Learn how perfection can become a trap, and what you can do about it in this guide. Audio version available here.
Here’s a snapshot of what you will learn:
- How perfection can become a trap
- The biggest problem with perfection
- Five Ways in which perfection can do you more harm than good
- What Shakespeare, Leonardo Da Vinci and Picasso can teach you about perfection
- Five tips on how you can avoid falling into the perfection trap
The perfection trap
Perfection is a big deal – for a really, really long time perfection has been advertised as the standard to aim for if you want to be good at what you do, or whatever you do. Most people think that perfection is THE goal to aim for when they do something, especially when it is something important or worthwhile.
But there’s a big problem with this way of thinking, with this standard that we’ve grown up believing to be the ideal we need to aim for. This whole notion of aiming for perfection isn’t actually as good as we have been led to believe.
I’ve been there. For a long time, I was all about the pursuit of perfection. I wanted to have everything done perfectly, I wanted to achieve perfection with nearly everything I did. Things just had to be perfect – nothing else cut it. Let me tell you, it was not helping me: getting things done took a lot longer than they should have because I kept tweaking and improving. Not just that, it was also a lot more stressful than it needed to be.
Hindsight is a beautiful thing… If only I knew then what I know now, I could’ve avoided a lot of that stress and wasted time and resource. So my hope is that you can learn from my experiences and stop, or at the very least avoid, from getting yourself trapped by the notion of perfection.
The negative impact of perfection
Here’s the biggest problem with perfection – achieving perfection is impossible.
Because perfection is a subjective concept: your definition of perfect is unlikely to be the same as the person next to you and so on. It is an impossible goal that just causes more problem.
Here are just some of the reasons why perfection can do you more harm than good:
1. Perfection causes stress, a whole lot of it.
2. Perfection can hold you back from unlocking your full potential.
3. Perfection can limit how much value you can add to others Instead of helping hundreds, for instance, you might only be focused on one!
4. Perfection is a black hole of time and energy as it is a never ending pursuit.
5. Perfection can lead to mediocrity since it can keep you stuck. This, in turn, can lead to a life full of regrets. And that’s not just unfortunate, that’s a tragedy.
Weighing up the benefits
Quality is important, absolutely, but after a certain point any further improvement in quality can be minute and can cost you more than it’s actually worth.
Take Shakespeare’s works, for example. They are great, right? Many will say they are perfect – but he had his moments of doubts about it, about it not being “perfect”…
Creators like writers are quite famous for having doubts about their work.
Writing, for instance, is one of those things where measuring the quality can be incredibly subjective. Achieving perfect writing is like trying to find El Dorado – it’s a nearly impossible pursuit. Many think Shakespeare’s writings are perfect, but like most writers he had his moments of doubts too.
Every writer has to deal with this. I know from personal experience how this works: the first book I wrote, I did not publish until several years later because I didn’t believe it was perfect. I kept tweaking and changing and revising the manuscript… It took me a long time to finally pull that trigger and get it out there, because I realised that it can only add value and help others when it is actually out there (better late than never, as they say!).
Here’s another example for you… Let’s say you are creating a painting: you can keep tweaking and trying to improve it with the goal to make it perfect, but that way it might never be done. When that happens you will be stuck trying to create just one prefect painting – a painting that might never get finished since perfection is a subjective concept and the goalpost is always moving. Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci was worried about creating the perfect painting – the world might never have had the Mona Lisa if he was hung up about perfection!
There’s another thing to consider, and a really important one – the only way to get better at anything is to do it, a lot. The best painters paint, a lot. Picasso is undoubtedly one of the best painters of all time. Can you guess how many artworks he created during his lifetime?
Five thousand? That seems like a lot, right?
But no, the actual number is a lot higher – it’s more like fifty thousand! Picasso created around fifty thousand or maybe more artworks during his lifetime. No wonder he is still ranked as one of the best painters in the world. But you see, if he worried about creating perfect artworks he never would have been able to create that many.
Then there’s Shakespeare – in his lifetime he created over 154 sonnets and 38 plays.
Stephen King is one of the greatest fiction writers of our time. Do you know how many books he’s written so far?
At least 86.
They are not exceptions either – there are tons of examples like that when you dig into just how prolific the best of the best are.
It can be incredibly tempting to spend time trying to perfect your work. Heck, I still have moments where i end up spending more time than I need to in order to perfect something I’ve done – I’m not perfect, after all. But I have become better at not chasing perfection. I have become more aware of when the goal has been reached and at what point any further work outweighs the benefits. Then it becomes a matter of prioritising other things that are important too.
And that’s my goal for you as well, to get that perspective.
Excellence vs Perfection
Don’t get me wrong though, I am not advocating for subpar results or mediocre efforts.
Absolutely not. No, what I am suggesting is for you to stop focusing on an elusive subjective goal but that does not mean you should not do your best. You should always try to aim for excellence and do the very best you can.
There’s a big difference between excellence and perfection – perfection is subjective, whereas excellence is not.
You can measure and define excellence. Doing an excellent job nearly always comes down to doing your absolute best, even when it means going the extra mile. But perfection, on the other hand, is a mile post that can never be reached.
As such a much, much, better goal is to seek excellence and do your best, and I do mean your absolute best – half hearted efforts do not count, so you do need to be honest with yourself.
You get what you put in after all.
5 tips for dealing with the perfection trap
Now that you know how perfection can become a trap, let’s explore how you can deal with this. Here are five tips that’ll help:
1. Focus on the outcome and concrete goals, rather than subjective “perfect” goals. Having clarity is important. Be very clear about your end goal and know how to measure success. This will help you from falling into the perfection trap.
2. Prioritise. Know what your priorities are, and remind yourself of them from time to time. That will help you from getting too focused on one thing at the cost of the others.
3. Set deadlines. Having deadlines is a great way to not only get things done but is also great for keeping yourself on track and focused on the goal.
4. Get external feedback. We are nearly always our worst critics, so rather than relying on your own evaluation of your week, get some external feedback. Do they think it’s good enough? If it is, then it might be time to pull the trigger on it. Good enough is good enough.
5. Weigh up the pros and cons. This leads on from the earlier point – sometimes (if not most of the time) chasing after perfection can be a complete and utter waste of time and resources. But it can be hard to see that without objectively assessing your pros and cons. Learn to know when spending more time and effort won’t actually be useful for you.
Here’s the bottom line – you can never become truly great at anything if you’re always worried about perfection. Those who are great at what they do don’t let worries about perfection stop them.
To be really good, or better, to be great you need to let go of any notions you have about achieving perfection. Realise that the only way to get better is to do the thing, rather than worrying about hitting home run every single time.
Doing the best you can is a great goal to have. Achieving perfection, on the other hand, is not.
Having concrete goals and deadlines, prioritising, getting external feedback, as well as weighing up your pros and cons and developing an awareness of when you’re chasing this elusive notion can help you from falling into this trap.
But will this happen overnight?
If you’re someone who strives to be the best and wants to achieve perfection in everything they do, it will take some time to see the results. That said, it will get easier to stop yourself from falling into this trap the more you become aware of this trap, and the more you realise just how perfection can hold you back and do you more harm than good.
Perfection is a road without any end – pursuing perfection is like being caught in a perpetual hamster wheel. But the good news is, you can stop. You CAN be great without falling into the perfection trap.
Free yourself from the trap of perfection. It’s ok if something isn’t perfect – dwelling on it will not make things better, learning from it and moving forward will.
Do the best you can, then move on. You will achieve more from trying things (especially from your mistakes) than you ever will from trying to achieve perfection.
Stop getting in your own way.
Stop trying to be perfect.
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