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Don’t let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

When I was around six or seven years old, I accidentally killed a duckling that my best friend’s parents had given her for Easter. The little creature was running around the house, and I hadn’t noticed it behind me until I stepped backward and heard a crunch.

Even though my friend and her parents didn’t blame me and said nothing to make me feel bad, the fact remained that a duck was dead because I hadn’t been paying attention. Mortified and inconsolable, I ran home, got into bed, pulled the covers over my head, and tried to process what had just happened…but I couldn’t, because I was a child. All I remember was that It was so painful, I simply passed out.

Forty years later I was sitting in my shrink’s office discussing the topic of perfection. “I can never be perfect because I have a black mark on my soul,” I sobbed. “Tell me what you mean by that,” he asked ever so gently. “I killed my best friend’s duckling!”

Long-buried feelings started to bubble up as I shut my eyes and recounted the incident. I was right back there…reexperiencing the excruciating pain I had felt—and blocked out-- all those years back. When I opened my eyes, I saw tears running down his face. As I came back to reality, we talked about how I had never even realized that I altered my behavior over the years because of this experience. And that no matter how much I strove for perfection, I could never attain it because I had taken a life.

Between reliving that trauma and the profound compassion of my shrink, I was eventually able to free myself from the endless pursuit of perfection.

So why am I sharing this deeply personal experience?

Well, although your reasons for pursuing perfection are most likely different from mine, it is something, as humans, we all get caught up in.

“We get sucked into perfection for one very simple reason: We believe perfection will protect us. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame,” writes professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host, Brené Brown in Want to be happy? Stop Trying to be Perfect for

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it's a shield. Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it's the thing that's really preventing us from being seen and taking flight.”

In her piece, Perfect is the enemy of the good: 4 ways to thrive in ambiguity, for BetterUp, author Allaya Cooks-Campbell tells us, “Perfectionist tendencies are a slippery slope to all-or-nothing thinking, which can have you completely throw in the towel when you feel like you can’t get something right, and identifies signs that perfectionism may be getting in the way of your progress:

Signs that perfectionism is getting in the way

  1. You never feel satisfied or happy with your work

  2. You constantly compare yourself to others

  3. You often procrastinate tasks, even small ones

  4. You feel attached to your identity as a perfectionist, so you feel threatened when work isn’t “perfect”

  5. People close to you are frustrated with your drive for perfectionism

  6. You feel paralyzed by the choices and decisions you have to make in your work

  7. You avoid sharing your work with others

  8. You secretly (or not so secretly) believe “perfect” is the right answer — and are bothered by others’ willingness to compromise

  9. You struggle to articulate your expectations but often feel you or others fall short

  10. Your pursuit of perfection is causing you anxiety or depression

Cooks-Campbell also offers up strategies to help unlearn these tendencies and keep moving forward, so well worth a read if any of this resonates.

With that, I’ll leave you with these words of wisdom from Brene Brown, who has a gift for putting things into perspective…perfectly:

“I remind myself, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” (Cribbed from Voltaire.) A twenty-minute walk that I do is better than a four-mile run that I don’t do. The imperfect book that gets published is better than the perfect book that never leaves my computer. The dinner party of take-out Chinese food is better than the elegant dinner that I never host.” –– Brené Brown

1 Comment

I'm reminded of three piano students I had, all from the same family:

The youngest sister had not an ounce of drive for perfection, thought everything was funny, and learned little. The middle child, a boy, was talented, got very upset whenever he made any mistake, learned a lot, and soon quit in frustration. The eldest girl was good enough, made mistakes, never got mad at herself, stuck with it for years, and learned to play piano.

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