Guest post by Ray Lardie, see more here: Neo Lyceum
I used to say I was a perfectionist with pride. I’d spend double the amount of time a project should’ve taken, hunched over every last detail, pulling an all-nighter in order to cram a month’s work into a few hours. (Perfectionist? Yes. Procrastinator? Yes. Not the best combination by anyone’s measurement.) Being a perfectionist didn’t feel like a bad thing. In school, we’re taught to aim for perfect grades; students get awards for having perfect attendance. In sports, we cheer the pitcher who pitches a perfect game. Society praises perfectionists, and being one can destroy you.
In my freshman year of high school, I encountered the first class for which I needed to study. I discovered this by getting a test back marked 83. By that point in my life, I had wrapped up my sense of self-worth into my GPA—getting anything less than an A freaked me out. I resolved to study for the next test. I didn’t. I skipped school next test day, and got permission to do a make up test a week later. I still didn’t study. I skipped the make up without warning my teacher and got a 0, which tanked my entire class grade to an F for the first quarter. I spent the rest of freshman year hiding progress reports from my parents because if they saw the F sitting in first quarter, there would be hell to pay.
What happened? I got one less than perfect grade, which panicked me badly enough that I ended up ruining my entire grade for the class. Why? Because less than perfect terrified me. In junior year of high school, I failed to take the AP exams for two of my classes. I had A’s in both of them; my teachers were baffled. I said my family didn’t have the money. They said the school would pay for it. I refused. I didn’t tell them how I was scared to get less than a perfect score—what would my classmates think? What would my parents think?
Perfectionism doesn’t lead to great heights. It leads to avoidance, to a crippling fear of failure, to remaining trapped in old ways with old habits because leaving your comfort zone freaks you out. I’ve wanted to learn how to draw for years, but I haven’t been able to force myself through the learning curve of being bad in the beginning. (The only reasons I started writing is because I received early encouragement in the form of winning Young Authors, and I was too naïve to realize that my first works were terrible.)
So how do we beat perfectionism?
As clichéd as it is, you start by coming to terms with the simple truth that you are not perfect. This can be difficult if you’re still in school, because school systems function on a crummy system. Thankfully, no one in the real world—people outside of the school system—expect perfection. (If they do, that’s a different problem.) A common complaint from employers about their fresh-out-of-college recruits is that they slave away over details that don’t matter yet, instead of focusing on creating a usable final product. It’s better to get something out, anything, than keep your projects in perpetual development. The art you haven’t shown anyone, the story you left unfinished, the song you’ve never shared, the cool business idea you haven’t started—push yourself to work past the procrastination. Procrastinating on a project because you’re afraid you don’t know enough yet/aren’t good enough yet is perfectionism in disguise.
Another good way to train yourself out of perfectionism is to utilize positive reinforcement! In my experience, the biggest contributing factor to debilitating perfectionism is the connected fear of failure. When the back of your head thinks that the slightest slip up could result in being shunned by your friends and family, letting go of mistakes is difficult. The pressure to have everything just right is immense. Open up to your friends. Let them know you’re trying to work on accepting failure and not beating yourself up about it. Tell them they can help by encouraging you when you try new things, and by not overemphasizing your mistakes, especially in areas of competence (as rare as they may be.) As you begin to see their actions line up with their verbal assurances that you don’t have to be perfect, you’ll find it easier to avoid getting bogged down by perfectionism.
On the topic of mistakes, one I made consistently as a perfectionist was seeing the world in black and white. If I didn’t get a perfect score, clearly this meant I was an idiot who’d never get anywhere in life. (That isn’t over-exaggeration—I’m not kidding when I said I conflated my sense of self-worth with my GPA. See also Imposter Syndrome.)
The funny part is that this extreme standard didn’t apply to other people. I didn’t abandon my friends if they didn’t have straight A’s, or didn’t win their lacrosse game, or didn’t know the answer in class. That would’ve been ridiculous! I reassured them they weren’t failures when they felt like one, and then refused to be comforted when I made mistakes. This double standard wreaked havoc on my self-esteem and bred indignation amongst my friends. If I demanded me to be perfect, but let them off the hook, what did that imply about what I thought of them? (This is the ‘actions speak louder than words’ part—I wasn’t judging them, or was I?)
Take those mistakes for what they are: learning experiences. Less than perfect doesn’t mean failure; it means more data. Discovering your strengths and weaknesses leads to better decisions about what you want to do in your life. You can’t determine that with information gathered from the same old routines. How do you know that idea won’t work? Have you tried it? If you have and it didn’t work, figure out why and refine your process.
Don’t strive for perfectionism. Perfectionism is fear. Strive to accept yourself, your mistakes, and your learning process. The relief that comes with not having to be perfect is worth the initial discomfort.