Perfectionism used to be a good thing. Or, at least, it used to be seen to be a good thing. It was the answer you were supposed to give in an interview when asked about your flaws – “Oh, I suppose I’m a perfectionist” – that is, your only flaw is that you’re too perfect. Classic humble brag. It was maybe a little bit annoying, being so pedantic, but the amazing work you produced made up for it. Personally I used to pride myself on being a perfectionist: I had incredibly high standards and would only accept the best work of myself and of others, I had to be good at everything, I couldn’t let something go if it was half-arsed.
I don’t think perfectionism is such a good thing after all. It’s as bad as, and I guess related to, the epidemic of “busy”. Constant activity to make ourselves feel like we’re achieving something: endlessly checking our emails because we’re oh so important that it simply can’t wait even a couple of hours; sighing in exasperation when we lose valuable minutes standing in a queue somewhere; getting impatient in the morning traffic as if our appointment is the only one that matters out of all of these people who are on their way somewhere. We work late into the night, at weekends and during our holidays because of course the company would collapse without us and there’s simply no one we can trust to cover for us.
At work, many of us will have come across the Pareto principle, or 80:20 – 20% of your projects will likely be driving 80% of your results, so to be most effective we should focus on doing that 20% really well and deprioritising or delegating the rest. Sounds great in theory, although I think we need to make a conscious effort to review those priorities on a regular basis to avoid slipping into our old ways and trying to do anything and everything again. And why not apply the same principle to our personal lives? What are the things on our to-do lists that will really make a difference in our lives, to our personal satisfaction, to our relationships with our families, to our overall well being? Are there things that we can deprioritise, that are less important at this moment in time for whatever reason? Are there some things that we can cross off our list altogether?
But of course it’s risky giving up on being perfect. Perfectionism is our armour, it’s our shield against the world. We have to give off this impression of being perfect, being in control: we’re the perfect parents who juggle perfect careers with a perfect family life, we cook perfect meals, we get by perfectly on little sleep and everything is just perfect, thank you! If we let our guard down and let some of those cracks show, then… well, then, what? We reveal ourselves to be imperfect… and then?
I’ve fallen a little bit in love with the idea of “being authentic” these past few months. Being authentic for me is about letting go of what people think, letting go of “supposed to”, letting go of being cool and in control. Being authentic means being open, honest, vulnerable. It means being unapologetically goofy and maybe a little bit crazy sometimes (- aren’t we all?). It’s incredibly liberating and, in fact, empowering to accept that life is messy and that’s okay.
Sometimes we’re tired. We may forget to send a birthday card. We prefer to have a lie in instead of getting up to do yoga at 5am. We don’t get a PB every time we run, or have perfectly shaved legs every day, or stick to our diets 100% of the time. Maybe our hairline is receding or we have a bit of a muffin top or we get freckles in the sun. Maybe we like Taylor Swift.
Embrace the madness. Embrace the imperfection. Make like Elsa and let it go.
“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight – and never stop fighting.”
– E. E. Cummings*