Perfectionism: An Overrated, Fictitious Virtue


I’m a former perfectionist.

No, I’m not a slacker by any means. I do enjoy my downtime. Sometimes, my body or my life get in the way of my doing what I want, and I must rest. Other than that, I would say that I strive to lead a productive life and I have goals I am eager to achieve.

So why not be a perfectionist?

Perfectionism is the pursuit of perfection. The definition is simple enough, but there is only one problem. No one is perfect. The most accomplished, dedicated, well-trained Olympic figure skaters get head colds that cause them to screw up their triple axles. So what does that mean? That our figure skater is lazy, untalented, and that all her former hard work and achievements don’t matter? All because she got silver instead of gold? One stroke of bad luck is all it takes to make the difference between going for gold or going home with nothing. What purpose does that serve?

All of this is assuming that we can agree on what constitutes ‘perfect.’ Aren’t standards for perfection dependent on what you’re trying to accomplish, and who makes the decisions?

A ‘perfect’ symphony composed for European opera will be very different in sound and character than one composed for Chinese opera. Is one more ‘perfect’ than the other?

Who decided that a dismount or a triple axle *must* be performed a certain way?

Who decided that we should grade on a 4.0 scale or what criteria students would be graded on?

It’s wasn’t God. It wasn’t natural law. It was men.

Men made these rules. Men can change them anytime they want and they often do. Yet we continue to act as though ‘perfection’ is some objective value we can and should strive to achieve.

Part of being human is making mistakes and learning from them. We can also take mistakes and turn them into something unique and positive. This is especially true in art. Just because it didn’t turn out exactly the way you wanted doesn’t mean it can’t still be a fine work of art. Sometimes, when I make a mistake in a work of art and go with it, it turns out *better* than what I wanted. A single-minded focus on “perfection” can interfere with this learning process. Actually, in my faith, it’s a sin of sorts. Scrupulosity, or the relentless pursuit of perfect religiosity, is a form of perfectionism and people are strongly cautioned against it.

I used to be a perfectionist. I wanted all As. I wanted valedictorian. I wanted awards and honors. I wanted perfect, straight lines in all of my drawings. I wanted to “have it all” and was crushed when I didn’t get it. I felt superior to others when I did get it.

At this stage in my life, I could give a damn. Life is too short to piss away trying to impress others or meet impractical, man-made standards of perfection. This does not mean that we do away with standards entirely. I accept that, in order to be an author, you should be proficient in the language you are writing in. If you are solving a math problem, you need to know the steps or else you won’t get the right answer. What I mean is that I only concern myself with doing something “right” when the task in question is important to me. I’m not willing to devote hours of my week, for years of my life, to homework in classes I don’t care about just to get that 4.0. I’m not going to toss out an India ink drawing because it’s not photograph quality. I’m not taking on extracurriculars I don’t need to fill out my resume. As for being a perfectionist in marriage, or parenting, or my relationships…fuck that. Beyond doing what I need to get by in the working world or in everyday life, I’m not going to kiss the asses of people I can’t stand so everyone will like me. I don’t care if other people are looking in my house and tsk tsking at the condition it’s in.

On the other hand, I care deeply about the novel I am writing. I have devoted hours upon years to researching, writing, and developing. Even then, I would not say that I am a perfectionist because I’m not trying to meet anyone’s standards. I’m not trying to meet my own standards either, because I really don’t have standards. I go where my story takes me. I can’t count the number of times I wanted to throw in the towel because it wasn’t working out the way I felt it should. Days later, I would return to it and think I was a genius. It was better than I envisioned. I am not getting graded on my story. I am not getting paid to write it. I do it purely because I love it and because I feel it might benefit others. If other people don’t like it, or if other people see it differently from me, I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself or my story a failure for it.

It’s one thing to be a perfectionist in actual achievements like academics or the arts. Those are areas in which producing unique, high-quality work matters. It’s another thing to be perfectionist about, say, housekeeping or your handwriting. If you prefer to be neat, there is nothing wrong with that. But I hardly am going to congradulate someone for being a perfectionistic bed maker.

As I got older, I started to realize how much of my life was clutter. I regained sight of what actually mattered to me and focused on that. Everything else? I did what I needed to get the job done and left it. Sometimes, I didn’t even get the job done. I simply decided that it wasn’t truly necessary and dropped it. So much that we concern ourselves with just isn’t that important.

Again, if you prefer to be neat, by all means, clean your house to your standards. If you are really close to getting into your dream program, and you need one more class or extracurricular, have at it. I’m not asking anyone to abandon standards, abandon order, or abandon their preferences or personalities. I’m making the point that if you are the type of person that routinely falls short of “perfection,” you can rest easy and worry about something important. I’m making the point that if you are one of those perfectionists, failure is not the end of the world, and failure very often isn’t actual failure. It’s just a result that isn’t exactly what you wanted or expected.

Earlier in my life, when someone said that they were perfectionists in everything they do, I would have one of two reactions: I would either nod in agreement or feel inadequate for slacking off.

Now, when I hear someone say that, I feel sorry for them. What a waste of life it is to be a perfectionist.

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2 comments

  1. Patsy Nevins · May 13, 2012

    I identify with this post. I have always felt that nothing I did was ever good enough. I wrote, then I rewrote & rewrote again, then threw what I was writing away, because no one would ever want to read anything I wrote. Sometimes when I read about all the other things other people are doing & accomplishments, I can feel inadequate. But I am trying to work on overcoming that, on accepting that who I am is good enough, what I do is good enough, & that I need to give myself a break. We all do.

  2. thefatlibertarian · May 14, 2012

    I’m also in the reformed perfectionist camp. For another perspective on why we should ditch perfectionism, I recommend this article by the author of one of my favorite tumblrs – Unfuck Your Habitat: http://persephonemagazine.com/2012/04/unfuck-your-habitat-the-perfection-paradox/

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