from your ability to pin down. It prevents products from being launched and then refined (instead of being beaten to the punch by a lesser competing product), it prevents people from going for a job, it prevents people from being proud of their team, heck it even prevents people finding someone to love because nobody else is their version of ‘perfect.’
We don’t need everything to be absolutely ‘perfect’ for us to enjoy and thrive and for others to benefit. In fact, it would be pretty boring to be perfect, as human concepts of perfection require the elimination of deviation and variability. It has to be ‘just so’. That’s plain crazy.
The reality is that perfectionism is driven by fear. Fear of failure. Fear of loss. Fear of disapproval. Fear of being less.
Like me, become a recovering perfectionist. It’s a long time since I had the overwhelming desire to be perfectionist. I was the subject of psychological profile a number of years ago that said I could be more than 99%+ certain of something, but still not say it or commit to it, because I wasn’t 100% sure. Like Mr. Spock, my guesses were far better than most people’s deductions. Confronted with that on a psych profile (I mean, really, that’s sad when it comes out in a short assessment), I resolved to overcome that, and I have in many respects. But I do have to remind myself: get it out there. That’s more important.
Just get it done. You’ll be much happier and more successful and it will be less painful for everyone.