Perfectionism: Curse or Blessing?

Professionally, perfectionism can be a source of great achievements. But the satisfaction of observing good results when applying this principle can quietly lead to a dangerous imbalance. There is a darker side to perfectionism, a way of thinking that worms its way into one’s mind, suffocating the creative process. Perfectionism can easily become too much of a good thing.

Balance is probably the most important mental aptitude when dealing with this issue. By knowing when to give up the endless quest for perfection, one can deliver impressive results in a timely fashion. But finding that balance can be an elusive task.

The knife

Imagine somebody sharpening a knife. At one point, the knife becomes sharp enough to be of good use. But then the person decides to sharpen it even more. The knife becomes extremely sharp. Even though that fine blade will deteriorate soon, it definitely provides a better experience for a while. Still not satisfied, our perfectionist decides to sharpen the knife further.

What happens afterwards, as you can probably imagine, is that the knife’s blade loses from its material without becoming sharper. Even worse, the blade might start to exhibit other problems that arise from excessive sharpening. Obviously, the tool used to refine the blade will also lose material. And last but not least, it’s wasted time.

This analogy helped me a lot. I managed to realize how redacting my work excessively can quickly become wasteful. I usually went through at least five revisions before publishing anything, sometimes more. From a certain point onwards, I was simply changing words and then changing them back. I discovered that it’s infinitely more useful and pleasant to ask for a second opinion rather than hammering at the text ad infinitum.

Pride

Perfectionism makes good friends with pride. The positive results obtained through this intensely self-scrutinizing creative process can be very encouraging. Therefore, it is not surprising when one starts to take pride in this way of working. However, it’s an unfortunate symbiosis and can easily lead to abusing the method. And we’ve already seen what that can cause.

Pride becomes both a trap and an excuse to stubbornly cling to a wasteful process. It can be very hard for a perfectionist to own up to this. I speak from experience. Ideals can spawn the most convincing of illusions. Feelings of superiority provide the perfect fuel for pride to burn, intoxicating the mind.

The blessing

Despite these dangers, perfectionism can be a positive trait and a very important one at that. When wielded with care and balance, it acts like a distiller of quality. There are many factors involved in any creative activity – imagination, talent, experience, knowledge, ambition, consistency and the list goes on. Producing a satisfying end result requires these varied factors to play together harmoniously.

But the perfectionists don’t stop at “satisfying”. They don’t stop at “good” either. This extra ingredient, the additional amount of effort spent, is usually the difference between “good” and “great”.

I’m far from saying that only perfectionists can produce great things. Perfectionism is just another thought process among dozens of others that we have labeled using various words. However, when applied in good measure, it is a strong ingredient. And yet, it is never a guarantee.

Conclusion

While preparing to publish this, I had a rather amusing experience revising an entry which deals with how one should handle their inner critic. Through this short exploration, I realized that it is better to accept the possibility of another reviewer finding mistakes later – and learn from them – rather than sacrificing precious time in order to avoid the unavoidable. As a rule on Mentatul, I never revise a text more than four times before publishing it. I hope it was enough to allow these words to deliver their meaning in an efficient and pleasant way.

There are several ways through which we can set ourselves free from the shackles of our inner critics. A good first step is to involve our close ones into our work, especially those that already hold us in high regard. Humans excel at team work and can provide much-needed encouragement.  Even more importantly is that we understand that it is ultimately in our own power – and best interest – to move forward, despite our insecurity or dissatisfaction. Starting with less important activities, we can learn to say “I’ve done my best. It’s time to move on.”

The extremes in which perfectionism finds itself are due to its “absolute value”. It is a rather intense character trait to have. When one falls into the many temptations and traps along the way, the consequences can be tragic, take depression for example. But when used wisely, perfectionism can lead to beautiful results.

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8 Comments

  1. Adrian

    Reply

    There is a quote related to this subject that caught my attention from adolescence – “Perfection is the measure of heaven, and the wish to be perfect the measure of man.” (Goethe)

    Man will always have the desire to achieve perfection, it’s in his nature to attempt becoming better, or the best in a certain field/area. “Excelsior” (higher) reflects maybe the best this way of thinking of modern times. More recently people talk about achieving mastery, being close to perfection, bringing something to the level of art. Maybe this is a healthier way of thinking.

    The problem is not the desire to achieve perfection, but focusing on the nonessential – wasting time and power on things that have maybe almost no value for ourselves. As you put it, one needs balance, knowing how to balance between essential and nonessential things.

    The knife metaphor says a lot, though there are also exceptions. Some need to go beyond the limits of sharpness to see what happens, to see our limits. The problem is not in attempting one time, but in trying over and over the same technique for the same type of problem.

