The obsessive pursuit of perfection comes at a cost. The cost is higher than getting out of bed early, mastering self-discipline, and upholding a high standard. It can be a dangerous and paradoxically degrading pursuit.
Perfectionism is defined by excessive pursuit of accomplishment (from a promotion to an empty email inbox), to the point where the effort begins to have the opposite effect on what’s intended. There, we find an increased risk of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and a variety of other mental health concerns (Egan & Shafran, 2018).
We don’t often hear about the drawbacks of perfectionism. Instead, we celebrate obsession embodied by elite performers. That can be misleading. Stories of the obsessive work ethic shared by world class achievers like Michael Jordan and Steve Jobs are everywhere; there are far more stories of people in pursuit of elite achievement who strain to prove their personal value through high accomplishment. Those stories end poorly. Far more often than not, perfectionism leads to decreased productivity, strained relationships, heavy anxiety, and an overall lower quality of life (Taylor & Brennan, 2021).
“We don’t often hear about the drawbacks of #perfectionsim. Instead, we celebrate obsession embodied by elite performers. This can be misleading…” #AntiPerfectionsimTweet
In this way, the Michael Jordans of the world should be celebrated, but not replicated. The world needs heroes, ideals of humanity to raise the collective bar and challenge what we individuals have so far been able to accomplish. We should not lower our standards. But we should be celebrating growth, gratitude, care, community… not obsession. Let’s call it what it is. Obsession is a mental health concern, and it seems to be getting worse over time (Curran, 2019).
Bernstein’s Hammer and the Case for Grace
In 1922, Nikolai Bernstein gained an incredible insight into human movement patterns. The Soviet Central Institute of Labor funded a study to evaluate (and improve) productivity among the blacksmith workforce. The prevailing concept was that there was “a way” to accomplish the ideal outcome in a task like cutting sheet metal. Their hope was to identify that ideal, then replicate it at scale.
The ideal did not exist, at least not how they hoped.
In his study, Bernstein tracked the movement patterns of novice and highly experienced blacksmiths. The way the novice swung the hammer to strike the chisel was, as one might suppose, highly varied. New to the craft, the blacksmith was still figuring out his preferred approach and did not yet have the hang of it [figure 1b/d]. No surprise here.
The surprise came when the experienced blacksmith was tracked. Although there was less variability than the novice, his swings also followed unique paths to the chisel [figure 1a/c]. His strike point was routine and efficient, but the path to that point was still varied.
Dr. Rob Gray, an expert on human movement, sums up the experiment with the suggestion that we “repeat an action outcome but not by repeating the movement that produced it,” (Gray, 2021, p. 5). Strict repetition is not the appropriate path to any intended outcome, so long as a human being is involved.
As Dr. Gray puts it, “the key to becoming skillful was not strict repetition. Instead, it was repetition without repetition – learning to produce the same outcome by using different movements,” (Gray, p.8).
Ask a salesperson if any two calls have looked exactly the same. Climb the ladder and ask a CEO if any company meeting has followed its agenda to the letter. Prioritize the concept. Be willing to adapt the script.
In other words, it would be wise to remember that there is no single path to the chisel. There is no single way to be right… there is no such thing as ‘perfect’.
Did Nolan Ryan ever throw the same pitch twice? Of course not. Though his mechanics look similar, there was never an exact script for how to strike out a MLB batter. At the onset of eat at-bat, Ryan did not know exactly what pitch he was going to throw, only that he would throw pitches that gave him the best chance of striking out the opposing batter. The was no strict concept of ‘perfect’. There was no perfect pitch. Yet, when it came to striking out batters, Ryan was successful 5,714 times.
The pursuit of this faulty concept limits adaptation. It can lead to self-defeating guilt and shame. This mindset steps on its own toes, decreasing the likelihood of sustainable high performance and, importantly, makes the whole experience less enjoyable. And since there are multiple paths to the chisel, the strike out, or the next big sale, how about onboarding a little grace. Forgive yourself and those around you. It’s a powerful start.
Perfectionism, obsessive compulsions, and associated forms of anxiety have been on the rise since 2020 (Linde et al, 2022). When our situation feels chaotic, it is human nature to seek control (Kay et al, 2009). Some turn to the government, some to religion, others to a well-intentioned pursuit of success and validation. It is understandable, though not ideal.
There is no such thing as perfect. The concept is itself a fiction. Perfect by what standard? Whose definition? To what end? Even if those questions were answerable to a T, then complete adherence to them would not only be statistically impossible, but there would also be a ‘who cares?’ element to that adherence. Is it ‘perfect’ to follow someone else’s script to a T?
Clarity of concept, naming one’s goals, continuing a conversation in ethics (how one’s actions impact the actions and opportunities of another), being thoughtful and adaptable along the way… that’s a good path to start traveling. Even before that, relieve yourself and those around you of the burden of perfectionism.
In a previous article, we discussed the value of prioritizing Concept over Script; the concept refers to an outcome, where a script assumes there is a strict path to follow. Experienced actors, public speakers, educators, and leaders of all kinds do some of their best work while improvising. Why? Because they have a firm grip on the concept. They may not have a strict path through the forest, but they know how to find their way to their destination. Releasing the concept of a perfect path frees one up to perform well. We have all cringed when a public speaker looks anxious on stage. Less experienced and less successful orators who stumble and appear less than compelling are often tied strictly to their script. It doesn’t work. Blockbuster tried to follow a strict roadmap through the forest of streaming services and found themselves in bankruptcy. There is no such thing as perfect. Time to let that go.
Freeing your mind of its tight grip on some invented idea of ‘perfect’ will improve your performance. It will make the entire experience – your work life, your home life, your life – more enjoyable.
So when it is time to work, work. Rest when it’s time to rest. Hold yourself to a high standard and give yourself a break every now and then… if only for sake of future performance. You owe it to your career, yourself, and those around you.
Educators, Leaders, and High Achievers of all kinds, join the #AntiPerfectionism movement today. Let us know how it goes.
Curran, T., Hill, A.P. (2019). Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145 (4) 410-429
Egan, S. J., & Shafran, R. (2018). Cognitive-behavioral treatment for perfectionism. In J. Stoeber (Ed.), The psychology of perfectionism: Theory, research, applications (pp. 284–305). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Gray, R. (2021). How We Learn to Move: a revolution in the way we coach & practice sport skills. Perception Action Consulting & Education.
Linde, E.S., Varga, T.V., Clotworthy, A. (2022). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder During the COVID-19 Pandemic-A Systematic Review. Front Psychiatry (25) 13.
Taylor, M., reviewed by Brennan, D. (2021). Perfectionism: 6 Consequences to Watch For. Health and Balance Guide, WedMD.