How to break the shackles of perfection paralysis

Do you eliminate the possibility of success by striving for perfection? I did, and I know a lot of other people who do too. Yes, you read that right. Stick with me here, you might learn something. I did and I wish I learned it a long time ago.

First, let’s agree on some terms. I am a perfectionist, and by that I mean I expect perfection from myself — in no way do I claim to achieve it … ever. In fact that is a hallmark of perfectionism — you are never good enough for yourself, so you can only disappoint yourself. Perfectionism is usually driven by insecurity and fear, which is a negative feeling and emotion, and is quite different from striving for success. Success is an end result where perfectionism is a control-freak, fear driven way of being.

Eric Elkins is one of the best writers I have ever met, and his blog The Dating Dad is the pinnacle of of soul-bearing honesty. Recently he wrote about his daughter’s long-time struggle learning to ride a bike and pointed a finger at what he called her paralyzing perfectionism.

That is not a term I had ever heard before, but I instantly knew what it meant and it stung. It also got me thinking about the relationship between success, failure, perfection, mediocrity, fear, confidence and insecurity. I now realize they are inextricably linked.

Ask successful people — and I don’t care if it is success in business, sports, anything — what the keys to success are, and the commonality will be take risks, learn from failures, and get up when you fall down. Many of them will tell you that success and failure are not opposites, but rather part of the same continuum. These are important life lessons, but they certainly are not taught in school and not taught by most parents either. Instead people teach, nay preach, perfection. Perfection, I realized this morning, is my single biggest learning disability and I would say it is the biggest barrier to success I know of.

A little personal history. I attended a Montessori school from preschool to sixth grade. For anyone not familiar with Montessori teaching, it is about learning by doing, experimenting and keeping at it until you get it right. When in doubt, ask for help (the teachers were always happy to help after you tried a few times on your own first). There are no grades, either you have mastered something or you are still working at it. In 7th grade I move to a public school. Early on, I proudly brought home a “C” on a test (I never had grades before, and 75% seemed like a decent attempt). From the look on my parents’ faces you would have thought I was solely responsible for the death of humanity.

Fast forward through hours of screaming lectures and I learned that in life nothing is more important than education and constant striving for perfection, and that is why both my parents have PhD’s and … That was it. That was the day the jaws of perfection clamped down on me, the moment that perfectionism and its paralyzing toxins seeped into my head. And I let them in. The monster they created was an insecure kid who’s biggest fear was failing, but who never really had the skills to succeed because the goal was never success, it was perfection. I had the importance of achieving perfection in everything I do drilled into my head daily.

I never, ever, give up easily, but eventually I realize that my goal — perfection — is not in the cards so I pull back. There are a few things in life that I stuck with despite sucking and learned to enjoy them intrinsically. Ski racing was one of those things that I kept at even though I sucked. You know how I know that I sucked? It wasn’t my points or ranking or even results. It was that I never crashed out in a race, or really in training either. It’s not because I was good, it’s because I always held back.

I was striving for perfection, without really knowing what that meant, but I knew that always finishing was important. So I skied to finish. That is not the same as racing to win, not by a long shot. There was one race that before the second run of a very fast GS my contacts hurt my eyes so much I had to take them out. You know the great big “E” on the eye chart at your doctor’s office? I can’t see that until my nose is practically touching the chart, but I skied the second run anyway because I don’t quit. Ever. That would not be perfection.

Here is another example, perhaps you can relate. My wife and I bought our house about seven years ago. It was a fixer-upper, but we had some specific requirements and while it was far from perfect, it checked all our boxes and was the best we could afford. Some time and sweat equity (along with a generous infusion of cash) would take it a long way. We did a lot of work, but it still has a very long way to go. I can make excuses with words like time, money, priorities, but I think what really happened is this – we got the house livable, realized just how much more work would be required to get it to the next level, and just gave up. Proof: the myriad things left undone — the vent covers not quite installed because I couldn’t find just the right one, paint samples on walls hidden behind pictures or furniture because we couldn’t agree on a color, so we just didn’t. My aunt-in-law is even worse. She remodeled her kitchen nearly 25 years ago, but still has not found the perfect drawer pulls. Her arthritic husband can’t open them!

Somehow I made excuses for my consistently mediocre performance — in ski racing, in academics, in personal relationships, in every aspect of life. I was so busy trying to achieve perfection in even the smallest piece that I would lose sight of the bigger view. I failed to succeed because I was striving for perfection. In many cases I wouldn’t even attempt something because I was too afraid to fail. Sounds pretty stupid, but it also is true. And I know I am not alone. What’s the line — “others have excuses, I have my reasons why”?

I have come to realize that the opposite of perfection is not failure, it is mediocrity. There are some people that have a death-grip on mediocrity because they don’t take risks. If you take a risk and fail, you hopefully have learned something in the process that you can use to grow and thrive. When you aim for perfection, you rarely take risks and therefore don’t learn or grow. Do you know who my heroes are in life? They are the people who just put it out there and without fear (or with their fear stuffed in a little box in the back of their sock drawer) because that is how success is won: through commitment, confidence and perseverance.

So rather than just whine, here is what I’m doing about it:

  1. Understand what it means to be good enough. One of my favorite sailmakers has a philosophy that guides all his designs: “Going 95 percent, 99 percent of the time.”
  2. Never lose sight of the bigger picture.
  3. Don’t over think it, just do it. 80 percent now is better than 100 percent later.
  4. Remember that no failure is ever final, nor is any success.
  5. Stop taking everything so seriously. The crazy thing about life is that no matter what you do, you will never make it out alive, so might as well enjoy the ride.

So there you have it, striving for perfection eliminates the possibility of success. My name is Bill and I have been a perfectionist my whole life, but that ends now. So today, I am officially — and for the rest of my life — giving up on any concept of perfection and simply aiming for “good enough” because I know that my “good enough” is better than many people’s “perfect.” Somehow, I have a strong feeling that will make me better at everything I do, and everything I am.

Leo Burnett said “When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either,” but from experience when you reach for perfection if you don’t get it you belly flop into the sea of mediocrity. And I tell you now my friends, those are waters I will not be swimming in again.

P.S. While I am publicly outing myself, it took me nearly two weeks to write this post, because it wasn’t (and isn’t) perfect. Oh well, I’m posting it anyway. First step is admitting you have a problem, right?

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