The Costs of Perfectionism (And How To Deal With It)

Perfectionism is a form of paralysis that comes about by setting unrealistic goals, unrealistic expectations and unrealistic standards for our life. This creates a fear of failure and indecision. If the perfectionist is lucky enough to start work on their idea, it’s unlikely they will finish it.

Striving for perfection has a time and place in the creative process, and that’s at the end. At the beginning perfectionism paralysis creates so much fear and anxiety that it stops us from starting our project in the first place.  This isn’t to say that perfectionists don’t accomplish things. When they do it is usually by perfecting a product or service someone else already has been working on, not necessarily by creating and realising a new idea.

Writing my first book was relatively easy; the second book, however, was constantly thwarted by perfectionism and the thoughts that came with it. Having a book internationally published was a big achievement, how could I ever do that again, let alone improve on that result? Was I really worthy of writing the next book? What if people wouldn’t read it? Music recording artists will often talk about how much longer it takes to record their second album—if they ever get to it. If they do get to it, it often lacks the freshness and creativity of the first one. One of the most prolific and poplar pop artists in the 1980s was Richard Marx. I recall an interview with him where he attributed much of his success to being able to write album after album, while most people stopped at just one.

Fear of failure is greater for a perfectionist than it is for anyone else. Perfectionists not only have problems dealing with feedback from others, the feedback loop they have set up for themselves means they are their own worst critics and that they create many self-imposed barriers to making ideas happen.

There are two main strategies to deal with perfectionism. 1. having a reality check and 2. taking action.

Reality sucks

Living in a perfect world 24/7 is impossible. Everyone makes mistakes of some kind every day. The most successful people on the planet will all agree that they make mistakes. Even successful organisations make mistakes. Every manufacturer, from Sony to Nokia, has a failure rate factored into the manufacturing process. They expect this to be roughly on the order of 3 to 5 per cent. If this is good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.

One way to start dealing with perfectionism is to work on something where it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work. Risk taking is a big step for those experiencing the perfectionism freeze. The more small risks you take, the easier it will be to embrace bigger risks. For example, rearrange the layout of a room. Whether you succeed or not, look at what you have gained from the exercise. What works? What doesn’t? If we look at the evidence we will probably find that the number of positive benefits outweighs the negatives. In any case, you can always change the room back if you want to.

Another way to allow yourself a few mistakes is to look at the quality level you accept from yourself. 

Adopting a ‘draft’ mentality can successfully convert a self-restricting perfectionist into a prolific creator. Picasso produced an average of one painting a day for his entire adult life. He was definitely prolific but not necessarily perfect. It was his prolificness that enabled him to rip up the many mediocre drafts and become the outstanding artist who produced groundbreaking masterpieces. For your next report, idea, or project stamp it ‘draft’ then purposefully make some mistakes, and notice your ability to get more done without the anxiety that comes with expecting the result to be perfect.

While being less than perfect can take some practice for a perfectionist, it can be liberating when you start to feel the freedom it gives you. Learn to think of mistakes simply as part of the design process.

Do this: Development flags

Ask yourself ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’ Identify what you think the mistakes are and call them development flags. Then ask someone else to find the areas that need development and ask what they think could to be done about them.

Time to take action

Now that you have discovered the value of adopting the draft mentality you need to make some decisions that will enable you to take action. To the perfectionist, decision is almost a dirty word. Indecisiveness is the hero and saboteur of the perfectionist. The perfectionist creates a host of confusing ideas and steps based on avoiding failure rather than achieving what they wanted to achieve in the first place. A perfectionist fails to make decisions and act because they are waiting for that one perfect choice that is 100 per cent failsafe and comes with a money-back guarantee. Unfortunately, this kind of insurance doesn’t exist when it comes to creating and realising ideas.

Indecision is the result of feeling that we don’t have enough information to make the safest decision. One way to counter this is to collect as much information as possible. Unfortunately we rarely get all the information we need for a 100 per cent foolproof decision. All we can do is make our decisions based on the best information we have at the time. The mantra to counteract perfectionism is ‘Based on the best information I have at this time I have decided to … ’.

Any decision is good even if it ends up being the wrong decision. Sitting on the fence and doing nothing won’t take you closer to realising your ideas. When looking back at a decision we always seem to have 20/20 vision. What matters most is making the decision at the moment with the information in front of us.

Best of luck with dealing with perfectionism.


Nils Vesk
Founder of Ideas with Legs | Innovation Speaker | Consultant | Author

nils vesk