“Perfect is the enemy of Good” ~Voltaire
I remember the first time I led the launch of a major website back in the 1990s. Launching this site was a vast job and I really wanted everything to be PERFECT. We spent months planning, designing for every contingency while checking and double checking every piece of content. While the website was quite stunning when it finally launched….it actually didn’t much matter. We were latecomers to the marketplace and were never able to catch up and to make our mark. What I learned from that experience is that sometimes good enough is, well, good enough. While striving for excellence can often be appropriate and fruitful, striving for perfection has some very real pitfalls including reduced productivity, fear of failure, and reduced creativity.
Perfectionism can slow you down
Perfectionists often try to avoid mistakes, which can lead to risk aversion. Being risk averse can certainly cause missteps or at least potentially cause us to waste time. The truth is it’s hard to attain a lofty goal if you are unwilling to take risks. When you can’t accept less than perfect, then failure can become a very scary thing…something to be avoided at all costs. In fact, research tells us that perfectionists tend to be risk-averse. It makes sense…if we are trying to be perfect, we are avoiding failure. If we are avoiding failure, we are less inclined to try things that challenge us. And if we are working to be the better versions ourselves, how useful is that? We can’t move toward actualizing who we are if we avoid failure. The punch line: even if we try to attain perfection, we never really will.
Fear of Failure Can Lead You Astray
My husband used to race as a hobby. When you race, because the car follows your gaze, drivers are trained to keep their eyes on the road. While it’s important to know where the wall is, it’s not where race car drivers should focus. This is true at 180 miles an hour on the racetrack and it can be a pitfall in our own lives when we focus too much on failure. If we fear failure and are actively and constantly looking for it, our eyes are where we don’t want them to be. To get to where we want to be, we sometimes need to shift our eyes to the horizon.
While avoiding failure, a perfectionist is likely to find traces of “not good enough.” I tested myself on this one day on a whim. I had left my own home feeling critical of its flaws and was taking my young son over to play at a neighbor’s home. As I knocked on the door, I was thinking about how beautiful her home was when lightning struck. I decided I was going to enter her home pretending it was my home, my domain, my problem. I was going to traverse her rooms with the eye I would have used, should this be my home. Guess what happened? I noticed flaws….flaws I had never noticed before in the dozens of times I had been there. I saw a spider web in a corner, frayed spots on a rug, a few dishes in the sink, windows that were ready for the next wash. “What do you know about that?” my mind pondered. I realized in another’s home, I saw a beautiful home that was occupied and imperfect and in my own home, I was falling short.
Of course, when focusing on my own shortcoming, I experienced all kinds of negative emotions…be they mild (such as mild discontent) or be they strong (frustration with my family). While all these negative appraisals and emotions surface, I am not enjoying my life or bringing the better version of me to the table.
Accepting Only the Best Can Reduce Creativity
In the book Black Box Thinking, Mathew Syed tells us story about a ceramics teacher that divided the class into two groups. Group 1 would be tested on the quantity of work and Group 2 on the quality. The students spent the semester with Group 1 endeavoring to produce a full fifty pounds of pots (for a grade of A) to be weighed on a bathroom scale the last day of class. Group 2 did their best to produce a pot that would best represent them with a perfect piece earning them an A. When the time came to grade the work, a very curious thing happened: the best works did not come from Group 2, the group to be graded on quality, but from Group 1 – the quantity group. The takeaway: churn and burn. Don’t wait for perfection…just do it wrong and then do it less wrong and eventually you can do it right. You will not only get in your practice, practice, practice, but it allows for creativity and flow to take hold. When we force ourselves to be perfect or only bring our very best pieces, we can shoot ourselves down.
When we can accept failure in others and ourselves, we can look at failure in a different light. We can acknowledge failure as part of the path to success. Failure can shine a light on new and interesting ways to pursue our goals. Much like the scientist in the lab with beakers and the occasional explosion, we can navigate our next great formula (or plan). So go ahead! Fail forward! Fail fast!