Battling Perfectionism

This was first published on my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer a reader’s question.

Photo by Zac Turner

How do you beat perfectionism?

So this question assumes that perfectionism is something that *should* be beaten, which I don’t think is always true. For example, if I’m getting open heart surgery, I’d hope very dearly that my surgeon was a perfectionist. I’d wish the same for flight controllers at airports, nuclear weapons engineers, firefighters, the people who program self-driving cars… you get the point. In some cases, mistakes are incredibly costly. So having a rigorous culture that prevents them can be an excellent thing.

But yes, in many other instances in our lives, perfectionism hinders more than it helps. I know this because I’ve been a perfectionist and I used to wear it as a badge of pride. It’s a cool and soothing drink for the ego to say, almost conspiratorially, that you aim for the best. That you do not tolerate mistakes. That you, like Beyonce, aspire for flawless.

The problem is that trying to do things perfectly all the time often leads to worse prioritization decisions when you take a step back. Take the following (rather silly) example: I’m planning a party and I want it to be awesome. I take out my linen napkins from the closet and realize Egads! They are all creased! Well, perfectionism suggests that I should immediately get out my iron to smooth the napkins, which’ll take me about 30 minutes. But wait — what else could I do with 30 minutes? I could go out and rent a karaoke machine (because who doesn’t love karaoke)? Or, I could spend the time to blow up a bunch of silver and black balloons (because that’ll make the place look festive and classy af). Or, I could make a few large pitchers of a potent and tasty concoction that’ll get my guests feeling light as those aforementioned balloons. All of these ideas are probably more likely to make my party awesome than perfectly smooth linen napkins.

The thing is, perfectionism tends to be rooted in fear rather than opportunity. I’m afraid creased napkins will make me look bad.

I might be wrong if I raise hand and share my opinion so I’m going to stay silent.

I should spend the next two hours tweaking the typography of my new user onboarding designs instead of getting feedback from my peers because otherwise the work won’t reflect well on me.

In each of those examples, you’re denying yourself the opportunity to do something even better. I’ve been to many parties in my life and the most memorable ones have nothing to do with the smoothness of the linens. I’ve sat in many meetings and the people who command the most respect speak up and have a voice, even if they’re wrong from time to time. And I’ve attended many design reviews on new user onboardings. In very, very rare instances is the biggest issue the typography.

When you find yourself under the grips of a perfectionism defined by fear, try the following tactics:

  1. Tell yourself that perfect does not actually exist. Nothing is such that it cannot be improved. Usually when people use the word “perfect” what they mean is “no obvious mistakes.”
  2. Consider the tradeoffs between making something “perfect” and using that time and energy for something else. Take a step back and ask yourself: what is more important in the grand scheme of things?
  3. Instead of feeling afraid to fail, tell yourself that you are excited to learn. When you try new things, you will learn something. Period. It doesn’t matter how well you do in any one instance — the more you do it with the intention to improve, the better you will become.

To ask a question or follow along with more articles like this, subscribe to The Looking Glass.