Perfectionism Isn’t Bad (In the Long-Term)

The long road to perfection...

A common piece of advice is that perfectionism is bad. At least, that’s what you’d believe if you read an online article on the topic.

However, I feel the situation is more complex. Certainly some perfectionism is bad–it causes us to procrastinate, leave projects unfinished and become mired in self-criticism.

But, in some ways perfectionism is necessary. Stopping at “good enough” is an easy way to ensure you’ll never accomplish anything remarkable.

Good Perfectionism, Bad Perfectionism

There are two types of perfectionism:

  1. Short-term perfectionism on a particular project, task or goal.
  2. Long-term perfectionism on projects, tasks and goals, in general.

When most people rally against the threat of perfectionism, they are really attacking short-term perfectionism. This is the crippling form that says you must perfect something before you can finish.

Short-term perfectionism occurs when you spend weeks unemployed, polishing your resume without mailing it to any potential employers. Or spending eighteen months on a new Web 2.0 platform without releasing anything to see if there is actually a market. Or devoting half your exam time to finishing your first essay response–when you need to complete another five.

Short-term perfectionism is almost certainly bad. If these perfectionists just mailed their resumes, released earlier builds or completed question one, they would waste less time and accomplish more.

But just as short-term perfectionism is bad, long-term perfectionism can be crucial.

Good Enough for Now, Never Good Enough Forever

A long-term perfectionist isn’t held back by releasing. In fact, she probably finishes aggressively since finishing allows her to get feedback. Instead, she channels her perfectionism into an attitude that good enough is never a permanent state.

This breed of perfectionist embodies the attitude I believe is necessary to become insanely good at something. Because their drive to improve extends far beyond what is “good enough”, as declared by society, they often become a lot better than good enough.

Example #1: Perfectionist Bloggers

Ramit Sethi, is one of my favorite personal finance bloggers on the internet. But most people wouldn’t guess that he spends upwards of 15-17 hours writing an article.

Tim Ferriss, speaks here about the lengths he goes to in optimizing his webpage. He tracks data ruthlessly, analyzing what are the most popular posts, what are the best days to publish and split tests his website layout over geography to reveal cultural differences in his readership.

I recently had a conversation with Cal Newport. Even though he isn’t a full-time blogger (being an author and MIT postdoc take most of his time) he still uses embodies my view of the long-term perfectionist. Cal uses each article as a chance to deliberately practice specific writing techniques he has identified beforehand.

All these three people have gone well beyond “good enough”. They’ve probably gone beyond “great enough” as well, but that’s a different story. There lesson is twofold:

  1. They publish regularly and frequently (so they are definitely not short-term perfectionists)
  2. Even after success, they remain dedicated to the unending path of mastery.

Example #2: Being Funny is Hard Work

Jerry Seinfeld delivers a hilarious acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement in comedy. (Click here if the player won’t load)

Midway through the speech he comments:

“The truth is, the comedians should be the only ones getting awards. We’re the only ones that actually have to think of something original. Something funny, or interesting.

Do you know how hard that is? Do you know how hard it was to write what I am saying to you right now? It was really hard. This took a long time.

Chances are, the joke you hear a successful stand-up say has been told for live audiences hundreds of times beforehand. Each repetition perfects the timing, word-choice, delivery and body language making even a seemingly effortless off-the-cuff remark a perfected product.

The lesson of comedians like Seinfeld is twofold again. They get up and practice frequently in-front of live audiences, so there is no short-term perfectionism crippling their progress. But also, many of them endlessly refine their approach so that they can anticipate every facet of an audiences reaction before a joke is told.

My Personal Example

Recently I launched a new learning tactics subscription. On the short-term I wasn’t a perfectionist. The program didn’t have a forum, I did the design for all the content myself and I didn’t even use a website–all the content was delivered via email. Instead of delaying, I launched with less to make sure there was actually a demand for the concept.

However, once I did confirm there was a demand, my long-term desire for perfection kicked in. I’m now putting in many hours to add the features initially missing from the program. I’ve also started taking surveys and maintaining spreadsheets to help test and improve the results people can see within the program.

