Perfectionism: A Self-Destructive Philosophy

We are taught from our youth that we should strive for perfection. In many ways, this acts as a motivator during our school days. Getting “100%” on a test, or straight A’s on your report card, is something children strive for, and which their parents and friends are extremely proud of.

Unfortunately, when we get out into the real world, we still retain this belief that perfection is attainable, unaware that the world is a much less regulated place than school. Real life involves things going wrong, people not fulfilling their obligations, sickness, and simply bad luck – hopefully not all together (though that sometimes happens). Nevertheless, it’s amazing how influential our childhood experiences can be: Having been taught that we can be perfect, we still demand perfection from ourselves, and are surprised when we can’t attain it.

Entrepreneurs are well-known for their rigorous pursuit of perfection and for continually setting themselves ultra-ambitious goals. An entrepreneur typically has an endless amount of items on his or her “To Do” list – whether for the day, week, or year — and hates the fact that many of these don’t get done.

Naturally, there’s nothing wrong with trying to “Be all that you can be”, as the US Army says. The problem is that we often confuse “doing your best” with being perfect – denying the simple fact that perfection is not part of the human experience. When you expect and demand superhuman results from yourself, you are setting yourself up for disappointment, and even worse realities than that.

I’ve included some lessons below that show the perils of perfectionism, as well as some further advice to remember next time you want to beat yourself up for losing a deal, making a mistake, or simply not being the perfect machine you think you should be.

Ben Franklin’s Quest

Ben Franklin, the great American inventor, scientist, and statesman – to name just a few of his professions — attempted the quest for perfection. In his Autobiography, which is great reading for any entrepreneur, he describes an experiment he made on perfection when he was still a young man. Franklin took 13 rules of conduct, which he called “virtues”, and tried to enforce them in his personal life. The virtues consisted of avoiding too much alcohol, working hard, sincerity, and frugality, among others. Franklin actually kept a notebook where he recorded instances where he broke these rules. Talk about a perfectionist!

Despite Franklin’s most diligent efforts – and he is indeed a symbol of hard work – he found perfection impossible to attain. He was able to master some of the virtues, but one of them, “Order”, gave him an immense amount of trouble. In “Order”, Franklin required that everything be done at the proper time, with no distractions or surprises.  Naturally, we can all see the problem with this expectation. To have complete “order” means that the world around you has to obey your exact will and schedule. In time, Franklin learned to disregard this demand for perfect order, as that type of regularity is simply not written into the DNA of life.


Fatally Flawless

Harvard professor and psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar talks convincingly about the perils of perfectionism in his books Happier and Being Happy. The latter actually has the subtitle, “You don’t need to be perfect to lead a richer, happier life”. A one-hour lecture of his can be found on Youtube, and his course at Harvard, “Positive Psychology”, is available in its entirety on DVD. It’s definitely worth watching.

In Happier, Ben-Shahar gives an example of perfectionism that is much more grim than that of Franklin. He tells the story of an Oxford student and scholar, Alasdaire Clayre, who had seemingly reached the heights in his field. In addition to top honors and accomplishments at one of the most elite universities in the world, Clayre also wrote a novel and made two music albums, constantly demanding more than the best from himself. His television series on China, which he wrote and produced, won an Emmy award. Nonetheless, Clayre only viewed his achievements as rungs on a ladder leading to perfection. When he realized that he could never reach this unattainable zenith, he took his own life, while still in his 40s, and with so much still to offer the world.

This is definitely an extreme example. However, while most perfectionists do not kill themselves, they often kill their own happiness and that of those around them, as well as stunt the development of their talents.


Perfectionism Means Paralysis

In my view, the worst part of perfectionism that it develops inaction and fear. As Ben-Shahar states, “Perfectionism means paralysis”. The continual pressure that you give yourself to accomplish absolutely everything, to be free of flaws, makes you unable to act, for fear that the result will not be what you wanted.

As a writer, and someone who works with writers, I see many examples of how perfectionism is self-destructive. Writers with great ideas are afraid to put the pen to paper, for fear that the result will not be exactly what they desired. Others continually tear up and rewrite their manuscripts, with the view that their next book will be perfect. The result, of course, is that there are no “results” at all — their books never get published!

And then there are those who do go ahead, but get such unrealistic expectations for themselves that they are never happy: the salesman who cannot accept failing to close a potential client, or the entrepreneur who beats himself up when one of his projects or businesses doesn’t work out.


“Accepting” the best

To achieve perfection, you would have to live in a perfect world: one without conflict or natural disasters, and where people were never late, never sick, and never wrong. In short, a place where people weren’t human. When you force yourself to be perfect, you also demand perfection from others. Is this fair?

Releasing yourself from perfectionism begins with looking at the world around you. Whether or not it is a beautiful world is debatable, but no matter how positive you are, you will admit that it is certainly not perfect. Accepting this will help you to take a realistic look at yourself as well.

Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the best. At one stage during my career as a salesman, I had several months of really good sales, and got to the point where I really thought I could have a month of 100% closes. When this of course didn’t happen, I complained about it to my sales manager, who was an older and much wiser man. He simply said, “Tom, you can’t win ‘em all” – and he was right.

So, strive to win, and push yourself to the optimum. But when things don’t work out, keep in mind that none of us can be perfect, and that we don’t live in a perfect world. The phrase “You can only do your best” is something to be taken literally!


By Tom McKinley, author of Winning the Fight to Be Happy and Make the Right Decisions Early.

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