On Perfectionism

As an academic, I am surrounded by perfectionists. Relative to the US average, I may be a perfectionist myself; but relative to other academics I don't look like much of a perfectionist at all. 

Emending the article above by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill to be a little more cogent than it is, the article above blames a rise in perfectionism on the huge financial rewards for being #1 as compared to being #2, or as compared to being #10, #100 or #1000. This is an issue that Robert Frank and Philip Cook discuss in their book The Winner-Take-All Society. 


Whatever the market realities that encourage perfectionism, the psychological toll of going too far in the direction of perfectionism makes it important to put your own level of perfectionism under the microscope to see if it is making your life better or worse.

The description of perfectionism given by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill points to two key elements of perfectionism. They write:

Broadly speaking, perfectionism is an irrational desire for flawlessness, combined with harsh self-criticism.

To make your life better in the fact of a tendency toward perfectionism, the place to start is in toning down the harsh self-criticism. You can worry about the irrational desire for flawlessness later. 

A story true of my life up to a certain point, and perhaps even now of you, gentle reader, is this: Sometime in your teens you figured out how to motivate yourself to get stuff done, like studying for a test, that takes self-discipline. The method was simple: you harshly criticized yourself if you weren't working hard. This worked so well, that still to this day you use harsh self-criticism as a key method of motivating yourself. You are deathly afraid that if you slack up on harsh self-criticism you might become very lazy. So you are afraid to let up on the harsh self-criticism long enough to experiment with any other method of self-motivation. So years of suffering from harsh self-criticism pile up, and your life seems hard. You haven't considered that you have many years of life experience behind you beyond that teen who long ago came up with harsh self-criticism as a method of motivating yourself.

I want to encourage you to put faith in your own ability to come up with another method of motivating yourself that doesn't cost you so much. (On faith, see my post "The Unavoidability of Faith.") If you do, I think you will be greatly rewarded with the happiness that comes from not figuratively whipping yourself all the time. 

Let's turn now to the irrational desire for flawlessness. In relation to any real-world problem, I honestly don't see how it is possible to be flawless. I can't count how many times I have reminded my co-researchers that "Nothing is perfect." I often amplify that by saying we'll be dead in the water in our research if we insist on perfection, because perfection is impossible. 

Where is perfection possible? In a game. If an endeavor is artificially constructed, it may be possible to follow every last rule and do everything as well as it can possibly be done. Even stepping away from the extreme of perfection, I think people feel they approach nearer to perfection in artificial pursuits than they do in trying to solve or mitigate what I am calling "real-world problems": problems like poverty, injustice and disease, or smaller but ever-so-real-world problems such as traffic, software glitches or petty interpersonal annoyances. The more you address problems that are us against the universe rather than you versus other competitors in a game, the less temptation you will have toward perfectionism. 

The trouble with competitive games, in particular, is that they get lots of people trying to do the same thing and win one of the very limited number of prizes. The more you can instead, find a unique or at least a less-traveled way of contributing to society, the easier it will be for you to feel successful even if other people are successful, too. This road has its own difficulties (see "Believe in Yourself"), but it can ultimately be very satisfying. 

Ultimately, I don't know all that well how to treat the malady of perfectionism, since I only had to deal with a mild case of it myself. But I see many around me suffering from it. So I know that finding good approaches to reducing the pain and suffering that come from perfectionism is important. I'd be glad for any insights you can provide that I can share.  

In other posts, I have two categories of advice for economists in relation to their work.

1. More personal advice:

2. Advice for doing good for the world: