Perfection’s Toxicity

One of the most pervasive ideas that has been difficult for me to overcome is the idea of perfection. Perfection is an idea that a lot of people, including myself, have been told to strive towards. Unfortunately for me, it’s something that has led me to feel inferior to others and it took me a long time to realize that I need to let go of this toxic mentality. The problem with perfection was that whenever I felt I didn’t reach the “perfect state”, I felt like a failure. Failure is a feeling that discouraged me from sometimes even trying again and I wish I had just thrown out this mentality a long time ago.

Like many people, I encountered perfection mainly in learning environments. People’s self-worth is tied to how well they perform in school relative to others and I was no exception. Everyone has met the one person who always gets nothing but straight As. The one person whose IVY League future is mapped out and is looking brighter than ever. The one person who, along with a perfect GPA, is athletically involved while somehow manages to have an amazing social life.

It’s hard not to feel inferior when you meet someone like this. It also didn’t help that for most of my education life, I wasn’t competitive and motivated to push myself. If only I gave a 110% instead of 50% effort, maybe I could be just like that one perfect person. I’m not alone in feeling these thoughts, but the thoughts that made me feel inferior felt like they were a daily part of my life.

I remember how bad I felt when a friend of mine was sad for a week after he got his first B ever. If I got a B or C in a class (which happened all the time), I would be sad about it for a day and get over it. To my parents, it felt like I didn’t care about my grades. I couldn’t help feeling bad like something was wrong with me, like I didn’t have some sort of fire inside me that everyone else did.

I remember the feeling when I got back a C on a very easy pre-calculus test and the teacher decided not to go over the solutions because pretty much everyone got either As or high Bs.

I remember the feeling when I got a B in college prep (which are easier than honors and advanced placement courses) and my friend said to me “I don’t think you can get into a UC School with a B in a college prep class. You’ve completely fucked up your future”.

I remember the feeling of getting the lowest score on the midterm in one of my engineering classes (24%) while the average was an 81 %.

I’m not listing these examples to make the reader feel sympathy for me. Everyone has encountered some form of the experiences above. The reason why I’m listing these examples is because it kept on ingraining in my head that something was wrong with me. If I was perfect, I would have gotten straight As but I’m a failure since I don’t have straight As. I would have gotten As in the easier engineering courses in college but I’m a failure cause I didn’t. But the truth is, I wasn’t and most of us aren’t perfect. Most people have given up on one thing or another. And for every person that is perfect in every regard, there are thousands that are not. So then what’s the solution for the majority of people that are not “perfect”. Do we just accept that we are inferior to those that are perfect? Do we just accept that if we are not perfect, we have just received some sort of economic death sentence? That if we don’t get the best grades or get into the best schools, we are doomed to fail at life? Luckily, that’s not the case for several reasons.

Learning a new skill is naturally hard and full of imperfect obstacles

The first problem I have with perfection is that whenever you attempt to do something (learn a new skill or change a habit for example), you’re naturally going to run in to obstacles. You might run into mental obstacles or you’ll find that you’re not learning at the pace you’d hope to learn at. One of the things I’ve learned to avoid when learning a new skill is to attempting to estimate how long it will take me to learn a skill or a portion of the skill. Sometimes, I have to look at a set of math equations multiple times before I get it. Sometimes, I have to stare at my code for hours before realizing what’s wrong it. The funny thing is, I don’t feel stupid when it takes me 3 hours to understand a math equation fully anymore or when 1 hour of investigating my code winds up to just a change in one line of code. I instinctively understand that this is just part of the process for me and I’m not the only one who understands this. When I was younger, and I didn’t get something right away, I would assume I was stupid. There were people around me didn’t take notes, didn’t study for the test, and somehow still managed to get a better score than me on a midterm of final. It’s hard not to feel inferior when that happens and it’s even harder to accept that I have to work harder just to get something.

Strive for “better” and “consistent”

When I’m working out on an elliptical, I would set the resistance to level 10. One day, I’m able to make it through the full 20-minute workout. However, after doing the work out for a week, I’m only able to make it half way through before I give up. This was mainly because how mentally taxing resistance level 10 is for me. I would think to myself, “If only I was mentally tough, I could make it through the work out”. And it’s true, my mind gave up before my body did.

You might be thinking, “why not just drop the resistance?”. If I did that, it would hurt my expectation that I should get better at this (e.g. eventually raise my resistance). After I realized this expectation was incorrect, I eventually lowered the resistance level to 7 and started being more consistent with my elliptical workouts. The first time I did this, I could feel some strict coach saying, “You’re only giving 70% when you should be giving 110%”. But in this case, isn’t 70% better than 110 %? Which outcome is better, the one where I give 110% but I’m inconsistent or the one where I give 70% but I’m super consistent? With the resistance level of 7, I was at least being consistent and my workouts started to improve.

There’s something called the “Nirvana’s fallacy”, which is often referred to perfection fallacy. Here are some statements to illustrate the point.

“Seat belts and airbags aren’t going to save every life in a car crash”

“People are going to still smoke despite cigarette taxes”

It’s pretty easy to see what’s wrong with these statements. The solution presented doesn’t perfectly solve the problem, so the argument is to reject the solution altogether. The goal of seat belts and airbags is to reduce deaths, not get rid of them altogether. The goal of cigarette taxes is to reduce the number of smokers. None of these problems aim to perfectly solve the problem yet the argument against the solutions is the fact that the solutions aren’t perfect. Yet this is exactly how I and a lot of people would live their lives.

The perfection fallacy is easy to spot in these examples, but it’s very hard to spot in our daily actions. When I play tennis and I make an error, I usually let out an audible sound of frustration. I have this expectation that every shot I make in tennis should be perfect. I think to myself when I miss a shot, “you didn’t follow through with your stroke”, “you weren’t aggressive enough”, and “work on your footwork”. If you watch a tennis match (amateur or professional), you’ll notice that players rarely make an audible sound when they commit an unforced error. It only happens after a certain number of errors. This is because they instinctively understand that not every shot they hit is perfect. I also get frustrated with myself with my professional life. Every now and then, I think about how much further I could be along in my professional life if I had just stayed committed to that one online course. How much more money I could be making if I was just a tiny bit more committed to my career. All of these thoughts are dangerous and letting them go isn’t easy.

Letting go of perfection

Letting go of perfection has not been easy for me and I’m OK with that. It would be hilarious if I tried to let go of perfection immediately after writing this long article about how perfection can be toxic. I do attempt to strive to be better instead of attempting to be perfect and that’s what’s led me to where I am today. I am by no means complacent with myself because I understand that success lies somewhere in between complacency and perfection, but not at the end points. As Voltaire said once “Perfect is the enemy of good”.

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