Recently, the people at Emotional Intelligence 2.0 posted about the 9 Things Successful People Won’t Do. As could be expected, one of the items was that they won’t “prioritize perfection”. “Human beings,” they say, “by our very nature, are fallible. When perfection is your goal, you’re always left with a nagging sense of failure.” And, with a single short paragraph, they write off perfection as something that no successful person would even consider.
It struck me as odd primarily because I can think of a dozen perfectionists off the top of my head–and they are all successful. Think about celebrity perfectionists–Steve Jobs, John Lasseter, Serena Williams. These kinds of people are extremely talented and extremely successful. And, if you ask them, their success is largely dependent upon their drive for perfection. Why would the EI people suggest that successful people aren’t perfectionists when it’s clear that at least some exude the trait?
The reason, of course, is that perfectionism is hard–for the perfectionist, to be sure, but also for those around the perfectionist. Having everything right all the time is stressful for everyone, and so the simple solution is to get rid of perfectionism.
But should we be so fearful of perfectionism and perfectionists? By nature, perfectionists are hard workers who maintain very lofty goals. Shouldn’t we encourage these qualities in everyone? So what if they come with a dash of OCD and mania?
It turns out that the reason we as a culture so criticize perfectionism and try to diminish it is not for the sanity of the perfectionist–it’s for the leisure of the rest of us. The fact is that perfectionists raise the bar of expectations, and without them around things are a lot easier. So we write them off as neurotics in order to go about our mediocre ways.
Indeed, the anti-perfectionist tone is the standard. The psychological definition amounts to pathology: Perfectionism is “a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.” Anything done “excessively” and “overly” is naturally something to avoid. Whenever perfectionists are mentioned anywhere these days, it is almost certainly followed by sympathy and advice on how to fix the maligned condition.
A survey of work environments and culture at large will show that perfectionists are everywhere. And everywhere they are being scolded, ridiculed, and pushed into the corner for their perfectionism. This is a problem, not only for the perfectionists, who have a tough time already, but for our culture as a whole, which can only benefit from the hard-driving and visionary perfectionists. Would we really want to live in a world without Steve Jobs? What would rock music be without Brian Wilson or John Fogerty? Would we be so happy at home without Martha Stewart? Would tennis be as fun without Serena Williams?
There are five main reasons why the status quo needs to transform, and our view of perfectionists needs to go from one of contempt to one of admiration and encouragement; why, if you’re a perfectionist, you should embrace it and make the most of it; and, if you’re not, by all means, don’t get in their way!
1. Perfection is possible.
The assumption is that perfection is impossible because, of course, no one is perfect. But why do we make such an assumption? First of all, this rationale is rather circular. What people mean is that perfection, in the sense of someone doing things correctly 100% of the time in everything they do and throughout their lives, has never been seen and likely never will. Because it’s never happened on such a scale, the thought goes, it cannot happen anywhere or at any time.
What we must recognize is that the frame for perfection is moveable. To a large degree, we choose what goals and metrics to focus on, and, as such, we can hone in on a few key elements to perfect. In other words, you don’t have to be a complete angel to achieve perfection in your work or relationships.
Indeed, it doesn’t take long to find that everywhere there are instances in culture, business, and morality that we can rightly say are perfect. There is perfection in many sports—in baseball, the perfect game; in basketball and football, the perfect season (Indiana University 1975-’76 and the Miami Dolphins 1972 being the most recent); and in gymnastics, the perfect 10 (Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, and Daniela Silivas). Michelangelo and Leonardo are said to have created perfect artistic recreations. In business, we see examples of products that so precisely meet the public’s need that they can only be considered perfect—the smartphone, automobile, the electric telegraph. When looking at the moral plane, we can reference such paragons as Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Teresa.
