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The Lure of Perfection

Is there anything more intoxicating than the lure of perfection?  Not if you’re a perfectionist.  Perfectionism can be at once a powerful creative force, and a tremendous psychological trap for those caught in its grasp.  Learning to embrace the power of perfectionism without becoming trapped in it can be a tremendous challenge.


The Perfectionist Advantage


Perfectionists are life’s natural editors.  We look at the world around us and think, “How could this be better?  How has this gotten worse?  Was that the best decision in the circumstances?  Surely there’s a way to do this better.”  On and on and on.  Whether it’s geopolitics or sports or architecture or chess or writing or flower arranging, we’re always on the lookout for perfection, for finding the perfect idea, perfectly executed at the perfect time in the perfect way.  Our search for perfection never ends.

But what is perfection?  The hidden majesty of perfectionism is that it is not, in the end, about setting up a mental construct of what should be and then measuring reality against it.  That certainly happens, and it is one of the traps of perfectionism.  But on the other side of the coin, perfectionism is an observational, instinctive process.  We can look at a style of art or architecture we’ve never seen before, an idea or a process we’ve never thought of before in an area we may never have studied, and still recognise its perfection.  We don’t measure perfection in the first instance, then, by external ideas, but by an internal ideal. 

But why do we expect perfection in an imperfect world?  Perfectionism at its best can perhaps be described as a measure of faith in human transcendence of our own limitations, in our ability as a species to create pure beauty.  Perfectionists see their role as driving society toward that ideal.


The Perfectionism Trap


That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?  So what’s the problem?  The problem is that we don’t know where to stop.  We transition from recognising and celebrating perfection when we encounter it and encouraging ourselves and others to keep striving, to a state in which we do start to measure everything by our own mental constructs of what perfection would look like.  Any task we begin is blighted immediately by the daunting standards we impose on ourselves.  We can demoralise ourselves so badly that we can’t even take the first step.

In business, in relationships, in social interaction, in education and in many other areas of life, we can paralyse ourselves with our own expectations.  It’s no surprise that social anxiety correlates highly with perfectionism.  For a perfectionist with high ideals of smooth social interaction, there is intense pressure not to make mistakes, to keep cool, to avoid embarrassment- so much pressure that inevitably, we end up creating the very situations we want to avoid.  That crushing experience of failing to meet our own expectations only adds more stress to future social situations, and the negative reinforcement snowballs. 

A similar trap befalls many perfectionists during the course of their education- they place so much pressure on themselves to perfect every assignment that the quality of their work, not to mention their quality of life, suffers. 

When perfectionists embark on new projects, if we don’t lose our momentum completely on account of our high expectations, we start looking for the perfect way, the perfect time, the perfect sequence to set about building what we have envisioned.  Perfectionists, ironically, turn into expert procrastinators.

If we look at what’s happened from the point of view of the creative process, we can see how big a detour perfectionism has led us on.  Ideally, the interval from inspiration to action should be as short as possible.  This helps us build momentum, energy, enthusiasm, and generates fresh inspirations during the process.  In other words, we should start consolidating and organising only after we’ve created.  Anyone who’s ever been a writer knows that you have to let the inspiration flow first and only then bring order to what you’ve written.  So it is with almost all creative processes.

In its extreme forms, perfectionism becomes not only an impasse for ourselves, but intolerable to those around us, when we fixate upon a particular criterion of perfection which may or may not have anything to do with the central purpose of the endeavour, or when we get so bogged down in nitpicking minutiae that we lose sight of the bigger picture.




The only way out for a perfectionist is through.  Perfectionists may find themselves obsessing over the perfect solutions to a given set of problems, the perfect way for something to be, whatever their field of focus may be.  They imagine a world in which everything was as perfect as they would want.  But the more they think about that imagined world and the more energy they put into it, the more they come to realise that it’s futile- not only that such a world could not exist, but that it shouldn’t.  Ultimately, the creative cycle would have to be completely interrupted to achieve such perfection.

Take the particular kind of perfectionist who lives for the rules and wants everyone to follow the rules, all the time, because the rules are the rules.  Let that kind of person envision their utopia in detail, fantasising about it over a long period of time.  Eventually, if they have even the slightest degree of inner honesty, they will realise that only a police state on a hideous scale could ever realise their dream.  From this realisation, they can go back and reflect that many of the freedoms and protections they now enjoy in modern society exist only because people dared to break bad rules, dared to make trouble.  From there, their focus can change from the letter of the rules to allowing for the human element, which they must now admit is a necessary input to the system.  Rather than trying to enforce the rules, they can try to get buy-in (known in political science as social legitimacy) for those rules that really do serve a defensible purpose.

Still, reasoning your way out can only get you so far.  The next challenge is to embrace spontaneous creativity and action, to live in the moment, and to experience the thrill of riding that wave of spontaneity.  The only way to escape the addictions of perfectionism is to want what’s on the other side more, and to give yourself that experience as often as possible.  Get to the point where you are simply creating, without regard for or time to reflect on mistakes, and seek out experiences that give you that sensation.

As you make this shift, there is another important detail: you must discipline yourself to leave things as they are the moment they’re acceptable.  If you can’t define “acceptable,” break down how many minutes in a day or week a task should take you.  Find out how much other people spend on the tasks in question.  If you spend eight hours on a blog post where another blogger who puts out lots of original content only spends two or three, you can start timing yourself to keep yourself to schedule.  Just get it out there, and use the rest of your time for other priorities.  This is where, ironically, scheduling can help you get perfectionism under control. 

If you need a philosophy to justify this, I suggest looking into the concept of pareto.  Rather than maximising a single axis on the graph of life, so to speak, you are aiming for the most efficient solution on all axes- you get your work done at the rate you want, you assign your time efficiently according to your priorities rather than your perfectionist impulse, and you increase your happiness in the process.




Use the experience of creative spontaneity to overcome the roadblocks of perfectionism, and to put that perfectionism back where it belongs- not imagining the way things should be, but imagining what you can do to improve the world, a spur and inspiration to creativity, not a brick wall.