Fighting Perfectionism

\ pər-ˈfek-shə-ˌni-zəm\
a: the doctrine that the perfection of moral character constitutes a person's highest good

Beginning with a definition feels cliche like something from academia, but I think it's easy to take language for granted or have an opaque idea of a concept in your mind that is misconstrued over time by experience and reconditioning.

Working in a profession where you put your mind's best (well, most days — right?) into something to be interpreted by a machine and grokked by others can lead to a healthy paranoia of is this good enough?. But, what happens when this spirals out of control?

As a self-identified perfectionist who often feels the paralysis of perfectionism's grips, I can tell you what happens: nothing.

Fear of producing

For me, and maybe many others out there struggling with producing works they're proud of, the paralysis stems from a disconnect between my ambition, what I'm capable of, and time. There will be some idea that crosses my mind and festers into a full-blown start-up or a highly successful open source project. And because of this grandiose style of thinking, getting started becomes increasingly more difficult.

Subscribe to meaning rather than "Just do it"

Since you're reading this, it means I've overcome some part of my perfectionist nature. One subtle, but very meaningful change I've made is identifying my motivation for something I want to accomplish.

I think about previously failed or goals that I either didn't meet or had no interest in meeting. One of those goals that I thought I had interest in, but never completed was a goal set at my first job out of college as a Junior .NET programmer by my manager.

"We want you to become the .NET guy," he said in one of my quarterly reviews. He went on to explain what that meant and how getting an ASP.NET certification would be a great goal for me.

I was not excited.

"Grinding out a bunch of API's that are going to inevitably change every three to four years isn't programming," is what I told myself. I wasn't wrong, but ten years later I know it's more nuanced than that. Understanding the internals and design decisions of a well-architected ecosystem would have benefitted me enormously, but that's not how I framed the task because I didn't have the experience to know how it would benefit me. Though, in the grand scheme of time and the enormous list of 'things that can make you a better programmer', getting a certification is still pretty far down on that list.

I think you can see that I was destined to fail and arguably failed before I did not start. Why? Because my motivation was extrinsic rather than intrinsic.

You've probably seen the internet meme of Shia LaBeouf of screaming, "Just do it (volume beware). I appreciate the sentiment of pursuing your dreams, but what if you've been groomed to want something you actually don't want to do? This was exactly my predicament and in my case was an extrinsic motivator.

Extrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by external rewards such as money, fame, grades, and praise. This type of motivation arises from outside the individual, as opposed to intrinsic motivation, which originates inside of the individual

This is not to say extrinsic motivation is bad or inherently wrong, but I think how potent a motivator is will vary person to person depending on its source.

Some people in this world have the will and motivation to grudgingly push through about anything. If that's you, congratulations — but if it's not, why not ask yoursel, "Is this for me?"

Embracing it

Though perfectionism can lead to anxiety and paralysis, I think there are some positives that can be distilled from it.

  • Belief in oneself

    You've seen how well crafted or well-done something can be and you believe that you can do it. Even if it's out of your reach, the belief in yourself can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy where eventually you realize what you're after.

  • Fighting complacency

    Often, I've achieved a goal to only move the goal post further to continue progress down a certain path. If you acknowledge the accomplishment, I think this can be a healthy way to live alongside perfectionism.

  • Thoroughness

    In Japan, certain trades or professions demand a high attention to detail. Doing a little digging may lead you to explore monodzukiri (ものづくり) or the rail system's shisa kanko(指差喚呼).

    In western cultures, "Move fast and break things," is often the philosophy many businesses embrace because of the correlation between time and money, but I've found the opposite in Japan. In Japan stability — whether business or interpersonal — is highly valued which I think it could be interpreted as perfectionism in western culture.

© Nick Olinger 2023