The Good Kind of Perfectionism

We’ve all heard the common criticisms of perfectionism, including:

  • Standards that are impossible to meet,
  • A tendency toward black-and-white, either/or thinking,
  • Too much emphasis on results, not enough on the journey,
  • Anger, fear, self-hatred, defensiveness, disappointment, and/or procrastination,
  • Potential for psychological problems, up to and including “suicidal ideation.”

It’s no wonder that perfectionism is often considered a bad way to organize your work and your life.

But all those notions are focused – justifiably – on the destructive form of perfectionism.

However, there’s another, positive form of perfectionism that’s far more constructive, productive, and useful. It looks like this:

Strive For but Don’t Demand Excellence

Perfectionism becomes destructive when you set an impossible standard and then suffer because you don’t measure up. It’s far more constructive to recognize those same high standards as targets, not thresholds.

One big difference is that falling short of a threshold constitutes failure, but missing a target can often prove entirely worthwhile, constituting a “good try,” worthy of pride and celebration.

It’s perfectly OK to miss a target if you:

  • Use and gain proficiency with the appropriate tools and techniques,
  • Give your best effort,
  • Learn from your mistake(s), and
  • Produce results that exhibit an “upward” overall trajectory.

Since we are imperfect beings in an imperfect world, it’s perfectly sensible and smart to accept and live by the guideline: “progress, not perfection.”

Revel in Your Accomplishments

If you’re striving for excellence – even if you never achieve it – you will undoubtedly compile an enviable track record of better-than-average results. Revel in it.

Take time at frequent intervals to look back at all you’ve done, and don’t repress any of the good feelings that will likely emerge from such a review. You’ve earned them.

While you’re at it, don’t make the mistake of judging your past results by your current capabilities and standards. A child’s shaky scrawl at age five is just as worthy of praise as an accomplished artist’s highly proficient drawing after many years of training and practice.

You are almost certainly more capable today than you were in the past, so cut yourself some slack when looking back at what you accomplished during the times you were less experienced, less proficient, and less capable.

Launch Bravely into the Unknown

Having accomplished so much, you no doubt learned a great deal, gained new skills, accumulated valuable experience, and honed the accuracy of your judgment. With these attributes in hand, you are no longer participating in your first rodeo.

You have earned the right to launch yourself bravely into whatever comes next for you, and to legitimately feel confident you’ll do fine at whatever task, project, or goal you choose to accept.

Naturally, you won’t do it perfectly. No one can. But since you’re striving for progress, not perfection, you’re likely enough to do it well enough to feel comfortable about trying to put one more notch on your belt.

By willingly attempting the next tasks, projects, and goals, constructive perfectionists steadily compile track records of successfully completed – although imperfect – work.

Take Some Perfect Downtime

Another big advantage of constructive perfectionism is the willingness it brings to do some self-care in the form of relaxation, recovery, and restoration.

As imperfect beings, we cannot strive relentlessly without breaking down. There’s wisdom in the phrase “slow down to speed up.”

Taking time to recharge your energy and rethink your strategies helps you be and do your best, which ultimately yields more and better results than ceaselessly hard-charging to the point of exhaustion.

At bottom, perfectionism itself is not the problem. Instead, the real danger is destructively misapplying the goal of turning in great work by thinking more hours, more effort, and more pressure are more important than smart, selective, judicious productivity.

A useful analogy is to a bullfighter, who does not attempt to overpower the animal on its terms. Instead, a bullfighter uses his or her own strengths – intelligence, agility, and the point of a sword deftly applied to the bull’s major weakness – to prevail over the animal’s raw strength and characteristic “bull-headedness.”

In the same way, an individual who recognizes and applies constructive perfectionism works hard, utilizes a well-thought-out strategy, and maintains his or her productivity as long as necessary to make steady progress and ultimately succeed – although imperfectly – at the current task, project, or goal.

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