The problem with perfection

I read an interesting book last year called FYI: For Your Improvement, courtesy of my long lost Sri Lankan brother Udhara and his experience of a lifetime working at Apple.

Not just interesting, mind blowing. It completely changed my perception of myself and the world around me. I suddenly felt a much smaller man.

But I think I needed it.

My whole life I’ve existed as a self-professed perfectionist; embracing the psychology of perfectionism in everything I do.

I can happily spend hours shifting words around on a page, fiddling with colours and formatting in spreadsheets. Meticulously making sure every pixel is in its place.

I’ve always felt perfection is something to embrace, something to strive for. It produces wonder and beauty in all facets of life – from art to business and everything between. One of the finest qualities of all, perfectionism is a well-honed skill to take pride in.

You get the picture.

But actually, as this book from Udhara made me realise, perfectionism can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. An excuse born from fear. The scapegoat that saves you from facing up to the possibility of failure, to stick with the farmyard animal references.

Perfectionism helps to justify why it took so long to finish this blog post, why I spent so long building that pitch deck. It’s the reason I read and re-read one unimportant email I was drafting 12 times in a row, just to make sure.

It’s why I spent 3 months holed up in my studio producing a single song.

The truth is, maybe I wasn’t quite as concerned with creating a perfect product as I was with ensuring I wouldn’t be judged for my mistakes.

 
By hiding behind my perfectionism I would be safe from others’ shrewdness. No-one could call me out for being slow to finish; for spending way too much time on something relatively inconsequential.

I certainly wasn’t prepared for such a realisation. This was an attack on one of the fundamental building blocks of my life, and it caught me off guard.

Let me take a slight detour now to tell you another story.

For as long as I can remember I’ve found comfort and pleasure in creating.

Starting with literature and music, this passion fatefully dragged me all the way from art into the realm of business – morphing itself into the form of marketing, which in turn demanded for a whole different kind of creation. The creation of process, structure and methodology.

When I first stepped into the business arena, everything my partners and I did was about tapping our unique yet complementary skills to create products and services that solved problems and filled particular gaps in the market.

Our daily objective was to convert our time into something not just valuable, but very much tangible.

But as time went on a funny thing happened. Our outputs became less and less quantifiable, and the time we once spent as designers & copywriters, data analysts & social media strategists washed way out to sea, far from the shores of feasibility.

The hourglass began to crack, little rivers of sand were soon spilling out in a million different directions at once. No longer did I have the luxury of peace, quiet and the one thing I’ve always treasured the most…

Time.

For me, creating under pressure can be incredibly difficult; for years I lived as a free-spirited musician with time on his side.

And now, to suddenly be thrust into a world governed by tight deadlines and endless responsibilities, I was served a rude shock and a harsh reminder me about the true scarcity of time in this life.

Tasks I would normally take an hour to do had to be done in 10 minutes. Instead of investing 110% I had to settle for 90, 75, and even 50 percent.

The perfectionist within was mortified.

Each time I sent off work filled with tiny imperfections like misaligned layouts and spelling mistakes, I felt a little piece of me wither away and die.

I know that might sound a bit melodramatic, but I can assure you this obsession with perfection can become all-consuming.

What we visualise in our minds is often far away from any attainable reality. Like the Penrose staircase, imagination can lead you on an endless journey which seemingly transcends the impossible.

But back here on planet Earth we remain caged in by the constraints of reality; with limited amounts of time, energy and skill at our disposal.

“We begin in admiration and end up organising our disappointment.”
– Gaston Bachelard

 
When you set out to recreate that perfect world you’ve dreamed up, or to find the Prince (or Princess) Charming you’ve constructed in your mind, the real thing will likely never stack up; leaving you the lone guest of a banquet you unwittingly prepared in honour of your own self-perpetuating standards.

With every ounce of strength I resisted the need for change, holding onto the inner perfectionist for dear life.

But soon enough I realised the struggles were in vain – there was no way to maintain this lifelong habit and still achieve what we’d set out to do with The Jaden Group.

Like the phoenix, parts of you must sometimes die a fiery death before they too can be reborn.

 
I took a couple of big steps back to reassess some things I once knew with such certainty.

It was time to get comfortable with failure. Or perhaps more accurately, lots of little failures. The miniature failings of words and sentences, contexts and concepts, design and aesthetics.

But more importantly than getting comfortable with failure, it was time to redefine ‘failure’ in my vocabulary.

Beyond a slight bruising of the ego, none of these little imperfections were on the list of things likely to bankrupt, or worse yet, kill me.

I’m from Australia, so trust me when I say we have one long deadly list. But thankfully I didn’t see ‘typos’ on there.

I began to feel like a little part of me had been liberated; released from the cruel and unforgiving grasp of perfectionism. I was opening myself up to things I’d spent a lifetime dodging and despising.

And it actually felt good.

Now I’d be lying if I said it’s been easy learning to settle for less than perfection. I’m still served up my daily dishful of challenges, garnished with a few sprigs of humility.

But even if only in some small way, I believe this entire experience has enabled (read: forced) me to grow as a person.

And even though I’m learning to find the beauty in imperfection, I still take the occasional hour to lock myself away with a few spreadsheets and explore the Excel colour palette every so often.

Because after all, there’s nothing wrong with a little recreational perfectionism, right? :)

 
Had challenges of your own with perfectionism? Would love to hear about them in the comments below!