Episode 39 - Perfectionism


Peter: Hey Jen.

Jen: Hey Pete.

Peter: I'm curious - do you identify as a perfectionist?

Jen: No. Do you?

Peter: No. However, recently I've been thinking a lot about perfectionism and whether there are elements of it in some of my work, or whether that's a measure of, a certain measure of quality, and what the difference is between knowing when you've done work that's good enough, versus perfectionism, and being crippled by that, and I think it might be worth unpacking.

Jen: I agree with you, because I have a lot of friends who are perfectionists, so hopefully they'll tune in to hear what you've got to say on the subject. This is The Long and The Short Of It. .

Peter: Okay, so maybe just start with, tell me what comes to mind when you hear the word, or the phrase "perfectionism," or "she's a perfectionist." What does that mean?

Jen: Probably the definition I give you right now is different than maybe the one I would have given you when I was younger, but right now I would say the definition of a perfectionist is someone who has committed to the binary of right and wrong.

Peter: Yes. I mean, I'd like you to say more about it, but I feel like, because we have the same brain, I already know what you're thinking. But please, share with our listeners: what do you mean by that? Say more about that.

Jen: Well, the only way for something to be "perfect" is to have a preconceived notion of what perfect is, making anything that meets that preconceived notion "right," and anything that doesn't, "wrong." And where I find this to be concerning is that perfectionism seems to me to be a commitment to avoid opportunity, serendipity, and the unexpected. Because if you go into something with the mindset that you know what perfect looks like, then you're essentially committing to, "Anything that I don't know cannot be included in what is 'perfect.'"

Peter: Yeah. So you are putting up imaginary or real walls between anyone giving you constructive feedback, between anyone helping you iterate and make something better - that's interesting to me. And so I would, I would agree with your, your definition of perfectionism was better than I could have imagined, which maybe means this episode will be five minutes shorter than I thought it might be. But I, I totally agree that it's this subscription to "the right way." And what is interesting, and what I know to be true, and what you know to be true is, there is no "right way," and that "right" is subjective. And so, perfectionism must therefore also be subjective. So what dawns on me, when I hear clients and people and friends and family talking about "I'm a perfectionist," or "I like things to be perfect" is, you're in pursuit of something that's probably, well, you're in pursuit of something that is definitely unattainable, because Jen's definition of perfect and what that looks like is different to my definition of perfect and what that looks like, and Joe's definition of perfect and what that looks like is different to Mary's definition of perfect and what that looks like. So, how can we ever reach a state of perfectionism when there is no universal perfect?

Jen: What immediately popped into my mind was something I've never thought about before, so how it immediately popped into my mind, I don't know.

Peter: Go there!

Jen: How imperfect, how imperfect - is, there seems to me to be an important distinction between perfectionism and idealism. And I, I do think of myself as an idealist. Like I, I can envision what the ideal outcome might be in a situation, or in myself, which I think leaves room for how to bring in ideas, concepts, people, relationships, things that would make the ideal even more ideal. Whereas, when you establish what is perfect, there's nothing more perfect than perfect.

Peter: Yeah.

Jen: So that feels limiting. So maybe even just the change in language when somebody says, "But it has to be perfect," perhaps just reframing it and saying, "Can you, can you articulate what would be ideal," or, "What do you mean by that, when you say perfect, what do you really mean?"

Peter: I also wonder, just hearing you say that - and maybe this is controversial, but now I'm going to go with something I've never thought about until just now, which is, is perfectionism acting with a fixed mindset, as opposed to -

Jen: Yes.

Peter: - with a growth mindset? Because what I find interesting about that, cause that's my thought too, is yes it is. But I would, I would, I would wager that anyone, most people who consider themselves perfectionist would also consider themselves to have a growth mindset, and to constantly make things better, and to constantly improve and stretch themselves in order to get better, and for their story in order to attain "perfect." But that, to your point earlier, having a definition or an idea of "something has to be perfect" is, that's actually fixed, because you have a destination, or an end goal, or a thing in mind that you will not budge on, especially if and when people give you feedback on what that might look like, or how they might think about it differently. So maybe perfectionism is about a fixed mindset, which feels, perhaps, controversial.

Jen: Can I give a concrete example of this in a way that maybe is a little bizarre and roundabout, but will bring it back home?

Peter: I mean, you don't need my permission. Go.

