The perfection paradox

by giroliddy


Too many people make a virtue of their perfectionism (often along with their assertion that they always finish what they start, which is another symptom of the same disease, I think). They sometimes try to be self-deprecating about it but you can bet that a perfectionist never doubts that they hold the moral high ground. How can it be otherwise?

The temptation to chase perfection is easily understood. Said chase provides a wonderful, if artificial, certainty of purpose. For those people – and there are plenty of ’em – who are not only driven to be doing all the bloody time but who also have a powerful need to be seen to do what they do terribly well, then the pursuit of perfection is the ideal modus operandi. You can do it forever and no-one can possibly fault you for it.

But a wise man once said that perfectionism is a vice that masquerades as a virtue (it was Albert Bernstein, in fact, in his book Emotional Vampires) and, for me, he has it right.

I’m not talking about its more obvious drawbacks (“The enemy of good..” and all that) but about the seemingly-paradoxical fact that chasing perfection is actually the easy option. You will never hear anyone admit it, but more often than not, it’s a cop-out.

Perfection is not merely hard to attain. It is, as near as makes no difference, impossible. Its pursuit is therefore never-ending and would seem to be completely pointless. The point of this futile chase, however, is to avoid all those difficult questions:

  • Is this good enough? Shall I stop now?
  • This is not what I had in mind. Is it good, even though different?
  • What, exactly, is good enough anyway?
  • If this isn’t good enough, can I do anything more about it?
  • This isn’t working. Do I try harder, try something different or is it time to let go?

These are difficult questions. There is no guarantee that you will hit upon the right answer. Their consideration requires clarity, flexibility, resilience and an uncomfortable degree of self-awareness.

It is so very much easier just to keep chasing, to keep giving it that one hundred and ten percent. That way you’re far too busy to worry about challenging your own thinking or making a tricky judgement call.

I have a hunch (as yet, not properly tested. So far, n=2) that perfectionism often goes along with a hoarding tendency, for much the same reason. It is much simpler just to keep everything than to try and work out what is important to you and what isn’t.

In the end, this perpetual chase will stunt your growth. How can you evolve at all when you begin with a fixed idea and reject any other possibility? You will simply run, forever, towards a dead-end. It may be a beautifully crafted dead-end but it is still a dead-end.