- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

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

A common piece of advice is that perfectionism is bad. At least, that’s what you’d believe if you read an online [1] article [2] on the topic [3].

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 [4]. 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 [5], 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 [6] 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 [7]. 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 [8] 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 [9]. 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 [10], 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.