The Burden of Perfection

by Andrew Ysasi, MS

Practice makes perfect, right? How many times did we hear this phrase growing up? There is much truth to that statement. The more we do anything, the better or more comfortable we should be at the task. However, to be perfect? How many times? Many of us have heard the 10,000-hour rule by Malcom Gladwell popularized in Outliers makes you an expert at something, so does that mean it is 20,000 to be perfect? Well, I have some news that may not be surprising. Perfection is not attainable and certainly won’t last if one believes they have attained perfection.

Recently, an article written by Gerald Jerry George MBBS MBA from back in 2016 gained some traction on LinkedIn. His article was about Perfection. His article is short, yet impactful. I would like to share with you my feelings of perfection and how it has hindered me. For the sake of this article, perfection is defined as the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects. When LinkedIn posted this statement, I thought I would join the conversation.

The perfectionism problem is growing

It’s time to put perfectionism in its place. Between 1989 and 2016, perfectionism among US, Canada, and UK college students increased significantly, according to research from psychologists Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill. Perfectionism may sound like an admirable trait, but it is also connected to anxiety, depression, and other serious mental health issues, posing major challenges for the next generation of workers. Curran and Hill suggest that managers and mentors can relieve some of the worst effects of perfectionism by encouraging a more positive approach to failure, emphasizing its power to teach valuable lessons and lead to future success.

Trying to be perfect at what you do is going to get you noticed. Positively and negatively. Early in my career, I learned that if something failed I was part of, I needed to learn, and not repeat actions that may have led to the failure in question. So, I constantly adapted and learned until tasks before that were challenging became easy, and I did so at a frantic pace. My employer and clients noticed, and I was earning more money. What was so wrong with this approach? There were some who benefitted by this approach, but some colleagues and vendors suffered from the wrath of perfection. I told them what not to do to avoid failures. Sure, projects went smoothly, but at what human cost? Was I mentoring and motivating? A majority of the time, no.

Perfection is tiresome and expensive

Completing projects, certifications, and a master’s degree fueled my pursuit of perfection. Then came continuing education and speaking events. I took on more challenging projects, doubled up projects, tripled up projects, and started businesses. I used my laser focus to achieve. I was not going to let this focus go to waste! After ten years pursuing perfection, it felt like I had worked 25. There was always another certification to study for, another class to take, and another presentation to write. If you are a parent and you are a perfectionist, you have likely looked upon your children and wondered where the time has gone? I do not mean in a grandparent type of way, but truly a “wow…you were a toddler only moments ago, and now you are talking in full sentences and you can go to the bathroom by yourself” kind of way. It is not a pleasant feeling. After all, you are supposed to be their caretaker and provider. If you felt like you did not know them, imagine what they felt?

Paying for certifications, education, and traveling is not easy on the pocketbook. I was quick to say “yes” to a situation I knew would cost me money personally, but I wanted that experience. It was part of the step to achieve perfection. My income has gone up, but there were thousands of dollars I could have saved by not taking one certification or skipping out on one or two speaking engagements I did pro bono. It soon dawned on me. At what cost did perfection come?

Perfection hurts

Emotionally – Who has not had a boss, parent, coach, teacher, bully, or someone they looked up to put their finger in your face and say you were not good enough? Whether this happened figuratively or literally it is not a pleasant experience. So, to avoid this feeling, I strove for perfection. What could I lose? It was good because the endorphins hit every time I achieved something – every time! Achievement was like a drug, and like most drugs, if I did not get it I crashed. Years of this and after a culmination of many crashes, the achievements did not have the same effect on me as before. I reached out to my primary care physician, and I was diagnosed with anxiety. Interesting, here is a snippet from an HBR article on perfectionism.

Yet perfection is an impossible goal. Those who become preoccupied with it inevitably set themselves up for failure and psychological turmoil. They become obsessed with winning the validation of others and demonstrating their worth through flawless performance after flawless performance. They ruminate chronically about their imperfections, brood over what could have been or should have been, and experience considerable anxiety and even shame and guilt about their perceived inadequacies and unworthiness.

