Do You Suffer from Pernicious Perfectionism?

Robert Terson

Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. On a positive note, it can push you to do your best work. I did about 30 drafts of Selling Fearlessly before I was satisfied with it. But there’s a pernicious negative side, as well: you can become so consumed with being perfect that nothing you create, nothing you produce, is ever good enough. Visualize a writer, for example, continuously tossing sheets of paper into her wastebasket, ready to tear her hair out because she’s so dissatisfied with what she’s “written.” In some cases, perfectionism becomes the excuse for not even beginning a project. What’s the point! Why bother? It’s never going to be as good as it “needs” to be. Screw it! I’ll just go take a nap and feel sorry for myself.

Like so many of you, I always was hardest on myself. In my younger years I suffered from the evils of perfectionism to the point of sometimes being immobilized, especially creatively. When your standard for yourself is nothing less than perfect, you set yourself up for self-hatred, because…if you’re human (you are human, aren’t you?), it’s an impossible standard. When you suffer from perfectionism, there can be no forgiveness in you for yourself—for all those “stupid,” “idiotic,” “crushing” blunders you make. Damn, how could I have done something so crazy? you wonder. You want to jump off a cliff, you’re so pissed off at yourself. You want to run away and hide from the world, bury yourself in your depression. There’s just no way you can keep at this, because it’s never going to be good enough. Surrender looks so enticing, so quiet and peaceful. Perhaps you can find a bear cave and hibernate for a year or two.

Any writer who has written a book will tell you, it’s a painstaking process, a long, arduous journey from the first draft to the final product. It requires the patience of Job. But if the writer can’t get past the initial draft because “it isn’t good enough,” she’s not going to stick with it long enough to discover the real book that’s hidden in there somewhere.

So let me ask you: Is there a great goal you want to pursue but you can’t seem to get started? Are you immobilized because…if you can’t make it perfect, it’s not worth bothering with? If so, pay heed to the following quotations:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird; Some Instructions on Writing and Life


“No one is perfect…that’s why pencils have erasers.”

Author Unknown


“A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.”

John Henry Newman


“To escape criticism – do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”

Elbert Hubbard


“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”

Salvador Dali


“Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”

Vince Lombardi


“Congratulations! You’re not perfect! It’s ridiculous to want to be perfect anyway. But then, everybody’s ridiculous sometimes, except perfect people. You know what perfect is? Perfect is not eating or drinking or talking or moving a muscle or making even the teensiest mistake. Perfect is never doing anything wrong – which means never doing anything at all. Perfect is boring! So you’re not perfect! Wonderful! Have fun! Eat things that give you bad breath! Trip over your own shoelaces! Laugh! Let somebody else laugh at you! Perfect people never do any of those things. All they do is sit around and sip weak tea and think about how perfect they are. But they’re really not one-hundred-percent perfect anyway. You should see them when they get the hiccups! Phooey! Who needs ’em? You can drink pickle juice and imitate gorillas and do silly dances and sing stupid songs and wear funny hats and be as imperfect as you please and still be a good person. Good people are hard to find nowadays. And they’re a lot more fun than perfect people any day of the week.”

Stephen Manes, Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days!


“A good garden may have some weeds.”

Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732


“The imperfections of a man, his frailties, his faults, are just as important as his virtues. You can’t separate them. They’re wedded.”

Henry Miller


“Once you accept the fact that you’re not perfect, then you develop some confidence.”

Rosalynn Carter


“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”

Confucius, Analects


Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough – that we should try again.

Julia Cameron


Get your free Preview of Selling Fearlessly’s Chapter 1 here.