The creative abandon of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings disrupted the 21st century’s art scene. In a world once dominated by measured control and perfection, Pollock’s willingness to accept and even embrace a lack of control upended the way we look at art.
Instead of aiming for flawlessness, Pollock's paintings are notorious for their messy, unkempt, and imperfect designs. Because he knew something the rest of us didn’t: although bright and shiny and beautiful at first blush, perfection has a dark side. And if you’re not careful, perfectionism will swallow you whole.
(Not so) Pretty perfection
When you aim for perfection, you become consumed by the desire to perform flawlessly. I’m not just talking about big projects here. I’m talking about the minutiae of life. But trying to make every conversation, every interaction, and every moment perfect is exhausting.
Because the reality is, perfection is rarely possible. Humans are anything but perfect, which means most of what we do has little chance of flawlessness. Chasing down something as elusive as perfection is draining, to say the least.
For me, the desire to be perfect invades tasks as simple as writing emails. I read and re-read every message until the wording feels just right. And even then, I might find myself still obsessing after I hit the send button.
Questions like, “Will this message be received as intended?” or “Did I strike the right tone?” take over the moment the email leaves my screen.
I use a lot of thought energy churning through questions like these as I await a response. If you struggle with perfection, you can relate. So why do we care so much? Why are we preoccupied with perfection? Because we desire control.
Compelled to control
Perfection is really an exercise in control. The more we perfect, the more power we have over a situation or outcome. Or do we?
Let’s say you’re working on a team project. Naturally, you want to control the quality of the final product. But to accomplish this, you establish a perfection mentality to ensure the outcome meets your standards.
Your obsession with perfection commands control over the group project. However, in certain circumstances, the goal may not be to control the final product, but to control your narrative.
For many of us, perfection isn’t just about creating a flawless PowerPoint deck. Instead, it’s about how people perceive you after viewing your PowerPoint.
Everyone, whether they care to admit it or not, wants to control others’ opinions of them. The more you curate the final product, the more you think you can determine how you will be judged or evaluated. As a result, you become consumed by perfection because you believe the more perfect you are, the more control you have over what people think of you.
You’re not wrong, but your energies are misdirected. Because in the pursuit of perfection, as much as you may control a situation, you lose so much more.
I can’t help but think about all the time I’ve spent obsessing over emails that were innocuously read and responded to without a single negative reaction. What could I have done with all the time I spent toiling over using the proper adjective or wondering if someone had misinterpreted the message?
We’ve all left opportunities on the table while being consumed by perfection. Why? Because perfectionism is a distraction. When you fixate on achieving a flawless result, you can be suffocated by your own task, slowly sinking into the quicksand of small details.
All the while, opportunities are knocking, but you can’t see them. Instead, you’re stuck under the crushing weight of perfection. And as a result, chances you should take pass you by.
But being preoccupied with perfection doesn't just distract you from transformative opportunities. This struggle also impacts how you work now.
Think about everything you want to accomplish this year. It doesn’t matter if your goals are personal or professional. Envision each task as a boxed gift on a table. You need to wrap each gift within a specific timeframe. If you take too much time wrapping one, the others will suffer.
That’s what perfectionism does to your goals. Sure, it might help you finish one or two incredible projects, but it forces you to leave the others on the table, untouched and unfinished.
Who knows, one of those boxes could hold the key to a life-changing opportunity. But you’ll never know because you couldn’t complete the task. Perfectionism is more than a distraction, striving to be perfect keeps you from living a full life.
Accept good to be great
So instead of focusing on perfection, we need to know when to accept that something is good enough.
This isn’t easy—and it’s something I have to work on every day. But when you can look at a task in the greater context of your goals, you’ll start to learn what deserves your attention and when just good is actually great.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do a good job, and seeking perfection is okay sometimes. Perfectionism does have some positive side effects. It breeds excellence and makes you good at what you do—both are worthy goals.
Just don’t forget what Salvador Dali said, “Have no fear of perfection—you’ll never reach it.” He was right.
Aiming for perfection in all things isn’t realistic or healthy. Many people think being perfect is the most difficult thing to do. But I believe knowing when to turn the desire to be perfect on and off is where the real challenge lies.