Perfection Makes You Miserable

/This is the first of some stories about perfectionism and its influences on the human being and society/

As far as I remember, I was asked many times if I was a perfectionist. For a long time I didn’t have a proper answer for it. Sometimes just answer a shy “yes”, sometimes just a concrete “no”. But answering “yes” gave me only the duty to have high performance standards with solid points of views and many concerns about the other’s work. It made me feel kind of sick to just think about myself chasing goals, that most of the time were almost impossible. In the other hand, answering “no” gave me always a terrific feeling of freedom to think and act as I would like to. And most of the times, the outcome was more satisfactory when I was not trying to beat those high standards.

According to Google, the use of the word Perfectionism and its letter case variations started to grow in a period between 1800 and 1850 while the Industrial Revolution was about to end.

It is not a mere coincidence that suddenly the people started to introduce this word in their vocabulary. The Industrial Revolution made producing products easier and cheaper. And of course, more products while bringing down the retail prices. The assembly line and mass production made possible that multiple items could be made in a short period of time. But, how could the people select which product was better? Until that moment the feeling nor need to compare made-in-line products did not exist. The society itself started to give more and more importance to quality, raising the standards of production and product quality. Bringing the concept of perfectionism to play its role: the persistence of will in obtaining the optimal quality of /material being/and therefore spiritual, mental and physical

But the concept of Perfectionism its older. Way older. Aristotle made his concept of the good life (eudaimonia). This greek word is commonly translated as happiness and it as used as the word for the highest human good. Perfection means more than happiness or pleasure, and it is distinct from utilitarianism (the best action maximizes utility). But the first contradiction or problem of the concept of perfectionism is that it was confused with the definition of happiness.

With the time being better, faster, stronger, higher became a human standard. And of course, it made people to be perfectionist to raise their quality and acceptance standards. The society’s next steps are well known: consumption society, etc.

One of my first mentors alway mentioned that perfectionism is the biggest enemy of progress. He repeated it continuously. Recently I’ve read the article Perfect is the enemy of good: fighting perfectionism in UX Design where the author described why perfection plays against development at many levels. If an individual “refuses to acknowledge anything else that perfect as acceptable, you could end up spending a great deal of time and resources on details with diminishing returns”. This comes together with the blindness on the big picture. Aiming for the 100% of perfection is the dumbest way to proceed in any environment. It will go against your physical and psychological sake. It will make you depressed and rethink failures that are meaningless.

Development is the process of developing or being developed. But also an event constituting a new stage in a changing situation. There is not a way that a perfectionist can afford a negative situation if there is no failure culture to solve the problems and move forward. The introduction of System Thinking raised the importance of Feedback Loops (positive and negative) to acknowledge development in systems, generally speaking. But there is not always positive loops. Systems don’t improve with only positive feedback loops. If there are always positive loops there is nothing to validate. Everything is fine, “perfect”. And the system does not evolve. It stays invariable, passive. Therefore the system, by its nature, fails.
Development means always changing. Au contraire, perfect means static. Who aims for perfection, does not learn from failures, does not resist stress and is not able to step back, analyze and learn to move forward.

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