We might understand that perfectionism does not make us happy, but we may still believe that it will make us successful. After all, we have all heard phrases like “No pain, no gain,” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It often seems like we have to go to extremes in order to become successful.
I certainly used to believe so and 10 years ago, I threw myself into my career, working long hours without breaks and sacrificing my personal life in the process. And while it did not bring me a lot of happiness, I was hoping that it would bring me success. If I suffered now, it would be worthwhile if I could be happy later, right?
The problem is that while perfectionism may propel us to perform some great feats (and there are certainly perfectionists who are successful), it is actually limiting. In “The Pursuit of Perfect”, Tal Ben-Shahar provides 4 reasons why perfectionism can keep us from success.
1. In order to learn and grow, we must fail. There are examples throughout history, including Thomas Edison and Abraham Lincoln, who have shown this to be true. However, perfectionists want to look good and appear flawless. So making mistakes and failing do not become an option, keeping them from reaching their full potential.
2. Research in peak performance has shown that we perform best when we feel moderate excitement. But because perfectionists are so resistant to failure, they are often paralyzed by an intense fear and anxiety, which does not allow them to perform at their best.
3. It takes many years of work to become an expert at something and then more effort to sustain success. It is very difficult for Perfectionists to sustain this kind of effort, because they are focused on the result (the destination) and are unable to enjoy the journey. Because they do not feel happy during the long journey, they often get overwhelmed by the strain and sacrifice of sustaining the effort, and are more likely to give up.
4. Finally, the perfectionist has an all-or-nothing approach – if it’s not done perfectly, it is not worth doing. This can lead to procrastination or paralysis, thinking “If I don’t try, I can’t fail.” The result is a very inefficient use of time, and progress becomes much slower or is halted altogether.
Do any of these seem familiar to you? I recognize all of these symptoms, having lived through them myself. Learning to fail and make mistakes is something I have been practicing over the years, and it’s still something that’s not easy. I still notice when I am afraid to try something new or reach out, not wanting to get rejected. But now I can choose to take some risks that I wasn’t able to tolerate before. I still feel fear and anxiety in certain situations, but it is much less than before, since I am much more accepting of failure and mistakes. I am very familiar with procrastination as well, but telling myself that it doesn’t have to be perfect helps. And while I certainly burned out before in my corporate career with such an intense focus on the destination, I am now really focused on enjoying my daily journey in my coaching business, so I don’t fall into the same trap.
So while success does take some work, it does not mean sacrificing joy and happiness on the way there. If we are just willing to stop trying to be so perfect and accept detours and setbacks as natural, we can enjoy the journey as well as increase our chances of success. How will you embrace imperfection?