    • Reply

      That’s a beautiful quote :). I saved it. A friend replied on my FaceBook post saying: “The quest for Perfection rarely leads to Harmony, while the search for Harmony always leads to Perfection. Since Harmony is the constant dance of Measure.” Quite nicely said I thought.

      The two statements are not as contradictory as I initially believed. They both acknowledge our desire for perfection but what is different is the advocated approach. Like in aerodynamics or in physics with the speed of light – there is a certain resistance that increases exponentially as one gets closer to certain limits. I believe that, like in judo, the trick is to go with the flow, to let yourself become perfect rather than obsessively chase the illusion.

      At the end of the day, I do believe that this trait of ours is a positive one. But today’s culture can easily turn it into an almost-paralyzing condition. There is little education regarding balance in a culture of excess…

  2. Reply

    Succinctly, best is the enemy of good. I often have to remind myself to do just do something, although these days the problem isn’t nearly as bad as it was a decade ago. Some people phrase superficially similar circumstances as a procrastination problem, but I think at least in my case that’s woefully inaccurate. Technically not doing something is procrastinating, but the main reason I might procrastinate is that I instinctively feelit’s not worth doing if I’m not going to be doing it very, very well indeed. But many things merely need to be good enough. On the flip side, sometimes the expected outcome of doing something is a worse situation than what would result out of doing nothing. You definitely need to have a handle on a well-considered “no.”

    • Reply

      Creative individuals have no problem at all finding something to do. So it ultimately ends up as a matter of prioritization. I try to prioritize the things I’m good at, which is usually synonymous also with the things I enjoy most doing. Experimenting with new skills is also fun but the 8 hour work day is a major impediment while in the same time I’m happy that I’m contributing to society (although I believe a 6 hour work day would allow me to contribute even more to society).

      • Frans

        Reply

        Well sure, but being creative is the same thing as procrastinating, isn’t it? So to rephrase, just do (i.e., prioritize) something boring/less important to you because it helps you attain a much more important overall goal.

        • Reply

          I’m not following :). How is being creative procrastinating? Procrastination is putting off something important. This is very different from changing mental landscape from time to time. The change of landscape is necessary just like good and bad, black and white. Life is pattern.

          • Well, I guess maybe some people procrastinate by watching TV or something? When I still had this problem in a more pressing sense I’d be drawing when I should be writing and writing when I should be drawing. I don’t mean I was doing something I’d consider a waste of time, but, like you said, not doing something important — or, more to the point, something with an impending deadline.

            So how do I cope? Well, in part some of the stuff you’ve sent has outlined similar strategies.

            Just get started even if you don’t feel like you’ll be productive. Work on it for five minutes. Five minutes is nothing, but before you know it you’ll actually be in the right mindspace after all. And always keep in mind it doesn’t need to be perfect. In fact it won’t even come anywhere close until after at least one revision.
            Take some active time to reflect on what needs doing. This seems totally self-evident, but what I mean is that it helps to have something concrete for the five-minute starter thing. Also I sometimes write down some reflections, perhaps coupled with “tomorrow I should do X” and somehow that’s more motivating than just keeping track with my mind alone. I’ve also started keeping a crude time log of how I do spend my time on some things to be able to look over the week and reflect better.
            Use a timer of some sort to remind you to take a break after like 25/30 minutes. You can easily work on it for hours on end, but you’ll feel physically and mentally exhausted. I put away some dishes, do some burpees, whatever, and have at it for another half hour. I know from your links that they call this the “Pomodoro” technique, although I arrived by it independently.
            Make sure you move and give your eyes a break. This is basically restating the previous point, but not moving is super-tiring. All of this is easiest at home, but at work you can probably run some stairs up and down or something. It’s way more effective and healthier than using a drug like coffee.

            The point of all that is just to properly prioritize something like writing a project outline over doing something else I also consider worthwhile. It’s not to prioritize it over something that’d make me feel I’d wasted my time. Most people probably learn these things by their early teens. We slightly more intelligent people aren’t forced to deal with it until we’re at university. Hopefully that means we’ll have dealt with solving the time management problem in an ultimately superior way. 😉

          • Completely agree with the breaks, movement & no coffee (or at least not abusing coffee). I tried Pomodoro a few times and I admit I failed. I’m distract myself too easily. Seeing you mentioning it makes me want to go for another try. So I will :). I need to find some method to keep me from always tab-ing out of the word editor or the code editor :). I considered disabling internet access but then again I need it to look up stuff. And besides, it’s not only the internet that gets me distracted, but also the damned MindNet :D. BraiNet :D.

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