Beyond Perfect

When you retire your perfectionist tendencies, you can start living a richer, happier life. Here’s how to get started.

My first two years of college had been unhappy. I always felt anxious. What if I missed a crucial word during a lecture? What if I was unable to answer the professor’s question? I felt these situations could lead to an imperfect performance, to failure, to the end of the possibility of attaining the kind of life that I envisioned for myself.

One winter day, my great fears materialized. I failed to get an A on an exam. I rushed back to my room and locked the door behind me.

Nobody likes to fail, but there is a difference between a normal aversion to failure and an intense fear of it. Aversion to failure motivates us to take necessary precautions and to work harder to achieve success. By contrast, intense fear of failure — one of the hallmarks of perfectionism — often handicaps us, making us reject failure so vigorously that we cannot take the risks that are necessary for growth. This fear compromises our performance and jeopardizes our overall psychological well-being.

Failure is an inescapable and critically important part of a successful life. (For more on this, watch for “The Upside of Failure” in the January/February 2010 issue of Experience Life.) We learn to walk by falling, to talk by babbling, to shoot a basket by missing. Those who can break away from the need to always be perfect and accept failure as a part of life can achieve more success and find greater happiness.

Perfectionism vs. Optimalism

Intense fear of failure and rejection of failure are two of the distinct dimensions of perfectionism. For a long time, psychologists considered perfectionism a kind of neurosis. Yet, recently, they have begun to see perfectionism as more complex. Indeed, they have found that perfectionism can be beneficial in some ways, driving people to work hard and set high personal standards.

In light of this, psychologists today differentiate between “positive perfectionism” and “negative perfectionism.” I regard these two types of perfectionism as so dramatically different in both their underlying nature and their ramifications, however, that I prefer to use entirely different terms. I refer to “negative perfectionism” as simply “perfectionism” and to “positive perfectionism” as “optimalism.”

The key difference between the perfectionist and the optimalist is that the former essentially rejects reality while the latter accepts it. One of the ways we can explore this distinction is by observing how each perceives and reacts to failure.

The perfectionist expects her path toward any goal to be direct, smooth and free of obstacles. When, inevitably, it isn’t — when, for instance, she fails at a task — she has difficulty coping. The optimalist understands that failing to get the job she wanted or getting into a fight with her spouse are part of a full and satisfying life; she learns what she can from these experiences and emerges stronger and more resilient.

This subject is close to my heart and mind because I have had to face — and at times continue to face — my own destructive perfectionist tendencies. But there are ways to counter perfectionism and embrace the optimalist’s approach.

Learn to fail. To remain employable, let alone competitive, we must constantly learn and grow; and to learn and grow, we must fail. Thomas Edison, who registered 1,093 patents, proudly declared that he failed his way to success. He was an exceptional person, but the pattern of his story is common to millions of others who understand that failure is inextricably linked to success. We either learn to fail or we fail to learn.

To get more accustomed to the fear of failure, think of something that you would like to do but have always been reluctant to try for fear of failing. Then go ahead and do it! Audition for a part in a play, try out for a sports team, ask someone out on a date. As you pursue the activity, ask for feedback and help, admit your mistakes, and accept your successes and failures.

Explore your failures. Take 10 or 15 minutes and write about an event or a situation in which you failed. Describe what you did, the thoughts that went through your mind, how you felt about it then and how you feel about it now. What lessons have you learned from the experience? Can you think of other benefits that came about as a result of the failure?

Enjoy the journey. The perfectionist’s obsession with the destination and his inability to enjoy the journey eventually sap his desire and motivation, and he is less likely to put in the effort necessary for success. The strain of sustaining an effort for long periods of time eventually becomes intolerable if the journey is wrapped in unhappiness, and he will want to give up to avoid further pain.

The optimalist is able to enjoy the journey while remaining focused on her destination. While she certainly does not experience an easy ride to success — she struggles, has doubts and experiences pain at times — her overall journey is far more pleasant than the perfectionist’s. She is motivated by the pull of the destination (her goal) and by the pull of the journey (the day-to-day work). She feels both a sense of daily joy and lasting fulfillment.

Use time efficiently. The all-or-nothing approach — the idea that work not done perfectly is not worth doing at all — leads to procrastination and, more generally, to inefficient use of time. To do something perfectly (assuming perfection is even possible) requires extraordinary effort — which may not be justified in the context of the task at hand.

Where appropriate, the optimalist will devote just as much time to a particular task as a perfectionist would. But the optimalist recognizes that not all jobs are equally important, and not all require equal attention. For instance, sealing every O-ring before launching a spacecraft is critical. Fussing over the colors of a chart on an internal memo is not.

The desire for success is part of our nature. And great expectations can indeed lead to great rewards. Yet, to lead a life that is both successful and fulfilling, our standards of success must be realistic, and we must be able to enjoy, and be grateful for, our achievements along the way.

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Tal Ben-Shahar is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. This article is excerpted with permission from The Pursuit of the Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life (McGraw-Hill, 2009).

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