Perfectionists think that perfectionism is a positive trait. It’s the kind of fake flaw that we’ll mention in job interviews. “What is your worst flaw?” Okay, first of all, come on. Nobody is going to be honest about this question, particularly because we usually don’t even know our worst flaws. That’s what’s so bad about them. I’m not going to cop to having no sense of the passage of time, hating to be told what to do, taking everything personally, or thinking my bosses are never as smart as me. I’m going to say that I focus too hard and forget to take breaks. Someone else is going to claim to be excessively punctual. Anyone who is a perfectionist is going to take this opportunity to brag about it. In business as in life, perfectionism is a serious obstacle to success and happiness.
Copy-editing people on the internet is still a thing. Look, adults are basically already at the level of linguistic competence that they’re going to reach. They’re never going to remember how to use apostrophes or that ‘defiantly’ is not the same word as ‘definitely.’ It’s a lost cause. Correcting someone else’s spelling, grammar, or punctuation is mean, rude, and classist. More importantly, it’s a waste of time. Don’t you have anything better to do?
I used to say that I would only remarry if I met a man who could beat me at Scrabble. Then I fell for a rocket scientist who can’t spell. He can do calculus in his head but he has trouble doing web searches because Google is like, “I got nothing.” Helpless in my affections, I adjusted my expectations. Perfectionism has no place in love. Or friendship. Or parenting. Or business. Or anything really.
I’d love a world where we replace perfectionism with kindness. Hey, it’s an ideal. Barring that, let’s focus more on two other things: performance and process.
Performance is a result. Process is a routine. For instance, when I’m looking at fitness, I’m completely discarding the concept of a “perfect body.” I want performance, my actual physical ability to do things, and I want process, my observable adherence to my training plan. I want to aim at specific metrics and I want to tailor my training in such a way that I can eventually reach those metrics. If I want to run five miles, I need to schedule regular running sessions and focus on increasing my distance. If I want to run a ten-minute mile pace, then I need to schedule regular running sessions and do speed work. I’m grading myself on how well I adhere to my schedule and how hard I push myself. I’m grading my performance and my process, checking that my plan is working, that the work I’m doing is helping me to reach my end goals. The moment I reach my goals, I set new goals. There can be no perfectionism for an athlete because there can never be a moment of complacency. Either you’re striving for a new challenge, or you’re retiring.
Let’s carry this over to career success. The athletic mindset is very similar to the business mindset, and there’s a huge amount of crossover. You seek out a challenge. You have an internal drive to work hard. Obstacles are part of the course. You show up even when you’re tired and you push yourself even when you’re not in the mood. You actively seek out tough coaches. Trash talk from your opponents merely inspires you to show off what you can do. Effort is your default mode. You’re a finisher. Your dream is to set a new record. You want the best. You’re showing up (process) and delivering results (performance), and you’re always refining both because that’s what interests you the most.
Perfection is not the best. Perfection is static. Perfection thinks it can stand around sunning itself. Perfection is a snapshot, while process is a film. Perfection thinks it’s done, while performance knows there’s always more to do. Perfection thinks it’s the best, while performance increases itself, getting better all the time.
Perfectionism in romance means looking for the perfect partner, someone who ticks off every box on your checklist. A performance-oriented romance means looking for a connection with someone, exploring how it feels to spend time with that person. A process-oriented romance means finding out what this person likes, how this person likes to communicate, and how to help this person to have a better life. A perfectionist will describe how the ideal person is supposed to look and what traits he or she is supposed to have, possibly including what car they drive or what music they like. It’s a lot easier to pick someone you like, who likes you, when it’s fun to be together. Then dote on this person and go out of your way to do the nice things they like the most. Who cares how tall someone is or what color hair they have? Focus on whether you like talking to each other. Focus on being nice to each other.
Perfectionism is not strategic. Perfectionism generally comes from a desire to feel superior in some way. What’s the point? Why correct people’s grammar when you could be volunteering in a literacy program? Why line up objects at precise 90-degree angles when you could be... ugh, anything else! Channel that conscientious energy toward community emergency preparedness or something constructive. Take some of that restlessness and use it to evaluate your life overall.
How is your daily life working for you? Are you happy? Do you feel content, loving, satisfied? Have you learned everything you could ever want to know? Are you good at everything you’d like to be good at? Are you progressing in a career that fascinates you? Are you in a happy and friendly relationship with someone, anyone, whether it’s your sibling, a favorite coworker, or a romantic partner? Do you like your personal surroundings? Are you financially independent? Do you have all the challenges you need to feel engaged? If your life is full and you feel like you’re thriving, is there some way you could share with others? Pause and look around and make adjustments, before someone who is more of a perfectionist than you comes along with that beady eye and makes some suggestions.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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