The problem with perfectionism: how trying to reach the unreachable is making us unhappy

What is wrong with wanting to deliver perfect work, with wanting to be flawless at what we do? My short answer is: a lot. I believe the wish to be perfect is in the way of achieving our potential as individuals and of reaching our most important institutional goals.

It has taken me a while to realise that perfectionism is not a good trait to have. Before this started to dawn on me, I thought that wanting to get it exactly right every time, was the best way to be successful. My upbringing, my education, my drive to produce particular outputs that I thought my employers wanted, a high dose of internalised societal expectations, they all contributed for a couple of decades to my wish to be perfect at the things I found important. Only when I became more introspective and started searching for the source of my all too-frequent anxiety, did I begin to realise how unhelpful the concept of ‘perfect’ is in everyday life. Who even defines it (if it can indeed be defined)? How on earth can we know we have reached it? What happens when we cannot get there? Why does it feel that every time we’re almost there, it disappears in the distance and we need to work even harder to reach it?

“Perfectionism and fear of failure are so closely related.”

It would not be so bad if we could strive for perfection while knowing full well that it will escape us, and while smiling at the futility of our attempts. But that is not how perfectionists behave — believe me, I know. For perfectionists it is quite serious, primarily because perfectionism and fear of failure are so closely related. What connects the two is anxiety about not being as good as others. People who suffer from perfectionism have often taught themselves that they don’t measure up. One of the ways they can prove themselves wrong is by delivering every important task to perfection. Unfortunately, that also means that an imperfectly delivered task is by definition failure and further proof of the dreaded unworthiness.

“I would bet that universities have a higher percentage of perfectionists in their communities compared to other institutions.”

If every hard task needs to be perfectly executed and becomes a test of our value as people, if we can rarely pass that test because we will rarely deliver that perfect result, our stress levels and anxiety around having to do difficult things will be heightened every single time. And since it is not easy to do a good job while being really stressed, perfect becomes the enemy of good. Perfectionism and procrastination are closely related, because sometimes it is safer to not even try, which is another reason why perfectionism can get in the way. And, while striving to do well is a virtue, it is sometimes enough to simply be good or OK. Otherwise it can all too easily becomes a vicious cycle.

I would bet that universities have a higher percentage of perfectionists in their communities compared to other institutions. It is the way in which we recruit, the language we use, what we look for, how we select, but it is also our culture that keeps this tendency going once people are in the University. There is a lot of comparing, competing and ranking in how we assess our students, but equally in the way we judge our colleagues’ output (see my blog on Stepping Off The Hamster Wheel for more on this topic).

To reiterate, ‘perfect’ is an elusive and thereby relatively useless concept. What is perfect one moment may not be so perfect the next. We need to seriously ask ourselves: why even try? What happened to failure as a necessary step to innovation? What happened to the joy of learning, and teaching, and doing research? Life is messy, people are fallible, learning is a journey not a destination, and perfect is an illusion. What’s the problem with that? It is OK not to take ourselves so seriously and laugh at our feeble attempts to get it exactly right every single time. And we should extend this approach to others and not place unreasonable demands on them. We sometimes need to cut each other a bit of slack.

“We owe it to our entire community of staff and students, to sometimes truly find ‘good enough’ good enough.”

Even if we could define and reach perfection, the energy we have to spend on trying to achieve it, is not proportionate. We should use it to pursue more worthy goals instead. If we stop chasing ‘perfect’, we can also let more lightness and pleasure come into everything we do in our work.

We owe it to our entire community of staff and students, to sometimes truly find ‘good enough’ good enough. There is no reason to fear that we will do less well as a university and that our outputs will suffer if we embrace that concept. On the contrary: if we wish to lift the burden of perfectionism, we should define important but attainable outcomes and create a culture in which we can work collaboratively towards those, without unsustainably high stress levels. As a result we will be creative, compassionate, innovative, successful, and a lot happier. That will enable us to achieve wonderful and worthy goals as individuals and as an institution. On top of that, we will equip our students, and ourselves, with the important realisation that we are fine just the way we are. Wouldn’t that be perfect?



The University of Leeds was founded in 1904, and its origins go back to the nineteenth century with the founding of the Leeds School of Medicine in 1831.

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