The Dark Side of Perfectionism

On a recent episode of Back to Work, our friend Merlin Mann made the following remark, and it struck me so deeply that I stopped walking to work and rewound just to listen to it a few more times.

The dark side of perfectionism is that you may not even start [your project] because you sense that it won’t be perfect.

Holy shit. For me, he really hit the nail on the head. After all, if it’s not perfect, why bother.

In North America, we are brought up to believe in perfectionism. To embrace it as a virtue.

During high school, guidance counsellors coaching us for job interviews would warn us that employers will ask for examples of our weaknesses; they said that perfection is a good answer since it’s a positive weakness.

Near the beginning of one interview I had with a particularly awful Internet startup, the hiring manager asked me for three weaknesses. I gave him my earnest, albeit prepared answer of “I need lots to do or else I get bored” (and the I quit, he would later learn). He nodded, wrote something down on his paper, and asked for the other two. I thought about it for a while and he eventually “offered” a few common ones. One was perfectionism. I nodded my head and he checked the little box he needed to have filled in. I got the job.

What the fuck.

Strive for perfection; don’t deify it.

There are so many projects and pursuits that I have personally chosen - chosen - to not undertake because I know they won’t be perfect. We are creating a society where people have wonderful, fantastic ideas and they are letting them rot in Moleskin notebooks because they fear that the execution of their ideas will be less than absolutely, platonically perfect.

No artist ever created something a moving piece of art by first expecting it to be perfect. I suspect that many artists never create anything because perfection is their expectation zero.

There is a difference between polish and perfection. I think that you can have a polished product that you feel personally invested in, even if you know it’s less than perfect. Don’t let obsessions with perfection stop you from doing anything.


Posted on September 11, 2012