I’m Breaking up with Perfection

Perfection vs. Failure

by Angela Noel

February 8, 2018

Two words drive me crazy. The first is perfection. I don’t believe perfection exists. I happen to like plenty of things that don’t exist, fairies for example. Or Santa, he’s a pretty jolly (not real) man. But the myth of achieving perfection causes real problems at work and at home. And that makes me mad. Santa never made me mad. Fairies are equally blameless.  So, perfection is bad.

The second word that gets my dander up is failure. The necessity of failure as a mechanism for knowledge makes it beautiful. But FAIL has a nasty reputation. Failure is as much a myth as perfection, but we don’t often see it that way. Sure, things don’t go as planned. Consequences for not meeting expectations exist, and should. The WORD isn’t the problem. The problem is the way we make it about the PERSON being a bad or ineffective human being, rather than about particular action that didn’t produce the desired result.

Our culture says one is bad, the other is good.

Maddening.

But I want to change that. And the reason why is simple: I cannot be perfect. I cannot not fail. Here’s a couple of recent examples:

At home: I left the garage door open as I rushed to make a yoga class.

At work: I revised a presentation so many times I had to stop working on it for a few days before I ripped it up and threw it out the window.

Now, I’m not saying I don’t work hard. I’m not saying I’ll ever stop CARING. I’m simply saying, I believe putting less pressure on myself to get it right the first time and focusing on making it better EACH time produces better results.

After all, I should remember that nearly every great thing in history was preceded by a whole bunch of failures. For example, we all know it took lots and lots of attempts for Edison to invent the lightbulb. And it took Unilever hundreds of tweaks on the original design to develop a nozzle that sprays liquid laundry soap in precisely the right way to produce powdered detergent, as explained by economics writer Tim Harford in his excellent TED talk on Trial, error and the God complex. With no shortage of examples to cling to, why is it still so hard to give up on trapping the perfection-unicorn?

Laugh at Perfection

Seth Godin, in his book Lynchpin, talks about the challenge of perfection and failure a great deal. He shares a manifesto written in 2009 by inventor and entrepreneur Bre Pettis and his collaborator, Kio Stark. In Godin’s book and Pettis’ manifesto, perfection is the enemy of done. “Laugh at perfection,” Pettis writes. “It’s boring and keeps you from being done.” The Unilever nozzle and the lightbulb both did what they were supposed to do. But perfect? What does that even mean? A writer can write a novel (or a blog post) and be without grammatical or stylistic flaw, but is it perfect? No writer will tell you so.

The cult of done. Laugh at Perfection.
A rendition of Pettis and Kio Stark’s manifesto by Joshua Rothhaas.
Be Perfect at Failing Beautifully

I don’t have the answer as to why it’s so hard to give up striving for perfection. Maybe it’s cultural, or psychological, or both. But I do know it only hurts me and those I love most when I try so hard and get utterly bent out of shape about it when I fail to arrive at “perfect.” I’d like to change that.

Whether building a nozzle, inventing a new technology, or making art, fear of failure and the cult of perfection get in the way of creating great and useful things. Clearly, these people; Edison, the good folks at Unilever, Pettis, and Godin, knew how to fail successfully. Maybe I should love failure as I love my child, my pet, my spouse. It could be my best friend.

Be perfect at failing beautifully. Now that’s a phrase I could get behind.

Your turn: How do you feel about perfection and failure? When was the last time you embraced failure as a friend?

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Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

46 thoughts on “I’m Breaking up with Perfection”

  1. I saw someone reframe the word failure to “opportunity”, which I think is great as these are all chances for us to learn. I have strong tendencies towards perfectionism. I remember during the first year of my doctorate I’d not submit an essay until I’d checked it dozens and dozens of times. Everything thing had to be in its place. Then, in the second year, I told myself that once an essay was written I would check it through ONCE and then submit it. The temptation to keep checking was huge but I avoided checking and submitted. I got the marks required in all my essays, some higher than from the first year when I’d obsessively checked them! It’s a daily thing for me of stepping away from perfectionism and not attaching so much importance to failure. And what I perceived as failure wouldn’t be so for someone else. I find reframing that word far more helpful 🙂

    1. Great point. And I think you’re right–when I just get to “done” the product of my efforts is often of high quality–but I focus on the nits rather than the beauty of the whole. It is a daily thing. I’m glad we’re in this together!

