Recently I listened to a TED talk podcast episode called Breaking Up with Perfectionism and it was really enlightening. Host Adam Grant spoke about his own experiences with perfectionism and gave some advice on how to stop being a perfectionist.
My relationship with perfectionism
Personally I have had issues with perfectionism and I am slowly trying to divorce myself from its long-holding grasp on me and my life. I have spent countless hours – days, maybe – aiming for perfection.
Perfectionism at work in completing certain tasks or perfectionism at home like baking the perfect cake. I have even spent so much time trying to find the perfect hotel for holiday or the perfect chargepoint for my eco car.
These things appear trivial, but have affected me in so many areas of my life. It was exhausting. I realised just before listening to this podcast episode that I put too much pressure on myself; that I would not hold someone else to the same level of perfectionism as I do to myself.
Ending my relationship with perfectionism
The podcast episode gave some good tips on ending perfectionism, but for me, it came internally. I had to end the idea that if I was better/ faster/ perfect, then I’d be appreciated more by others or save my future self some money or time. Perfect results do not result in me being a perfect person.
I had to learn to acknowledge and accept that I am only human. And that sometimes you can be the perfect package, neatly tied in a cute little bow, but delivered to the wrong address – and so you’re rejected anyway.
Done is better than perfect
The first advice the podcast episode gave was recognising that excellence doesn’t require perfection: aiming high, not aiming for perfectionism, is what creates results. Host Adam Grant gave the example that a teacher’s aim is not for all students to pass, but for them to be proficient.
When studying during my training contract, the tutors told us that the pass rate is an average, so all we needed to do was be a tiny bit better than average and we’d pass. At that time, for some reason, I had not transplanted that thought process to other areas of my life.
I’d spend hours researching the perfect hotel for holiday, thinking “if I could just find another cheaper/ better/ closer hotel then that would be the perfect hotel”. But the reality was that my time spent researching actually cost more than any savings I’d find in a hotel that was £10 a night cheaper.
These days I don’t aim for perfectionism (as much), instead I aim for the task to be done by the deadline. Sure, getting top marks would be great, but a steady pass is also great. Likewise getting the perfect hotel would be great, but a decent hotel is also great. Done is better than perfect and time is precious too.
Progress is better than perfect
The second advice the podcast episode gave was to measure excellence in terms of progress towards a goal. Grant’s example this time was to compare current and past performance: me vs me instead of me vs perfectionism.
When perfectionism took its nasty hold on me at work, I felt I had to get every working paper perfect and therefore every case perfect, as if it was a reflection on me as a person. I didn’t realise at the time that there would be other cases and therefore other working papers for me to hone my craft and improve.
Outside of work I recall spending days researching the perfect chargepoint for my eco car, thinking “I need to find the perfect chargepoint as it would be the one I’ll have for life” – that was not true. On installation day, the installer informed me that the eco car industry is moving so quickly that I’ll likely just get another chargepoint in a few years time.
So even when you think something has to be perfect because it’ll only happen once or you’ll only get one chance, there will most likely be another chance – just like the chargepoint installer told me. There will be other cases, other chances, and other timelines to try again and progress.
Don’t change everything for one thing
The final advice the podcast episode gave was to identify a few things to improve each day; try a few attempts, and then move on. The example given was cooking: to focus on sauce consistency instead of throwing out the whole recipe – don’t change everything for one thing.
The most relevant example for me was baking. When baking cookies I used to try and make sure they were all the same size and shape; and if they weren’t, sometimes I’d re-roll the dough to try again. At the end of the day though, the cookies would all be eaten and the size/ shape consistency wouldn’t be noticed. So I can try to improve one thing and call it a day and try again the next time.
Ok with being imperfect
As I get older, I think I’m starting to care less and less. Or maybe my aim for perfectionism in my younger days hasn’t been totally worth it and now I know better.
I am better at accepting my mistakes and failures – better an oops than a what if. And it’s not a mistake if you learnt something from it. I am also better at accepting that I am only human – it can be exhausting aiming for perfectionism 24/7.
A perfect result does not equal being a perfect person. And if somehow it did, a perfect package can still be rejected if delivered to the wrong address. It’s ok to stop and rest. It’s ok being imperfect.