Yep, nailed it.

Physically – I did not exercise, or if I did, I did not stick with it. I do not need to tell you that sitting in a chair for your job and rarely moving isn’t good for you. I struggled, and still do, with weight and the ten years of chasing perfection left me with a pretty rough BMI. I spent most of my waking hours staring at a TV, monitor, tablet, or phone. I yearned and dreamt of taking walks, but they did not happen unless I was on vacation.

Spiritually – Believers and non-believers can agree that we need to practice mindfulness. Whether it is through quiet reflection or prayer, we need it as a species. We are not meant to take on the burden of the world. Heck, we can barely handle our own issues let alone worry about what is happening around the world. When I was pursuing perfection, mindfulness and spirituality was an empty exercise.

Relationships – All of my relationships suffered. Whether it was spouse, child, parent, friend, co-worker, pet, friend, or even a random stranger it did not matter. If you got in my way, I figured a way around you. If it was a person of authority or a key stakeholder, I used more tact, but I typically found a way. In graduate school, I had straight A’s until my final course. My professor provided limited feedback on my research project. I yearned for the positive affirmations after the submission of each draft and didn’t receive much. I figured, I knew my stuff, and I was not going to get anything less than an A. I emailed a few times to ensure there was nothing I could do differently and didn’t hear back. My final grade was not going to be posted on Blackboard, and the grade was going to be mailed. I waited for a few weeks after the class ended and a letter came. The letter arrived late August 2010, and I remember it vividly. Inside the letter was a single note sized piece of paper with a basic form on it. The form included a name, comments, and a grade. Naturally, the first thing I saw was the grade – B. The name? Not my professor, but a teaching assistant. The comments – “APA not evident.” WHAT!!?? I was flabbergasted. I had written scores of APA style papers and I had never had my use of APA be questioned. What about the content? No comments!? This grade was a travesty. As a perfectionist, I hit my keyboard and cell phone with great fury. I emailed and called the dean, registrar, teacher aid, and the professor. I wanted answers. I later found out the professor, Dr. Louis Reibling had health issues during the class and relied on his teaching assistant more than usual. A few weeks after the course ended on September 13, 2010, Dr. Reibling passed away. The B he gave me was probably the best gift an educator could have given me. My search for answers ended as soon as I found out about his passing. The B was not important anymore. In fact, the grade of a B overshadowed the fact that I just completed a Master’s degree that took me three years to earn while working full-time and raising a family. Imagine being around a person like that? I have friends, and I have few very close friends and colleagues who “get” me. I am grateful for them and my family for sticking by me. It was not easy.

Strive for Excellence right?

Were you expecting me to say strive for excellence versus perfection? According to the online dictionary, excellence is the quality of being outstanding or extremely good. So, does that mean I am going to be exceptionally excellent? Nope. I needed to break that cycle. Pursuing another ten years of perfection would likely lead to an early demise, so a drastic change needed to happen. So, I broke it down into the simplest actions of being healthy and helping (with limits). I am using the health and help method to focus on all aspects of my health, helping others, and focus on healing. If what I am doing isn’t helping my health or others, then I need to take a hard look at what I am doing versus plowing through. I am human and will slip, but I would rather we on this path than the lonely path of perfection. I have pushed my limits, and yes those limits will change as I age, but I can say I was able to shift directions before it was too late. If I am not healthy, I cannot help others. I recently started a company site called myPACT that will help others track their accomplishments. The process has hardly been perfect, and I am going to take my time. Nothing humbling like learning a new skill and learning about intellectual property, but it will come to me in time. Also, forgive someone now and then and be sincere when doing so. It does wonders for the soul. So if you are trying to break free of perfectionism, see your doctor, dentist, find a coach, pick up a good book, walk, practice mindfulness, and volunteer for something you are passionate about. The rewards for you are long-term, and the short-term rush comes from helping others. One thing we cannot buy more of is time. So don’t waste your time on perfection. Perfection likely shortens the amount of time you have.

Copyright by Admovio

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