I’ve always been a perfectionist.
Years ago I may have written that sentence with a hidden note of pride, intending it to mean, “I simply have higher standards than everyone else,” or, “I do my very best all the time.” What a precious burden.
The difference now, however, is that I’ve lived with myself a lot longer. And while there are some upsides to perfectionism, there are far more downsides—especially when it comes to getting work done and achieving personal goals.
At its most benign, perfectionism fuels a nagging sense of incompleteness, an inability to appreciate success, and an obsession with detail. At its worst, it’s utterly paralyzing, rooted in a belief that it’s worse to make something bad than to make nothing at all, that it’s better to tend to the walls around your comfort zone than to strike out with something new.
It isn’t difficult to trace its effects in my daily life and work. I often struggle to write a draft of an essay because I can’t stop editing it as I go, for example, or find myself putting off working on it entirely because I’m worried that the end result won’t meet my (unreasonable) standards.
But when I take stock of the times that I haven’t been detail-consumed, unsatisfied, or altogether immobilized by perfectionism, I notice a common thread: a big goal. A challenge so far out of my usual work and routine that it shocked me into a different pattern of thinking. An unknown quantity with unforeseeable results.
And while big goals aren’t a long-term solution for a lifetime of disordered thinking (or, furthermore, something we always have the time and resources to add to our lives), taking one on can offer a respite from our usual habits of thinking—and help us grow along the way.
A hazy, uncertain finish line
When I was in college, a friend suggested that we run a marathon together. I was intrigued. Could I really run 26.2 miles, more than eight times as long as my high school cross country races?
I didn’t know, but I signed up for one anyway. And because the mere completion of a marathon was not something I took for granted, I wasn’t concerned with my time, or where I’d fall among the thousands of runners on the course. “I’d be happy,” I thought, “if I could just cross that finish line.” (And when I did several months later, I was.)
As it turns out, my uncertainty about finishing the race may have even contributed to my success in training. Psychologist and researcher Gabriele Oettingen found that positive fantasies about our future successes—enjoyable as they are—can actually drain us of the necessary energy to follow through.
“When we induce participants to positively fantasize, to ideally depict the positive future, then we find that the blood pressure goes down, and then we find that the feelings of energization go down, and we find that people feel already accomplished. So they relax,” she explains. “They relax because mentally, they’re already there.”
Maybe perfectionists, typically individuals with a pessimistic streak, do not often dwell on dreams of future successes. (Sometimes I find myself shutting down such a fantasy with a harsh reality check.) But certainly the reverse is also true: that we become so attached to the idea of a perfect outcome that we cannot begin at all.
“As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package,” writes Megan McArdle. “By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.”
McArdle cites the work of psychologist Carol Dweck, who distinguishes two different mindsets that can alter not only our behavior, but also how we feel about our progress and missteps. Those with a “growth mindset” think it’s possible to develop talent, and so they approach a challenging activity as an opportunity to grow, wondering just how far they can expand their skills. Those with a “fixed mindset” see talent as something inborn and unalterable. They may daydream about what they could produce with their inborn talents, but a challenging task is simply a test of those abilities—you pass or fail, but you don’t grow.
Choosing a big goal, one that required mountains of effort, helped me to make that mindset switch. I could not delude myself into thinking that I was (or somehow ought to have been) in shape to run a marathon before I started training. The stakes felt lower when I stopped thinking about whether I’d measure up to the challenge and started thinking about how I’d get to the finish line.
A process of self-discovery
Furthermore, focusing on the process of achieving our goals is a more effective motivator than thinking about the end result alone, as one recent study found.
“Imagine yourself typing away late at night on your book after a long work day, or studying for the GRE on a sunny Saturday, or waking up at 5 a.m. on a cold morning to train for that marathon,” writes Arianne Cohen. “If those sound horrible, you’re probably not going to reach those goals, no matter how shiny and appealing the eventual rewards would be.”
This is good advice no matter what our goals may be. But I’d argue it’s easier to implement when the process involves self-discovery, when each step takes you a little farther outside of what you thought you could do. As I trained for that race, I was driven by curiosity as much as the ultimate finish line (quite different from the fear-based motivation that my inner critic usually wields). Soon enough, every long training run became, literally, the farthest I’d ever run before. Each of those was its own victory, its own exploration, its own expansion of my perceived limits.
For those of us less inclined (or less able, at the moment) to take on a goal of objectively large magnitude, simply exploring a new arena—especially one that we typically perceive ourselves to be “bad at”—is another way to shift our mindset from fear of failure to curiosity about our own abilities and how we might expand them. By removing the expectation of perfection, as well as by seeing visible growth in the process, we can relieve ourselves of that white-knuckled grip of unreasonable standards.
One of my colleagues recently took up tennis, a departure from her usual athletic pursuits. Believing herself incapable of anything requiring hand-eye coordination, she’d always gravitated toward endurance-focused activities like rowing, running, or hiking.
And yet, it’s far from the disaster she once feared it would be. “It has been a blast to lose myself in learning something totally new,” she told me. “It absorbs all of my attention while I'm doing it. And because I've never done it before, I don't have the same self-critical attitude I have about running.”
I’ve run a few more marathons since that first one, and I have to come clean: I did start caring about my time in subsequent races. Once I’d proven to myself that I could in fact do it, I fell quickly into my old habits, pushing myself to go faster and faster (and suffering disappointment when I didn’t reach my goal times).
But something lingered. I’ll call it “freedom.” I feel free to take on goals without a predictable outcome, to view challenges as opportunities for growth rather than litmus tests of my current skills, and to recognize when achieving perfection—or something close to it—is not worth the extra effort required.
Perhaps G.K. Chesterton said it best: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”