On a personal plane, we cannot expect to go through life doing everything perfectly, but it is possible to at least do certain things perfectly. Perhaps it’s not always possible to be on time, but it is possible to at least warn the host when you’re going to be late. As one top executive has put it, it might not be possible to go through life without making mistakes, but it is possible to go through life without making mistakes twice. You learn from your mistakes and ensure that they don’t become the norm. It it rather impractical to think that any person or company can achieve perfection in every aspect of their existence. But instances of perfection are common, and it’s just where you decide to stress your efforts.
2. Some things require perfection to be any good at all.
We are all familiar with the saying, “Don’t make perfection the enemy of the good.” The thought is that by striving for perfection, you can undermine your efforts to produce something that is actually good. But, in some cases, you just need to do things right for something to end up worthy at all. Take baking as an analogy. Bakers know that they need to use the right amount of ingredients and bake for the right amount of time at just the right temperature or else the whole thing can wind up flat.
Similarly, there are things in life that require perfection, or else they end up rather different than expected.
Education provides a perfect example. Salman Khan is the founder of the independent Internet-based school system, Khan Academy. He started it in part to correct a deficiency in the public school system called the ‘Swiss Cheese Model’. In public school, students are required to achieve a certain level of mastery in a given course before moving on to the next one. For instance, a student has to achieve at least a 70% proficiency level on Medieval History before moving on to Renaissance History; a student has to achieve at least a 70% proficiency level on Algebra before moving on to Geometry; and so on. The problem with this model is that it is possible for students to progress to the next level even though they have not achieved full mastery of the subject matter. There are holes in their knowledge like Swiss cheese–from the examples, as much as 30% of the knowledge could be missing. And when a student misses that much of the previous subject, it is quite likely that he will have trouble with the next, and so on. This is true for all subjects, especially for those that build on each other like math and science.
Khan proposes an alternative method of education called Mastery learning. With it, the student must attain full mastery (determined by various testing methods) of a given subject before moving on to the next, dependent subject. The result is what might be considered perfect learning, and it is much more successful at providing the student an education.
3. Failure is not as terrible as it seems.
One of the prominent claims against perfectionism is that, since perfection is so difficult to attain (nay, impossible), perfectionists will face failure much more frequently and to a more severe degree. As failures mount, the perfectionist becomes psychologically paralyzed–he assumes he can’t succeed, so he never tries. Critics suggest that perfectionists never try anything for fear of failure and so will never amount to much in life.
Of course, perfectionists typically choose their pursuits carefully, knowing that the bigger the endeavor, the more difficult it is to achieve perfection. And yet, they also realize that failure really isn’t as terrible as one might make it out to be. They know that failure, when encountered in a clear-headed, objective way, can teach us about the effort in a way that success is often unable to do. In contemporary education, there is such a thing as ‘learn by failure’, which introduces the student to a given task without instruction and lets them ‘play around’ in the environment without protecting them against the various pitfalls therein. This gives the student ownership that is completely absent in the protective guidance of traditional education–and ownership equals learning, improvement, and, ultimately, success.
When the undefeated 1975-’76 Indiana University basketball team was recently named the greatest team ever they were often compared to their ‘74-’75 team, which some consider to have had a better lineup though they ended up losing one game. But their coach, Hall-of-Famer Bobby Knight, said that the ‘75-’76 team had an intangible that set them apart. “This team was better because they were better as players. They were a year older and they had gone through something that was very close to a tremendous success.” The ‘75-’76 team had lost the previous year and learned from their experience. And that was the difference that made them the perfect team in 1975-’76.
Everyone is going to fail, and the perfectionist might do so more often than most. But that also means that he is trying and will thus benefit from the effort to a much greater degree. The real dangers of failure are social and personal in nature; perfectionists are more concerned with the product of their labors and can thus easily look beyond the deleterious effects of failure. In the end, perfectionists know what few others realize: It is better to fail at perfection than to succeed at mediocrity.
4. Just because we’re flawed doesn’t mean that perfection is out of the question.
The argument is that all humans are flawed, so perfectionism is a wild goose chase. To begin, it is not clear why we simply assume that humans are automatically flawed, as if by nature. What does it mean to be flawed? And why do we just assume that we are all so? No one ever explains. We make mistakes, sure, but does that mean that we must make mistakes? We tend to gossip and intrigue, but does that mean that we cannot overcome those inclinations?
