When Near Enough is Good Enough
One of my most vivid memories as a kid was the day I received my trial HSC results for English. I sat there in eager anticipation, somewhat confident, while the papers were handed back. I’d read the novel, done the study, learnt the quotes and written what I thought was a good essay.
My mark was well below what I’d expected, coming in at 56 per cent. I asked my teacher what it took to get the perfect score? His reply was simple: “There’s no such thing, no one can write the perfect essay.” I was confused. Surely it was possible to write the perfect paper; I just had to try harder, right? On reflection, I can see he was right. No matter how hard I tried, it was always going to be an elusive construct.
Perfectionism is very much interconnected with one’s desire to achieve. If we are achieving then surely we are doing better, doing something worthwhile, proving our worth. While this attitude is at the core of Western culture and has overtones of the Protestant work ethic it can work against us. There is nothing wrong with working hard, but it becomes a slippery slope when we start to see our worth as a human being proportional to what one has achieved in life. It is this very slope that, if left unchecked, can lead one to feelings of anxiety and depression.
Let’s put it to the test. Say you have a school reunion coming up, how are you feeling? Nervous, excited perhaps? If you’re the type who feels that worth equals achievement then you might be feeling apprehensive, even anxious. What if you started worrying that your old classmates might have achieved more, does that mean you’re a failure? The slippery slope may turn into an avalanche here.
The title of Mark Manson’s, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, says it all. To be perfect is counterintuitive and, according to Professor of Psychiatry Dr David D. Burns, is in fact “self-defeating and grossly inaccurate” – easy for them to say when they have both published books that have sold millions, but their point is clear.
If you’re the type who craves perfection then you are doomed to fail. Why? Well you could always have done better. You could have pushed harder at the gym, been more focussed during that job interview, you may have had more success on that date had you dressed better. It’s like a black hole; the more you try to be perfect, the less likely you are to get there, as ‘perfectionism’ is elusive and hard to quantify.
What does this actually mean? Instead of striving for perfection and whipping yourself into a frenzy and feeling shitty because you haven’t cleared the bar, why not try lowering the bar? There’s nothing wrong with achievement, but if you are feeling excessively driven to produce at the expense of other things or people that may offer you satisfaction and enjoyment, the simple act of lowering your expectations may come as a huge relief. Dr Burns’ big question is, “Would you still respect yourself if you experienced a substantial failure?” Again, it depends how high the bar is.
Instead of striving for perfection, may I be so bold as to suggest that you dare to be average. Try it, take the challenge and see how you feel. We already know that the harder you strive for perfection the more disappointed you will be, so start low. If you like soft sand running, run as far as you can on the first day, don’t set a goal, then, on the next day, do one lap less, and one lap less again the day after. The effect here is that you can always accomplish your goal and feel good about it. Once you feel good you can swing it the other way and start building the laps up. Before you know it you will have passed that point on day one and keep building laps. You will never feel frustrated or disappointed in how far you have run.
Perfectionism is a concept that doesn’t fit reality and is a guaranteed loss. Lower the bar and you’ll never be disappointed, just ask my English teacher.
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