I definitely don’t embody the split between long and short-term perfectionism ideally. But, it has been an attitude I’ve worked to add into the way I approach life.

There is No “Good Enough”…

…in the big picture, at least. And if the desire to finish isn’t coupled with a drive to go beyond “good enough” you probably won’t get either good or enough.

  • Mark

    This is an interesting way of looking at perfectionism. However, I think that the benefits of long-term perfectionism depend very much on what it is you are trying to perfect. It is important to perfect the right things, or we are just wasting our time. Still, I think the distinction between short-term and long-term perfectionism is a helpful one.

    As far as short-term perfectionism is concerned, I recently wrote a blog post that talks about my own struggles with it and how I’m trying to deal with it.

    Perfecting the Art of Being Imperfect

  • RJ Weiss

    Never thought about separating perfectionism into two-parts.

    As your example with the Tim and Ramit, (along with you) every time a post of theirs comes through my RSS Feed I make sure I read it.

    There are a few blogs that post very frequently, that I find myself rarely reading anymore because I know I’m not getting perfection every time.

    Now, I’m thinking about changing my posting strategy. 🙂

  • Big Recovery

    Hi Scott! This is the point that being pleased with every result and feeding a huge desire to awesome meets. Very good article.

    The thing I can add is: In order to discover our role in life, we have to follow the natural path given to us through our personal characteristics and desires-goals. As we journey throughout this discovery, we have to accept the past as destiny and future as willpower for we can’t change the past; but sure we can try to change the future.

    As we try to change things in our lives, we have to be pleased with every success GAINED and try to focus on the ultimate desires we have. This is how short-term perfectionism (accept the results from your best efforts) meets with long-term perfectionism (try to accomplish the real goals you always dream).

    This way one can please his very own Creator -God- and will be able to follow his aims as a prayer.

  • Stefan |

    When I think about what I do, I don’t post perfection all the time. I write posts sometimes within an hour, a little proofreading and hit publish. But I don’t consider this as a bad thing, because the long-haul will show what matters, posting consistently or posting quality every once in a while.

    Tim Ferriss is an interesting case, the things he did for improving his website is insane. Love it.

  • Tassia

    It’s a matter of semantics, but for me the word ‘perfect’ and ‘perfection’ imply a Platonistic view of the world that I don’t adhere to.

    I much prefer to strive for excellence.

    It may sound trite, but that difference in mental framing allows me a greater freedom in not only how I conceive of a project, but in how I manifest that project.

  • Scott Young


    I think we probably agree in principle, just our word choice differs. Excellence could be another way to describe it.

    My point was that the commonly touted advice to avoid perfectionism, can backfire if it results in the too-common “it’s good enough” approach to long-term skill development, which usually leads to mediocrity.


  • Jay Johnson

    Implement simple solutions, but perfect ones.

    You’ve captured the essence of continuous improvement.

    Great job!

  • MArty

    In entrepreneurship it’s all about releasing early and releasing often. That means sacrificing short term perfectionism for feedback and iterating to get to long term perfection. Speed is key in startups. Alot of that applies to life as well.

  • Dan @ Anxiety Support Network

    Tassia – good point about excellence. And heck, no matter how hard we try, nothing will ever be perfect, but there is something to be said for always striving to make things better, and the most realistic outcome is excellence. It’s hard to really describe what excellence is or how it looks, but it seems that most people realize excellence when they see it.

    I try to make everything I do be “excellent,” as I understand it. It is my belief that anything done in an “excellent” fashion is something that prospers and brings much good into the world – for others and ourselves. Achieving it and knowing when we have it, on the other hand, can be tricky.

  • Craig Thomas

    Hmm good point. I’m quite perfectionist, both short-term and long-term. These days I tend to convert it more long-term through organisation. Nice to know it isn’t as bad :p

  • Travis

    Right on the money as usual, Scott.