  2. Another thought fantastic thought-provoking piece Angela. I think the desire for perfection derives from when either consciously or subconsciously we compare ourselves with others. If we just worried about ourselves & what we’re doing then I don’t think we’d be so concerned with “perfection”, we’d just be happy with what we’ve achieved- whatever that was. I’m a firm believer in, it doesn’t where you get to- as long as you’ve tried (and preferably if you’ve had fun trying). I’m a pretty good expert at failing, but I don’t feel like a failure. A failure is someone that doesn’t even try in the first place. I surround myself by non-perfect people. All my friends are beautifully flawed & I wouldn’t want them any other way. If life & people were perfect, it would be terribly dull.

    1. I think you’re right–the comparisons are killer (and not in a good way). I think the biggest beef I have with perfection is in my own mind. I HATE that I focus so much on what went wrong instead of all the things that were right about whatever it was that I was attempting. It’s soul sucking. But I think you’ve got it. Failing without feeling like a failure is key. I know on the one side of my brain that good things come from failing and getting up again. But, because I assume others are focusing on my failing–and there’s good evidence to show that we see the typo rather than the hundreds on well-crafted words–I worry a lot about it too. I’m not sure how to reconcile that. But I do want, someday to wear a floppy hat, stop wearing matching shoes and just embrace the glory of imperfection with total abandon.

      1. I read somewhere that, that is the way us humans are naturally wired. We remember the negative more than the positive, so we learn not to make the same mistake again. Though we all know mistakes are often repeated. I think it’s a flaw in our wiring.

  3. Another blooming good read, my friend!
    The hardest thing is to know when to stop fiddling with your work of art and accept that it is what it is. I have just submitted a manuscript to an agent and even though I thought it was done, made several revisions post-submission. Now it’s going out to publishers and I have to accept I have given birth, and it’s not going back, its birth-marks and imperfections will have to be visible.
    And hurrah for that.

    1. First, congratulations on getting your work out there–that is HUGE and wonderful. And you definitely get it. Perfection is a moving target, even with all the “I”s are dotted and the “T”s crossed. I do so love the idea of wabi sabi, where imperfections are celebrated as part of the work itself. But, I have yet to feel pride in the boo boos. That does remind me though of one thing my little son said, “Mommy, I made a beautiful oops.” Perhaps every oops can’t be beautiful, but all I ask is that my less-beautiful ones don’t ruin my day or my mood. With friends and support–knowing we’re all in the same boat–all that helps make the load lighter, no?

      1. I had an ugly oops several times over trying to reply on my phone, so am trying on my laptop – I do hope you haven’t received 5 versions of this reply!
        I love the concept of a beautiful oops! Bravo your son!
        I mistyped this as:
        I live the concept of a beautiful oops! Bravo your sin!
        There you go, a beautiful oops!

        1. I read your comment out to my son and we both got a kick out of it. I think that might be a perfect example of the beautiful oops. (And by “perfect” I mean quintessential, not “the only right way. . .) Now I wonder if I will have to qualify my use of that term forevermore now that I’ve admitted my complicated relationship to it??

  4. This is interesting Angela. I fully comprehend the stress and impossibility of achieving perfection as a person or in one’s character. But I wonder about professionally? After all, many of us are writers, some of us professional. We make our livings striving for and hopefully achieving as near perfection as possible. Of course, no book, I guess is “perfect”, but surely it can be error-free? I edit and proof-read texts, and aim to do it perfectly. Or are we dealing with two completely different realms here?

    1. That’s a great point–in some ways perfection really is possible and even critical. Like, we sure better get those calculations right if we’re sending someone to the moon. No room for error there. And in writing, error-free or “perfect” in that sense should be the goal. I definitely never want to post anything with errors (though surely it happens). I also believe perfect moments are possible, when we could ask for nothing more than the beauty of what we have. My trouble with perfection is the hangover. When I do a presentation and I accidentally use “some” instead of “all” while onstage, I don’t want to fret until my hair falls out. I don’t want to hold myself or others to an impossible standard that something creative and gorgeous isn’t possible if a hair is out of place or there’s spinach in my teeth. So, I’d say the answer to your question of different realms is yes, kind of. I believe I should strive for error-free writing and captivating, well-spoken presentations. But I also don’t want to throw my novel in the trash because a word is wrong on page 275. What I react to in the word is more the feeling it evokes that says “the smallest miss is the biggest of deals, whereas everything you got right is crap.” But, I’d love to hear more about you think.

