The High Cost of Perfectionism

Steve Maxwell

If you are a professional painter who values quality, there’s a chance you battle with perfectionism. So did I, back in the day. Luckily, more than 25 years ago I discovered a mental trick for turning the negative effects of perfectionism into something positive and productive. Let me tell you about it – it really works.
Wikipedia defines perfectionism as a personality trait characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting high-performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluation and concerns regarding others’ evaluations. On the surface, this doesn’t sound too bad, does it? After all, if you want to run a successful painting business, you need to set high standards, don’t you? But the problem with perfectionism is that you can’t ever be satisfied. Unhappy with your results, you will drive everyone around you crazy.
The way to harness the power of perfectionism without it making you batty comes down to a small mental flip-flop. Master this flip-flop and it’ll convert damaging perfectionism into something I call the “pursuit of excellence”. Just don’t be fooled. The pursuit of excellence might look like perfectionism on the surface, but it has one feature that makes all the difference.

The problem with perfectionism is that nothing can ever be absolutely perfect in this world. That’s why perfectionism is a game no one can win. In Disney’s classic 1967 movie The Jungle Book, Baloo the bear offers some powerful anti-perfectionist philosophy in the song “The Bare Necessities.”

And don’t spend your time lookin’ around
For something you want that can’t be found

Absolute perfection simply does not exist in this dirty old world of ours, and the root of the distress of the perfectionist is believing the lie that perfection is possible. It’s not. Rejecting this lie is the first step towards freedom, but there’s something even more important.

The thing that delivered me from perfectionism is the understanding that I need to have two states of mind whenever I’m working on any task. The first state involves striving for the best results I can possibly get. This is identical to perfectionism and it’s necessary for high-quality results and improving skills. Nothing good ever happens without effort, and nothing great ever happens without exceptional effort. The thing is, at some point, you need to adopt a certain measure of surrender. You need to do that mental flip-flop I told you about. If you remember that absolute perfection is a mirage, it’ll help you kick into “satisfied mode.” This is the fundamental feature of the pursuit of excellence. Try your guts out within the time, budget, conditions, and skills you’ve got, then flip-flop into a perspective of surrender as you approach completion.

Without this mental flip-flop, all perfectionists do one of two things. Either they go crazy, or they abandon the pursuit of excellence altogether. Both outcomes are negative and unnecessary. If you’re a hard-core perfectionist, you’ll find the “flip-flop of sanity” difficult at first. Keep trying until you master it. It’s worth it.

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