Confessions of a recovering perfectionist
Sometimes you feel like a screw-up, for no reason. You fall asleep wondering if everyone secretly thinks you’re an idiot, or a slacker. You know you could’ve answered one more email. In fact, that’s your entire problem. You don’t answer enough emails.
So you tell yourself.
People like to humble brag about their perfectionism. Like it’s some quirky little pet— a safe answer on job interviews. It’s not. Perfectionism can ruin you, and it’s ruining the world.
This one friend of mine spent six years on her dissertation. That’s right, not her PhD. Her dissertation.
She learned three languages. Traveled to libraries around the world. All because she couldn’t let go.
Finally, her husband forced her to defend. He said if she didn’t, he was going to leave her. Because she was making them both miserable. I’m not generally a fan of men forcing women to do things, but I’ll give this one a pass. My friend finally defended. Her doctorate cost her ten years total.
My friend wasn’t lazy. She wrote almost a thousand pages. That’s about three times what I wrote for mine.
According to the news, perfectionism is on the rise. Millennials ride themselves hard. Everyone wants to get into Harvard. These days, we all know a college education by itself doesn’t cut it. You have to stand out somehow — through brains or selfies.
A C+ is the new D-. Nobody wants to be average anymore. Average is just the polite word for garbage.
You wouldn’t think I’m a perfectionist, on the surface. But I am, just a high-functioning one who likes to break rules on occasion. So I know a fake perfectionist when I see one. There’s lots of them.
A few years ago, I overheard a guy at one of these job interviews in a coffee shop. The boss asked about his weaknesses.
The guy described himself as a workaholic and a perfectionist. He said, “Sometimes I just try to be Superman. I set expectations too high. Other people can’t keep up. I have to make myself slow down.” The boss didn’t look impressed. I don’t think Superman got the job.
So when I tell you that I’m a perfectionist, I’m not bragging. I’m confessing. The world needs less of that mindset.
What the world needs is “good enough for now.” That’s been my mantra for years. High-functioning perfectionists remind ourselves that quality is subjective. We set our own standards. We get as close as we can. We realize real-world factors like deadlines and the need for sleep.
We cope. We concede. We compromise. There’s no choice.
Perfectionism doesn’t help you. If anything, I’ve struggled against mine for decades. It eats away at your greatest accomplishments. Imagine a life where you immediately see the flaws in everything — especially your own work. I’m never actually satisfied with anything I do. Instead I just reach a point where I lose perspective. So I force myself to quit.
Obviously, there’s the opposite end of the spectrum. Some people rush. They don’t care about quality. They see their work as a means to an end — money, influence, a promotion.
Our culture has valorized perfectionists. It’s easy to understand why. We’re easier to control and manipulate. We desperately want approval and validation. We don’t stop working. It’s easier to calm a perfectionist than to motivate a slacker.
On the other hand, perfectionists can cause a lot of damage. For starters, we tend to demand the impossible from others. Every day, I have to remind myself that everyone — including me — is human. If I can’t even meet my own expectations, then nobody else will. I also know that I will fail to meet my own expectations. So I try to cut people a lot of slack, just to avoid coming off as a hypocrite. That’s helped me a lot.
I’ve spent years teaching myself what counts as a reasonable effort. When to let things go. When to let someone else pitch in. How to delegate. I’m still working on that last part.
You never overcome perfectionism. Just like any other personality disorder, it stays with you. Always. An unwanted guest.
My colleagues tend to celebrate when they finish an article. Me? I lay down on the couch with a bottle of bourbon and cry. I’ve fought a war in my head, and one side lost. I have to console it.
Every time I complete a major project, one half of my brain throws a party. The other holds a wake.
Logic triumphs on most days. If you’re a perfectionist, give it a shot. Logic tells me that I have, in fact, made mistakes. I know I have. People have either missed them, ignored them, or forgiven them. It’s only fair for me to do the same. You can’t demand perfection from coworkers, employees, friends, or spouses. When you do, you’re just setting them up for failure.
You’re allowed to fuck up, as long as you make it right. As long as you offer an honest apology, and go forward.
Also, perfectionism is selfish. You might want to impress yourself. Or maybe someone else. Either way, you’re just wasting time. While you tweak and polish, someone else is waiting for you to wrap things up.
I’ll never forget the lore surrounding Charles Frazier’s novel, Cold Mountain. The story goes that he worked on that novel for ten years. Finally, his wife stole a copy and sent it to an agent. Instant publishing deal.
The moral of this story is confusing. First, it suggests the longer you spend on something, the better. But it also implies that Frazier would’ve kept working on that novel forever.
Maybe the real moral is this: most of us don’t have a spouse who will sneak a copy of our secret masterpiece to an agent. If you don’t learn when to finish projects yourself, you’ll languish in obscurity.
Look at any “artistic genius” in history. Most of them didn’t know what their alleged masterpiece would be. They just kept composing. Sculpting. Drawing. Painting. Mozart composed hundreds of works. Shakespeare drafted hundreds of poems and dozens of plays. They didn’t slack off. But they didn’t fret and nitpick, either. Or maybe they did, a little.
I’m sure a few of Mozart’s symphonies suck. It doesn’t matter. A few of them stuck. After three hundred years, we can all hum the tune to “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” Perfectionism didn’t do that. Trial and error did, along with a dash of talent, and luck.
Perfectionism isn’t a badge. It’s a liability. Literally, it’s classified as a sub-type of compulsive behavior under the DSM-V. It means a life of forcing yourself to end things before you think they’re done. A perfectionist never truly enjoys their accomplishments. They just learn to live with mistakes.