Jen: There are some things in life that should be perfect. So, this is where the example is coming from: the, outside the building where my studio is located, there is currently scaffolding. It's New York City; there's a lot of scaffolding everywhere. And when you're dealing with scaffolding, you want it to be perfect, because there are, it's New York, hundreds, if not thousands of pedestrians every day walking underneath the scaffolding. It's gotta be perfect, otherwise people are at risk. Well, today I went up to my studio for a nine o'clock meeting, and I came down at eleven o'clock, and the world had changed in front of my building. A car had come up on the curb and knocked out one of the legs of the scaffolding, and the whole structure was collapsing, and there was caution tape and orange cones everywhere, and we had to exit through, like, a secret exit from the building. And in that moment, perfection was not on the table, so they had to rethink, "What is our ideal outcome? Our ideal outcome is no death."

Peter: Yeah.

Jen: "No deaths today in front of this building." So they had to be creative, block off the exit, reroute people through this secret door that I didn't even know existed, in order to make good on the ideal outcome of, "Nobody dies today." If they had simply thrown up their hands and said, "Well now it's not perfect," and I had exited through the front door, maybe we wouldn't be able to have this conversation right now because the scaffolding would've collapsed on my head. So that's sort of like, an example of how the, knowing what the ideal outcome is can help you be creative when you think you want perfect and perfect becomes an impossibility.

Peter: Ooh, I have so many directions I want to take this. So the first is about decision-making and perfectionism, and the way we think about perfectionism is, I think there is a false hope in perfectionism that we can control the outcome. And in the example you just described, things came up, and the outcome was not, you know, in a state where you could control, like, you couldn't have predicted that. You can have an ideal, to your point, of what might be idealistic, and what might be acceptable, but you can't have a definition of "perfect" and then expect to always get to it. So what I think is important is - I'm not explaining this very well - but what I think is important is this notion of a good decision doesn't lead to a good outcome, and a bad decision doesn't lead to a bad outcome, and that detaching yourself from decisions and outcomes is actually really fundamental to creative work and to decision-making. Because otherwise, if you're attached to this perfect outcome, you will forever be stuck. And so when I was lucky enough to be on a Facebook Live with Seth Godin, we talked about this idea of being stuck, and I was kind of, like, trying to give very tactical ways of, "Oh hey, here's how you might get unstuck: maybe you should write some things down and do some journaling." And Seth, in a very Seth way, it was like, "Actually Pete, if you're being stuck, if you are truly stuck, then you're looking for the right answer. And so what you need to do is look for the wrong answer. Being stuck is trying to do the same thing over and over and over again because you're attached to the outcome. You're attached to the thing that you want to attain - that, that version of perfect." And so, what if you unattached yourself from that and instead came up with thirty-five alternatives, or forty-eight terrible ideas that might move your change forward? And that I would bet that in one of those forty-eight, or in one of those thirty-five - and those numbers are totally arbitrary - in one of those there would be an idea, or a notion, or you know, a way to shift the scaffolding that would help you get to ideal but not necessarily get to perfect.

Jen: I love that. And I also love that "shift the scaffolding" now is, like, a phrase that we could use with each other and we would know what we were talking about.

Peter: Yeah. How about we shift the scaffolding here, Jen? That would be good. So another thing, just to throw out there, because I know another topic that we've talked a lot about is hiding, and how we hide. So do you think, and I, I can see you nodding, listeners can't, do you think that perfectionism is a great excuse for people hide?

Jen: My gut answer is "yes," and what I'm looking for within myself is the logic leap. So, in what ways is perfectionism hiding? Well I think it goes, it touches back to this idea of growth mindset, that you are hiding from the best version of yourself if you proclaim you know what it is.

Peter: Mm. You're also, I think, yes, and you're also giving yourself an excuse to not ship work or to not push something forward, because you're constantly iterating, convincing yourself it's not perfect, and it's like, I bet the fear is, you just don't want to share that work cause you're scared of what other people think. Like, I bet that there is a level of fear of how other people will perceive you when you put this work into the world, and so you tell yourself a story that is not perfect. And so we tell ourselves a story that we need to keep refining it to make it even better.

Jen: Yeah. It's reminding me of a recent episode we did on priorities, and you asked, "Well, who is setting your priorities?" And this reminds me of that, where it's like, well who is determining perfect for you? Is that something that you're generating within? In which case, can you stretch yourself to go beyond what you have established as perfect, or is someone else's, or a group of other people's expectations for you creating this perfectionist constraint?

