Voltaire once wrote, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” This advice served him well over the course of his life — not being a slave to perfection enabled him to write more than 2,000 books and pamphlets and become one of the most celebrated thinkers of the Enlightenment. Regrettably, few look to his example today. Perfectionism is on the rise, and with it has come a host of related problems.
Perfectionists, almost by definition, never truly attain their goals. Not only do they strive for impossibly optimal outcomes, but they construe anything less than ideal as a failure. Because they constantly miss the targets they compulsively place just out of reach, perfectionists have high levels of stress and anxiety, which ironically make it more difficult for them to achieve their goals. What’s more, relentless pursuit of perfection can actually make you physically unwell: Perfectionists tend to have a higher risk of mortality than their less obsessive peers.
A better way forward
Perfectionism is clearly not the ideal approach to pursuing your goals. Instead, we should focus on developing a more resilient, flexible approach. As an actor, writer, and woodworker, Nick Offerman has had plenty of experience in learning to manage his mindset when pursuing excellency, whether that’s in providing entertainment or crafting a walnut coffee table.
In his Big Think+ lesson, Nick Offerman describes his personal philosophy in this regard: “It’s not to ever approach any level of perfection,” he says. “You go in knowing that as human beings we never can achieve perfection… I gave up on perfection a long time ago and now I’m just chasing halfway decent.”
When working toward a goal, no matter how skillful you are, chance can throw a curveball your way. Or, maybe your chosen field simply requires a stroke of good luck before you can get ahead. Offerman, for example, spent many years working as an actor before he got his big break on Parks and Recreation at the age of 39. In these cases, pursuing perfectionism will prevent you from cultivating the kind of resilience necessary to withstand challenges and hold out for long enough to see your goals realized.
Pursuing betterment rather than perfection
Perfectionists connect their self-worth with the quality of their product. When they produce an imperfect product, it can feel like they’ve lost a part of themselves. This paralyzes perfectionists, resulting in a fear of failure that can make it difficult for them to get started on a project. They often have an all-or-nothing attitude about things as well, so when they encounter the first wrinkle in a project, many perfectionists will scrap the whole thing, perceiving it as “ruined.” But real work takes resilience to get through, an ability to weather any hiccups or hurdles.
For Offerman, true success comes about as a result of the pursuit of betterment, rather than perfectionism. Striving for betterment or for excellence differs from perfectionism in significant ways. It does not assume that perfect is attainable. In fact, the “product” is often not the point of such striving in well-adapted individuals; the striving itself is an enjoyable process that brings satisfaction. Offerman describes an excellent Litmus test to see whether you’re pursuing betterment rather than perfection — whatever you do, see if you’re making mistakes or not. “Because if you make mistakes,” says Offerman, “it means you’re out there trying. It means you’re taking a swing at achieving something. And if you’re not making mistakes it means you’ve given up.”