Bullish Life: Overcoming Perfectionism (and Still Being a Special Unicorn)


This week, let’s hear from a reader I’ll call Vanessa Williams, after the former Miss America (1984) whose mistakes (nudie pics!) actually worked out pretty damn well in the end.

I loved your advice about motivating yourself (using base emotions like disgust). Do you have any advice like this for overcoming perfectionism? I’ve been to counseling and have a good idea why I’m like this, but can’t bring myself to change my thoughts.

You’re not the first person to ask about perfectionism. Keep in mind that you’re asking an unrepentant satisficer — either the best or the worst person to ask, I’m not sure. I graduated from Dartmouth with a 2.71 GPA — and eight employees who worked for me from their dorm rooms. Just last year, I failed a grad school class because I chose to meet a book deadline rather than do the final paper. Sure, I could’ve done both if I’d planned my time better. My lack of perfect planning cost me a few grand. But I wrote a book!

(For more on failure, see Bullish: Three Career F*ckups I Made So You Don’t Have To and Bullish: To Give Up or Not to Give Up? A Column About Bankruptcy.)

So, as long as you know what you’re in for: here are some central principles that might help.

The Marines have something they call the “70% Solution”

I mentioned the 70% solution briefly in Bullish: How to Delegate, and there’s a very nice rundown of the topic here, in Vince Huston’s summary of the book Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the U.S. Marines by David Freedman.

Aim for the 70% solution.

It’s better to decide quickly on an imperfect plan than to roll out a perfect plan when it’s too late.

“Everyone is always looking for perfect truth. Even if you find it, the other guy is up to something. So by the time you execute it, your truth isn’t perfect anymore.”

When time is of the essence, Marines act as soon as they have a plan with a good chance of working. Indecisiveness is worse than making a mediocre decision. A mediocre decision swiftly rendered and executed at least stands a chance.

“If your decision-making loop is more streamlined than your enemy’s, then you set the pace and course of the battle.”

The Marines are known for many things, one of which is never leaving behind a fallen Marine’s body. If 70% is good enough for someone who will carry a corpse through enemy fire, it is good enough for you.

When it comes to tasks in your life, ask before you begin what “percent” is needed. If you’re a surgeon, 100%. If you’re doing something stupid for your boss, maybe 60% of your best effort will make her happy. Maybe 80%. But ask yourself that before you begin.

Change the goal and you can achieve perfection

Sometimes, I can’t get my GMAT students to take a damn practice test. The GMAT is a computer adaptive test (every time you get a question right, you get a harder question next), so it’s basically impossible to get 90+% of the questions right or to feel terribly in control of the experience — even people who leave the exam with stellar scores missed almost half of the problems and probably felt like crap during most of it.

What I tell my students (and wrote in this book) is that 1) perfection is impossible, 2) all we can do is optimize our performance, and aiming for perfection actually keeps you from optimizing, and 3) it’s okay to aim for goals other than scoring 100%. In fact, sometimes that is the only way to optimize. For instance, a good goal for a first practice test is “to experience what it is like to take a complete GMAT practice test under standard timing conditions.” It’s pretty hard to fail at that goal. (And now you feel free, like a white horse running on the beach in a feminine hygiene commercial!)

Unless you hold the nuclear codes, this idea of intermediate goals applies to almost everything.

Your boss needs a report by Wednesday? Your goal is to do 70% as well as you could do, given an unlimited amount of time — while still turning in the report at least two hours before the boss expects it.

It’s time to work out? I loved that Crunch campaign that featured billboards with a giant blue ribbon that said, “You did something!” Showing up at the gym and doing anything that doesn’t injure you is way better than not going, and better than 95% of other people are doing.

I wrote about diet and exercise in Bullish Life: Gentlewomen Don’t Crash Diet, where I also suggested that, unless you are a model, looking about 80% of your best is actually optimal, because looking 100% of your best is a full-time job that will detract from your career and the other important components of a gentlewomanly life.

Perfectionists aren’t as perfect as you think

I’m defining perfectionists here not as people who do a pretty damn good job at one thing, but as people who won’t do anything unless they’re confident that it will be perfect.

Such people tend to lack creativity. They lack inner resources. They are addicted to praise. They don’t know how to do anything there isn’t an application for. They only do things that other people are already doing. When they lose their jobs despite their “perfection,” they don’t start companies or switch careers — they crack.

Perfectionists don’t go as far as you think. Success is messy.

You often must take two steps back to take five steps forward. You must accept that some large percentage of things you do will turn out to be a waste of time and money and possibly also an embarrassment. Reflect briefly and efficiently on failure in order to change couse and then just don’t think about those things; much like the stuff you wish weren’t in the Google results for your name, you just have to drown those things out with more things.

I’ve spoken often about building expertise — regardless of your education, background, age, or status at anything, you can go into The Cave and start on the 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert.

However, as a general rule, it’s probably not worth aiming for perfection at something that lots and lots of other people are already doing. Sure, that’s how you win the Olympics; it’s the only way to get to play both the White Swan and the Black Swan. But for most pursuits, it’s better do a 70% job and then do something awesome and wonderful and crazy that no one else is doing at all.

There are a million valedictorians, even more A+ students. There are a million absolutely beautiful girls. Perfection just puts you in a club. Despite how hard it is to get into that club, there are a lot of people there, because so many people are engaged in the same pursuits.

There are fewer B- students running companies, or really-pretty-attractive-for-a-regular-person women selling cars. These people make more money, do more exciting things, and are better able to handle life’s vicissitudes.

Also keep in mind that too much perfectionism in one area means less time for perfectionism (or even basic competence) in others. Use your perfectionism against itself! If your hair and sales reports are perfect, you will have less time for networking! Et cetera.

Feel the failure! Get comfortable. Really.

I used to box. There’s something a little freeing about knowing that I once got hit in the head twenty times in a row. I’ve also lost huge amounts of money and greatly embarrassed myself at a variety of pursuits. All of which brought me here. Failure is freeing.

Obviously, Vanessa, you’ve had trouble for some time, and it’s hard for an advice column to do better than a ton of therapy. But sometimes when people go to see a professional, they abdicate responsibility for their problems. “Therapy didn’t work on me,” they’ll say — when they should say, “I didn’t take responsibility for using the help to my best advantage.”

So, maybe now’s the time.

I recommend getting used to failure. A failure immersion program. Sign up for something that 1) you know you’ll suck at, and 2) doesn’t matter. Latin dance class? Cooking class? Go get a bartending certification you probably won’t use. Overbook yourself a little bit, so that you can only meet all the deadlines with a 70% solution. Muck about. Bumble. Get used to the feeling. Laugh it off, relax.

When it comes to Latin dance class, the 40% solution is enough. I mean, who cares?

Good luck! Fuck up a bit. Unique and awesome things are not possible any other way.

originally published on The Gloss