      1. Yes you make good points Angela. Perfection as a personality trait is actually not very attractive is it? We want someone who empathizes with us and our bumbling mistakes, not someone who radiates perfection. And yes, the struggle with looking back (e.g. at a presentation) and focusing on any mistakes rather than accepting them and moving on, is always a challenge.

  5. These very points you make are the reasons I hated grading children when I taught in the public schools. These grades put children on a spectrum of, A = everything is perfect, to F = Fail (and everything in-between). The reality is is that every child is different, every child learns differently, every child has different motivators, every child has different interests, and because of this, grading, for the most part, is not helpful. In fact – it can be detrimental. Pressure to be perfect and achieve that 4.0 can be stressful, and hearing that one has FAILED can be deflating. Grades do not tell how hard a child tries or how the child perceives an idea. Grades do not show the retained learning from a child that was extremely interested in a project, or how a child FINALLY understood a concept after months of working on it. And yet, conferences are based on grades, transcripts are required to get into colleges, and children get held back if their grades are not what they need to be. Failure should be a learning experience – a stepping stone, if you will – to get to a goal. Reaching individual goals are much more rewarding that receiving an “A – PERFECT” of “F=FAIL” on a piece of paper. Just ask a child who finally understands the multiplication table (even though they received a D in math class), a high school student who achieved the fastest mile time after a year of training, or a child who finally formed a pottery bowl so it would stand up. These things are what matter. We should not be labeling children as successes or failures in school. Hey, in my eyes, if they try – they cannot fail – only learn. Great post, Angela!

    1. You articulated it “perfectly!” 🙂 By which I mean, you captured the essence of this idea. Perfection isn’t about getting every answer right, but doing what you set out to do–having the impact you wanted to have. But, the way we talk about evaluations like grades do make it seem as if we’re grading the person. Their work is being assessed, but it doesn’t feel that way, it feels like an assignment of human value. There’s so much to keep talking about on this topic. I love your comment, Erin. I want to keep learning what we can do to make achievement important, without forcing people into little status-shaped boxes.

  6. Ah, perfectionism. Perfection comes from wanting: to be liked, to be accepted, to be envied, to be better than. Sheesh. What a flawed concept! I know that I drove my family into scatter and hide fear when I was having a party or event at home. Everything HAD to be PERFECT from the table decorations to the pristine bathroom. My children have chosen not to carry on this soul-sucking, stress projecting tradition. And as I have gotten older I’ve learned that in being “perfect”, I intimidated and caused resentment, not just from my family but from those I sought to impress. No win situation. (But they were really good parties.) I’m so glad I know I’m not perfect. (Just don’t tell anybody.)

    1. Funny! You aren’t perfect and I’d love you much less if you were. My favorite moments as a child were always the unguarded ones. The funny fails that made it easy to laugh together. I do struggle with the idea of being “perfect” or doing the right thing when others are watching. But, someday, I do hope I can let that all go. Strive for the good, celebrate it. See what could be better, and celebrate that too.

  7. I’d be interested in reaching Lynchpin as I’d come across it before, so thanks for the reminder. My relationship with perfection is very on-off and tenuous, and we definitely need to break up too! Great post, I love it! 🙂
    Caz x

    1. Yes! Break up with perfection–maybe we need a support group for this kind of thing. I think Lynchpin is worth the read. If you do pick it up, I’d be interested to learn what you think.

  8. Yes, I fail to be perfect, In my house, we (well, the adults) strive to get a B+. Nothing has to be nailed 100%. It’s a waste of time. The kids, on the other hand, are still expected to make As.

    1. Ha! I love that. You know, I realized I held my kid to a different standard just the other day. And when I realized it, I had to have a little talk with myself. Next time, it’s a time out.

