Act Smart! Perfectionism vs. Striving

A coda to the “attention” series, wherein we describe using the credo “Always be AWESOME” as a useful guide, not a self-bludgeoning device. And offer helpful tips for doing so!

Catch up on the series: Part 1, overall principles; Part 2, information = useful; Part 3, support = useful; Part 4: entertainment = useful; Part 5: Be specific!; Part 6: Be nice!

I was feeling pretty good about wrapping up what I thought was a modestly useful series of articles on gaining attention without irking people in the process when I the following reader email came in, bringing me quickly back to Earth:

As usual I really enjoyed your series of articles about getting attention. I was wondering if you could in the future speak about finding the balance between “Always be AWESOME” and “Take imperfect action.”

I am constantly struggling with what can be a debilitating case of perfectionism. I strive to be awesome at all times but it sometimes stops me from just doing something and learning and doing it better next time.

Thanks for your work,

V.

No, V.—thank you for pointing out an important, heretofore missing aspect of the whole “Always be AWESOME” framework for promoting yourself.

There’s a reason I’d not discussed the problem of perfectionism until now: I’m a lifelong sufferer of the disease myself. We could debate the origins at length: Did is spring from a lack of love and approval at some critical youthful phase of development? Is it a chemical imbalance, or maybe the persnickety Virgo thing?

Frankly, I’m inclined to answer “Yes!”, but the source of any personality-driven roadblock is moot for our purposes (although I encourage you to read up on it if that will help, or to discuss it with a trained mental health-care professional). We’re looking for ways to deal with the problem now—for a few practical tools and just enough illumination to make them usable.

First, what I know about perfectionism from my own struggles is this: it makes for a wonderful philosophical concept and a horrible day-to-day template. Theoretically, something can be perfect—a work of art, a piece of writing, a performance. But in reality? There’s always room for improvement. Pick the most “perfect” thing you ever made, said, or did—and if you pick at it long enough, or long enough after the fact, you can pick on something about it.

On the surface, “Always be AWESOME” looks like a call to be perfect—a directive, an imperative, i.e. “(You must) always be AWESOME.”

What it’s intended to be be is a modus operandi—a guide for making it simpler to choose the best action in an increasingly complex and fast-paced world. It’s the highly abbreviated summation of a set of rules—to be useful, to be specific, and to be nice—that keep you on track when life gets murky or confusing. It’s the possibly-oversimplified motto there to serve as a suggestion, not a commandment which, if you don’t follow it to the letter, will deny you entrance into the kingdom of awesomeness.

I’m being a little flip here, but those slightly more famous commandments do offer a reasonable analogy. If more people who professed to believe in those 10 famous rules that Charlton Heston brought down from the back lot of Paramount actually followed through on them, the world would clearly be a better place. But even the truest hearts covet from time to time, and don’t get me started on the false witnessing going on right and left. So, commandments or Golden Rule or what have you: these are standards, not destinations.

But enough with theory! Let’s move on to practical tips-‘n’-tricks for dealing with perfectionism. Because if personal experience bears out, there’s nothing perfectionists like more than tips-‘n’-tricks.

1. Move. Literally.

As V. points out, perfectionism often stops you from moving forward. I find that when I’m giving in to perfectionism, I sit for too long. Getting up and physically moving my body can break the spell, allowing me enough room to assess what’s going on, and whether I’m being reasonable in my expectations for what I’m working on. A side benefit is when I do move, I’ll not only regain perspective, but my brain comes up with solutions that actually improve the thing I’m working on. When you catch yourself grinding away, take a walk.

2. Give yourself deadlines.

There is a strong correlation between perfectionism and procrastination. Anyone who’s ever watched Hoarders can see one outward manifestation of this unhappy combo spiraling out of control. Do you want that going on in your brain? You do not! Where deadlines are not handed to you, create them for yourself: book the theater; commit to the class; sign up for the volunteer slot. The threats of disappointing someone and humiliating yourself can be strong motivators. For me, so can money. Put it where your mouth is and watch things magically get done.

3. Get more “do-ers” in your life.

You always want to play tennis with a better player, metaphorically speaking. If you surround yourself with people who “ship,” you’re more likely to start doing it yourself. Seek out mentors and peers who accomplish a lot, rather than smart, fancy-talkers who are going to someday. Immerse yourself in the literature of “shipping”: the blogs of Seth GodinDerek Sivers, and Chris Guillebeau, for starters; Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and Do the Work; Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.

Some additional good food for thought on perfectionism:

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