Peter: Mmm, I like that. I think, I mean, something that you know to be true and I know to be true and many people have spoken about is that, and I think this ties in of like, perfectionism is limiting in the sense that most people are capable of far more than they realize. And so if you're determining what perfect looks like, you're probably underestimating yourself. And if you are letting someone else determine what perfect looks like, they're potentially underestimating you too. So it's knowing that, more often than not, I would say the definition of "perfect" is going to be under-representative of what you're capable of, I guess is what I'm trying to say. And, and that is limiting, and that is a place to hide. And then that is a, a way to get - a way to get discouraged because you'll never get there, and it'll never be perfect, and you'll keep beating yourself up because you can't do the thing, or ship the work, or make it of the quality that you think it needs to be. But in actual fact, what you're looking for, I think, is the, the getting the work out into the wild, so to speak. So that, I think about this as, eighty percent and shipped is so much better than ninety-five percent and sitting in on your desktop still for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks.

Jen: Mmm. Can you, can you point to any strategies, I'm trying to think of some as well, that one can implement, or like, quick-fix tools when you feel that perfectionist within start to show itself, what can you say to yourself, or what can you do to move in a different direction?

Peter: Yeah, so the one that I use the most and talk to my clients about is coming back to, "What change do I seek to make?" or, "What's it for?" I think they compliment each other, those questions. So, those two questions, so if I'm catching myself fall into a state of perfectionism, I come back to this idea of, "Well, what change do I seek to make?" or "What's it for? What is this work for?" And then how I think about this is, I pick an arbitrary number like I did earlier, say twenty-eight, and I say, "Okay, what are twenty-eight ways that I could move this change forward?" And I force myself to get out of my own way and write twenty-eight crazy ideas, or thirty-five, or sixty-two, or whatever the number is to get unstuck from this idea of there's one perfect right way. I come up with thirty-seven terrible ways, and usually within those thirty-seven, there's something that I hadn't thought about that actually is possible that actually will help me move the change forward, but isn't something that I thought about if I was stuck in this idea of perfect. So that's a super tactical way. I just grab a notepad and a pen and start writing, basically.

Jen: So this idea comes up a lot with some of the actors I work with, where they're working on a character for an audition, and they're trying to get it "right." And one of the things I always find myself coming back to is this idea that if you have truly done the work, if you have done the work that is required in order to put forward your most realized and inspired version of this character, there is no longer any right or wrong; there's only what is preferred. And this has been a very empowering idea for artists, you know, who are interpreting someone else's work. This idea that, like, the only way I could do something wrong is if I haven't actually done the work to know what I'm talking about. If I know what I'm talking about, if I'm fully investigated, if I'm living and breathing this work, there is no longer right or wrong. I can't set a foot wrong; I can show you the work that I've done, and you either prefer my work, or you prefer someone else's work, and we're both right.

Peter: Mm. So I was recently shared a quote by Elizabeth Gilbert on perfectionism, and I think it is important to just, like, read out. So I'm literally going to read this because I think it's such a good quote on perfectionism. "Perfection" - great start.

Jen: Good job, good job.

Peter: "Perfection is just fear in a fancy mink coat and pearls pretending to be fancy. All it is is fear that you're not enough, that you're not good enough, that you're not enough. And the reason perfectionism is such an insidious version of fear is that it tricks you into thinking it's a virtue. So perfectionism's great, great, awful, vile trick is to tell you that it makes you special when all it's doing is stopping you from having any kind of a life that's rewarding or good or generative or interesting. So, perfectionism is not your friend."

Jen: Ooh, ooh!

Peter: It's a good quote, right?

Jen: That is so good. If I was listening right now, I'd hit that, you know, fifteen-second back button a couple times to listen that over and over again. That's good. The fear part of it is - it's intense. So I said earlier, I'm not a perfectionist, and I probably should follow that up with, "...in many circumstances."

Peter: I agree. I've recently caught myself falling into notions of how I should end - will do things because I know they are quote, "right," unquote, or quote "perfect," unquote. And then I think, maybe a more fair assessment of perfectionism is that there's not, "I'm a perfectionist and I'm not a perfectionist," but there is being aware that perfectionism exists in some form, in some part of your life somewhere, no matter who you are.

Jen: Wow. That is The Long and The Short Of It.