The argument commonly stems from Christianity: Since the fall, we are all inherently sinners and thus have flaws. Even if we don’t rely on Christian theology, we can just look around and see that people seem to be inherently flawed. Granted these standards, however, why do we then make the leap to say that perfection is out of the question?
We can use Christian thought to find that this doesn’t necessarily have to be so. Consider a little applied theology: We know that Christ was both 100% God and 100% man. If we are to believe this, then we must acknowledge the fact that one can be 100% God (perfect) and 100% man (flawed) at the same time. Of course, we cannot all be Christ. Indeed, because of the fall, we are all subject to sin as he was not. But Christ’s presence as God and man showed that it is not against our nature as men to also be perfect. Human nature doesn’t require us to be imperfect; it is not out of the question for us to be perfect.
And, even if our flaws mean that we are imperfect now, that doesn’t mean that we should not strive to be perfect at some point. Indeed, Jesus says: “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” Clearly, we have the moral obligation to at least strive to become perfect. Anyone who fails to strive for such a lofty goal is not living up to expectations set for him as a man.
5. Accepting imperfection lowers expectations.
The trouble with the anti-perfectionist rhetoric is that it often accepts the sub-par as the only practical alternative. The thought goes, why spend the extra money and take the extra time to perfect a product when it is fine as it is and will be a great success anyway? And, when the monetary bottom line is the driving force, it is possible that this rationale wins the day. Things like timetables and profit margins dictate decisions, and ultimately this approach does levy the best monetary gain.
But the end product suffers as a result. A writer might forego one last edit to meet the publisher’s deadline; a car manufacturer might go with the quicker production model to meet demand; a team might rest its players to ensure long-term success. While these expediencies seem like the right thing to do for the sake of convenience, and possibly even long-term success, everyone knows that the product won’t be as good.
Pixar’s creative dynamo and famed perfectionist, John Lasseter, puts it succinctly. “When you do your job right, and get something perfect, the audience won’t notice it. But if it’s not right they will notice it, popping out of the movie.” Lasseter knows all too well what happens when the standards are loosened for production schedule, deadlines, or, worse, the bottom line. When Cars 2 was released to near-universal castigation, some argued that “the commentary did dent morale at the studio, which until then had enjoyed an unbroken and perhaps unprecedented run of critical acclaim.”
Doubtless, the Cars 2 episode made Lasseter a little more cautious and perhaps a little more of a perfectionist. The result can be seen in the rare production shuffling that the Pixar team has undergone for their upcoming TheGood Dinosaur. It was scheduled for a May 2014 release, but in late 2013 came upon some story problems. Instead of moving forward with the production, the team decided to take a step back and reevaluate the piece. They gave the schedule some breathing room and “completely reimagined” the story. Time will tell whether the perspicuity will pay off. But, as star voice John Lithgow assured fans, “Don’t worry. It’s coming and it’s gonna be better than I ever imagined.”
Expediencies can help the bottom line, but when the product suffers we miss the ultimate opportunity to produce something good. As the old saw goes, “Nothing is more permanent than a temporary fix.” Our work becomes us, and that is true for makeshift workarounds as much as it is for fine-tuned masterworks. The only best practice is to ensure that everything you put out is of the finest quality.
With the constant barrage from the Emotional Intelligence people and the like, it’s clear that the popular culture is out to defeat perfectionism. And, while there might be good intentions behind it, we can see how there are some ulterior motives as well.
No, we should not let perfection be the enemy of the good. But, even more importantly, we should not make good the enemy of perfection. We should not set our sights too low, we should not give up when we ought to persevere, and we should not accept good enough when perfection is possible.
In the end, we must remember that perfection is a constant challenge that can only raise the quality of our work and lives. The point is: We’re not failing if we’re not achieving perfection in everything at all times; we’re failing if we don’t try.
Here’s to those who try!