  9. After this week at work, all I can is “really?” LOL.

    I tend to find myself doing the same thing. When I write or prepare a presenation, I think I revise things so many times that I probably end up very similar to my very first draft. Sometimes, I just have to remind myself to back away from the keyboard or put the pen down.

    1. Ha! You’re exactly right. It just isn’t easy to accept anything less than perfection–but what the heck is that really? I hope you picked up on the fact that in this area, i’ve got work to do! It might be a really long break up. . . and I might (okay I will) have some relapses. 🙂

  10. Be perfect at failing beautifully – i think this could be my new catch phrase! I am behind you all the way with this – I think that with the advent of social media, the expectations that we put upon ourselves and that we feel society put upon us to be perfect are too great. The truth of course is that the “perfection” depicted in so many photos and posts is life at its airbrushed best – and I believe that this is a real problem for youngsters. My daughter is a nightmare with her art – she is a total perfectionist and so many excellent drawings are never finished (she did a fab pencil drawing of Chris Hemsworth for a friend – that I rescued from the bin)….drives me mad. Your posts are always so inspiring, Angela, and your writing is so beautiful and articulate – I have nominated you for an award (https://painpalsblog.wordpress.com/2018/02/09/the-mystery-blogger-award/) – hope you will enjoy joining the fun, lots of love and hugs, C x

  11. My mum always told us if at first you don’t succeed then try and try again there was never any pressure just her saying it’s ok if it isn’t right or correct just try again.I am my worst critic and particularly about food( pastry) but she always told me you are the only one who thinks it is not as good as the last batch ..no one else just you, trust yourself and your ability. My favourite quote “Love is not about being perfect it is about being perfect for each other. As always a very thought provoking post Angela 🙂

    1. That’s a lovely quote and an even better life philosophy. Your mother sounds like a fantastic woman. I do believe we are our own worst critics in a lot of ways. Easing up, and enjoying the journey is something I continue to remind myself of. I should get it tattooed on the back of my hand so I see it all the time. 🙂

      1. My mum is the kindest,gentlest, person I know without a wicked bone in her body. Unlike her daughter…lol…But I do think much of our self- critic is in our psyche and I think we learn with advancing years as well Angela. I know I have…lol…Take me as I am warts and all…haha…Tattoo if it was a cool quote or oriental script it would look great 😉 Have a lovely week 🙂

  12. So spot on! As the wife of a reformed perfectionist, I’m not sure which is worse, being married to one or being one! Both are highly anxiety-provoking.

    1. I’m glad to hear he’s reformed. No doubt you assisted in the process. I never considered myself a perfectionist, as I seem to pick and choose what needs my absolute detailed attention. But, when I get in that mode–wow. I’m kind of a nightmare. So, I think you’re right–it might be just as hard to BE the perfectionist as to be around him or her!

  13. Whilst I’m mostly with you in terms of perfectionism, there are people I’d like to be perfectionists, not least surgeons and people who build houses and bridges. I also want them to have a very low tolerance for failure.

    For myself, yes, it is a struggle not to keep ‘improving’ something I’ve written until the vitality and fun have been erased, which is what usually happens. Recognising ‘good enough’ isn’t always easy.

    1. Excellent comment, April. I do agree–there are some professions where no wiggle room is allowed. Some things truly have “only one right way.” But for most of the other stuff, even if I can be perfect in building a bridge, I’d like to forgive myself for ruining dinner once in a while.
      And I definitely agree, sometimes too much improving actually messes with both the fun and the authenticity of the finished product.
      What an insightful comment, I appreciate the thought.

      1. I hadn’t thought about how they’d react to failure in small things, probably badly. The engineers I know are pretty relaxed people, though, so perhaps they find a way to live with it.

  14. When I don’t follow something through or make a bad job of something I tell myself, “Well that didn’t work out.”
    I like to try my best but I don’t strive for perfection. Once upon a time I did though, and then I realised I was only trying to live up to other people’s expectations. Now I’m more relaxed about life and I do what I can, when I can and as best as I can. For me!

    1. I think you’re right. So much of perfectionism is thinking about how OTHERS will react rather than an assessment of the effectiveness of the work itself. It’s a silly game we play–but I’m glad you’ve learned to relax. I’m certain that’s much more fun.

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