Is Perfectionism Killing New Ideas?
I have a confession to make; I used to be a perfectionist.
Being a Perfectionist may seem like a positive trait to a casual observer but in my experience chasing perfection can act damage your mental health if you allow it to get out of control. Instead of feeling like you and your work are perfect it usually ends with you constantly questioning yourself in an attempt to be more perfect than you or any human is probably capable of being. No matter what you achieve it never feels like it was good enough. This can quickly cripple your confidence.
Right after I finished college I was overcome with this feeling of not being ‘good enough’. I was so overcome with feelings of inadequacy due to my Perfectionist outlook I didn’t bother looking for a job related to my qualification. I simply didn’t think that I was good enough to work for anybody. In my mind I was comparing myself to the great designers and developers who had “made it” according to my criteria. What I saw was the result of their hard work and dedication, but what I missed was the hard work and the process they used to get there.
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection. Its the idea that if your work isn’t flawless its worthless. That kind of attitude should seem like a fallacy and it is. People who fall victim to “Nirvana Fallacy” as its known usually assume there is a perfect solution to most if not all problems and that somehow they just can’t reckon it. Obviously there’s no such thing as a “perfect solution” to any problem worth solving.
When I started my first business, the web development company Spoogle, I wanted everything to be perfect. I’d over analyse and criticise any job I did right down to the last pixel before launch. Even when it came to learning new skills I’d decided that there was a perfect way to do it and acted accordingly. Perfectionism ruled every piece of content, every video or invoice, receipt, spreadsheet, presentation and blog post had to meet my five star standard, nothing else would do.
It seemed like the right thing to do and the only way to be competitive with others who I assumed would settle for less. But chasing perfection actually slowed me down and eventually led to having chronic anxiety over any task big or small.
Are we obsessed with Perfection?
While I’ve mostly abandoned true perfectionism I still hold myself to a very high standard and for that I’m actually proud. The standard I hold comes directly from the people whom I admire; the great designers, developers and entrepreneurs whose work and companies I see and read about daily. With perspective after years of my own work, I now look at the achievements of those I admire I see the result of thousands of hours of crippling hard work, pain, sweat and tears with a dash of good fortune rather than the effortless output of a divine genius.
The way these achievements are often presented in the media though often glosses over the struggles and flaws of anybody striving to create great work.
We live in a world where everyone demands perfection. We want the perfect job, car, house, partner, children, holidays, bodies and everything else. We’re bombarded with images of the amazing lives of others on social media everyday, but its usually a facade. Magazine covers might feature a flawless model selling one ideal or another and while they may indeed be attractive theres no doubt they’ve had some help from PhotoShop to get them ready for display.
Similarly we constantly hear about people who have started amazing businesses and hear about the amazing lives their success has brought them. We rarely hear about everybody else though, the unexceptional masses who are a “failure” as far as the perfectionist is concerned and ignored by the media while they deliver solid work and strive to better themselves at a realistic pace. But that doesn’t make for a great news story so we’re usually left comparing ourselves to huge success stories rather than our peers. Never taking into account the thousands who didn’t make it for each one that did.
For instance an aspiring artist who compares their rough work in progress to the magnificent pieces literally placed on pedestals in spacious galleries will often feel like they’re trying to catch up in a race that’s already finished.
The first draft is always s**t, and that’s ok
What we’re missing as a society is an appreciation for the process and not the result.
Great painters and writers work through countless drafts before displaying their work to the public, Even the most gifted will rarely present their first drafts to the public because they’re usually terrible and that’s fine. A bad first draft is something that can be improved upon. Continuing to try is important as is willing to recognize and learn from your failures without getting hung up on them. Trying isn’t promoted like succeeding to those aspiring towards greatness but it’s a more important step.
We’re sold the notion that perfection is achievable, but it isn’t, greatness is. Greatness always comes from embracing and learning to love your process. The feeling of satisfaction you get when your process produces great work is actually a perfect reward, ironically enough.