Imperfect, but searching for excellence?

Lately I’ve been getting calls from folks at the Landmark Forum. I plan on attending, and they call to make sure I honor the financial commitment part. In other words, I still owe them money. That isn’t the only reason they call — evidently you need to prepare a bit for the Forum by deciding what area of your life you’d like to focus on.

Sounds simple enough, but you only get to do the Landmark Forum once, so I better make it worth it. And yet, coming up with one area of focus has been a challenge.

Some options I’ve entertained:

  • Ability to create a supportive community wherever I go
  • Confidence in my vision
  • Perfectionism

During the last call, the Landmark volunteer on the other end of the line zeroed in on the third. She said she used to be a perfectionist. Past tense? Unbelievable. She said it’ll only confine and disempower you. (Actually, she used some trademarked synonym for “confine”, but I can’t remember what it was.) I tuned out a lot of what she said after that because I assumed it was going to be a heaping plate of familiar platitudes about how you absolutely-have-to give-up-perfectionism. I want solutions, and I feel like I haven’t heard any in awhile.

She did, however, say something that regained my attention: you have to replace perfectionism with a pursuit of excellence. What? I asked her if she meant that the problem could be alleviated by some sort of reframing: instead of pursuing perfection, well, perfectly, instead pursue excellence perfectly. Then define excellence in some way that’s reasonably achievable. Her answer indicated that she didn’t understand the question. Regardless, I was a bit taken with the interpretation I’d just happened upon.

Do I know when I’m being excellent? Does it happen at some point closer to where normal people think I should stop obsessing over whatever it is I’m obsessing over? If so, can I shed “perfect” and rebrand myself and my work as “excellent”?

The problem with perfect is that it robs the world of value. Practically by definition, things only ever need to be “good enough”. Any additional effort you exert making something more than good enough is like intentionally overpaying for something. And any additional time you spend perfecting something is time you’ve prevented someone else from enjoying the fruits of your labor.

The absolute worst is when perfectionism prevents you from ever declaring that you’re done and revealing your work to a wider audience. All that work, totally wasted. When these catastrophes happen, I look back in wonder and exasperation. I could have done more for myself and the world if I’d simply aimed to do a poor job from the onset.

Remember that perfect only means satisfaction of your criteria. Your imperfect product is totally adequate for a purpose you haven’t imagined. And even your perfect product is totally useless to some.

But just sticking to the purposes you have imagined, you might think of your efforts in terms of marginal returns. And those marginal returns diminish as you put in more effort. In fact, doing something “half-assed” probably unlocks 80% of the value in the activity. You need to do the other half just to get the last 20%. Is it even worth it to try to unlock all 100% of the value? If you know any econ, you know that it of course depends on whether you could be doing something better with your time and energy. At some point there is something better, and that is the point to stop. You already did yourself and the world a favor by unlocking 95% of the value. Excellent job.

Unfortunately for me, I don’t always know where this break-even point is. And more importantly, even when I do know, I’m seldom able to stop whatever activity I’m caught up in. Sometimes I know I’ve crossed it, and every five seconds I say to myself “I should stop now,” but I can’t. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

I’m not sure yet whether I want to focus on this in the Landmark Forum. Perfectionism is definitely an active area of research in my life. But I’m not sure if it’s something anyone else can help me with. As I said before, I’ve heard the same stuff about perfectionism for ages now. It’d be a waste to pay money to hear it all again.

Regardless, I’m intentionally trying to half-ass more things. I suppose I expect it to work like exposure therapy? Maybe I’ll see that my imperfect products get the job done and then I’ll be a little more able to say no to perfectionism next time. I wish I had a better plan, but that’s all I’ve got for now.