    Many of us, myself included, have a tendency to begin with short-term perfectionism before getting to long-term perfectionism. For instance, I’ve poured hours- a lot of hours- into getting my initial blog posts to a satisfactory level of quality. The result has is that it’s been difficult to release regular content. I’d say it’s time I relaxed a bit and put more attention into aggressively getting my posts completed and published!

    Patience is clearly a key factor here. You need to have a patient faith in your own persistence to trust that even if you don’t get quite what you want this time around, you’ll apply a Cal Newport-esque review and evaluation of your work that over time will allow you to achieve excellence.

    Sometimes you just have to pick your nose up from the grindstone and pay more attention to where you’re going than on where you are!

  • Heather

    I’m probably somewhere in the middle with the type of my perfectionism… Can’t help it really lol, will have to work on converting it to longer term instead.

    Anyway, I wanted to award you the Sunshine Award – details are over at my blog.

  • Keana Okuda

    This article has come to me at the perfect time in my life! It’s often been the case that my desire for short-term perfection has crippled my progress. Though it has occurred to me to diligently move along, it’s sometimes necessary for another person to tell you it’s okay to do so. Accepting that allowing something to be “good enough” right now doesn’t mean you can’t be excellent in the long run is a relief. Thanks for sharing.

  • P Taylor

    Hi Scott,

    I must say this article has hit the target with me.

    I say this because I had to put up with an unclear meaning of the nagging words from my parents when I was growing up of “Good enough is near enough…”

    Thank you for helping me to relate to what those words actually mean and what I could do something with what I now understand about it.


  • Kartika Angkawijaya

    Stunned by your article, you give me new way to see perfectionism. I never think like like that before, as I always struggling not to be too perfect on something since it takes time to get the result I want.
    You inspire me.
    Thanks a lot 🙂

  • Farouk

    that’s a creative way for looking at perfectionism, i am one of the people who always said that perfectionism is bad in my articles but after reading that article i can see perfectionism in a different light

  • Patty

    This is a really good article. This really makes me want to change my approach to things.

    I can already feel that there is much I can accomplish if I practice “long term perfectionism”. I’m more than inspired. I want to act on it already.

  • Nelia

    While I appreciate the your distinction between short-term and long-term perfection, what I respect is your recognition that any tool can be used for evil or good.

    Hi, my name is Nelia. I’m a persistent perfectionist. And I’m proud of it.

  • Jeff

    My way of putting it – Perfection does not exist, there is always either a way to improve (in efficiency and effectiveness), or a better alternative method.

  • Olle Linge

    Interesting, as usual, but this time the timing is excellent as well. I posted an article about my opinion about the backside of perfectionism just a few days before you published this one. Saying that there is a backside obviously implies that there are positive aspects as well and I think you manage to bring them forward clearly. Good!

    The problem lies in identifying when it’s good to strive for perfection and when it isn’t. I’m sure that many people are doing a lot more than they should if they want to make faster progress or reach higher levels. I bring up to exceptions, but there are of course many more: activities where basics are extremely important (gymnastics) and any skill which you’ve already developed to a very high level (though this should be obvious).

    I’ve always been a perfectionist myself and it’s only recently I’ve begun to question this approach, mostly when it comes to language learning, which is a very good example of when perfectionism is usually a very bad idea. I’ve written more about it here if anyone should be interested!

  • Wendy (Give Love Create Happin

    Going back reading some older posts when I have time here and there because I enjoy hearing your view, and appreciate how you explain your thinking because it gets me thinking. I have struggled with short term perfectionism in the past and still do from time to time. It is easier now with the ability to recognize when I am doing it, which helps me to stop. Now I distinguish types of perfectionism in very simple terms. Bad perfectionism is the kind that gets in the way of my happiness, and ability to live in the moment. Good perfectionism helps motivate my drive to learn and grow in a way that increases happiness. Very simple but very true for me.

  • This is a great & detailed post! I really identified with your balanced perspective of why it’s so bad yet why it’s also so good. Thanks for sharing!

  • Daisy | Simple Not Stressful

    This is a great & detailed post! I really identified with your balanced perspective of why it’s so bad yet why it’s also so good. Thanks for sharing!