Perfectionism: Does it do us any good?
I need to make a confession right at the beginning: I’ve always been a perfectionist — as long as I can remember.
I’m the kind of person who gets really annoyed when someone changes the order of crayons in a case. The kind of person who spends days on the Internet only to find the perfect (paper) notebook that suits my needs. Or the perfect camera. Or the perfect USB cable (no kidding). I’m the kind of person who will read through this article over and over again, searching for typos and logical errors, edit it several times and read over it again before finally publishing it — days or weeks later. That is, if I ever publish it.
The cause of it all:
I love beauty. And to me, perfectionism is the desire for beauty.
Beauty means that something is just right. There is not too much of it and not too little. Beauty means balance and simplicity. And most of the time: symmetry.
Flowers can be beautiful, landscapes, people, pieces of art, user interfaces, buildings, even mathematical formulas or computer code. Beauty is all around us and yet, it’s really difficult to create.
Beauty gives us a good feeling when we see it. But is there more to it? Does it serve any purpose other than pure enjoyment? You bet.
What’s the point in striving for beauty?
Striving for beauty means that you care about the result of your work, about the things and people around you. It means that you have an ultimate goal and that you won’t stop improving something until you’ve made it beautiful.
The desire for beauty is a motor that drives creativity and the creation of truly extraordinary things. It pushes us forward.
In science, the desire for beauty triggers the search for a greater truth. Physicists try to combine all their existing theories into a single, grand unified theory. It pushes them to look at the world from different perspectives and to come up with new ideas about how our universe works.
In design, the desire for beauty triggers the search for a visual creation that transports an intended function, emotion or information to those people who look at it.* It pushes designers to put themselves in the shoes of those people, to create artwork that attracts their attention and that they understand intuitively.
In programming, the desire for beauty triggers the search for self-explanatory code that is easy to modify and extend. It pushes programmers to divide their code into small chunks that each have a single responsibility and to find names for their functions, classes and variables that other programmers will understand as well. This prevents an application from “dying” after a couple of months or years when the slightest change of code would otherwise have unforeseen side effects because the code has become too messy. (It’s called Spaghetti code.)
In journalism, the desire for beauty makes authors of newspapers articles, radio or TV pieces create content that’s appealing, easy to digest and — most importantly — 100 percent true.
So… in general, the desire for beauty is a good thing. Perfectionism is a good thing. Without it, mankind wouldn’t have thrived in science, wouldn’t have developed computers or smartphones. Most things would be really difficult to use, our music, art and culture would be very limited.
But it’s only a good thing to a certain extent.
The Danger of Perfectionism
Despite all its positive aspects, perfectionism always comes with a danger: the danger of never finishing, the danger of not getting things done. This is due to a number of reasons:
- Perfection is very difficult to achieve. Depending on the subject, it might not even be achievable at all.
- The closer you get to perfection, the harder it gets to further improve something.
- In many cases, perfection is subjective.
If you don’t have a clear measure for perfection you might feel that something you created is perfect today but imperfect tomorrow. So you’ll make it perfect again tomorrow only to realize the day after that it’s still not perfect. You’re trapped in a loop.
The Pareto Principle
The second reason is a phenomenon that is closely related to the Pareto principle. Applied to creating things, it states that
with only 20% of your work, you can reach 80% of your goal.
In other words: If you need five days to create a perfect product, you can create 80% of it on a single day. As a result, you can save a lot of time when you choose not to go the extra mile and just finish once you’ve reached this 80%-threshold.
(It’s important to note that this is not a law of nature but rather an observation that seems to apply to many cases. There are cases where you do need four days to create the general product and only one additional day to put the icing on the cake and make it perfect.)
According to the Pareto principle, you’ll get a lot more things done if you make everything you create only 80% perfect. The only downside of this approach is, well, that nothing you create will ever be perfect. You might be able to create a business and make a living by always following this principle but you’ll never create something that you or others truly love.
The Difference Between Sufficient and Awesome
For many things in life, it’s sufficient to be sufficient. Striving for perfection is totally impractical for these cases as it will cost you a lot of time and keep you from doing things that really matter.
- If you wanted to have a perfectly clean flat, for example, it would require you to thoroughly clean every angle of it, every single day. That’s why most people clean their flat only once a week (or less) and still feel comfortable at home.
- If you wanted to have a perfect meal every time you eat, you would either starve or spend your entire life time cooking and searching for restaurants. That’s why we have things like muesli, cornflakes, bread and rice. I believe no one would claim that any of these foods is their favorite dish but we still eat it because it serves us the nutrient we need and it tastes good enough. It’s great to enjoy a perfect lunch or dinner every once in a while but it’s impractical to try making every meal perfect.
- If you wanted to have the perfect car and you didn’t settle for anything less, you would probably never own a car of your own (unless you’re a millionaire). You would never go anywhere.
On the other hand, if everything we created was only sufficient, life would be really dull and boring:
- Every house would look more or less the same in a city. It’s sufficient to have gray blocks and flats that serve their purpose to house a family. But it’s not particularly enjoyable.
- Software would do its job in general but every app would crash from time to time and be difficult to use. (Rings a bell?)
- There would never be a product that you love for the reason that it just works perfectly out of the box.
- You could never be enthusiastic about anything because everything is just okay.
The bottom line is: We need some things to be awesome. We need those jaw-dropping “wow” moments when we just appreciate how beautiful or great something (or someone) is. They make life exciting. They bring color to our world.
Why the World Needs More Perfectionists and Perfectionists Need to be Less Perfectionist
Our modern world is fast-paced and mostly driven by profit. There is a strong competition between companies. In general, that’s a good thing because it motivates them to create better products and provide better services than other companies.
However, it also poses a big problem because the competition pushes companies and individuals towards applying the Pareto principle all the time. Only few can afford to go the extra mile.
Our society needs people who strive for the 100% — as a motor for progress and to make life more beautiful. It requires perfectionists. Good scientists want to know everything. They never stop asking ‘why’, even when they feel like they have solved their initial question. This way, perfectionism is responsible for building a deep knowledge with a solid foundation. It should never be abandoned.
On the other hand, wholehearted perfectionists (like me) need to be less perfectionist. If you are one of them, you always need to reflect in which situations you can actually benefit from your perfectionism and when it only slows you down. It’s crucial that you take control of your perfectionism and use it as a powerful tool when it really makes sense, but put it aside when it doesn’t, in order to just get things done.
Footnote: *The perfectionist in me kept pushing me to change the ending of this sentence in order to avoid a double “it”. I fought him bravely and finally won the battle which is why you can read this article right now. (I just figured that you can actually see the word repetition as a conscious, artistic choice. It’s called anadiplosis. 😉)