I recently had a conversation with a friend I hadn’t spoken to in years. I’ve always loved talking with this particular friend, but this time she was more somber when the conversation ended. My friend was working herself to exhaustion – she couldn’t sleep, was losing more weight than she could afford to, and was obsessing over every meeting and decision in her not-so-new job because she absolutely had to prove to everyone that they had made the right choice in hiring her into a senior-level position at a much younger age than most of her peers.
The need to be “perfect”, and the subsequent problems associated with a constant pursuit of perfection, are nothing new. On the one hand, a drive for perfection is how we get some of the best things we have – new technologies, Olympic-level athletics, breakthrough businesses nobody thought would work. But on the other, that drive for perfection can very easily cause more problems than it solves. Plenty of people describe themselves as ‘recovering perfectionists.’ Some aren’t recovering and are absolutely miserable.
There are a lot of ways to address this issue – medicines, therapy, meditation, weekend retreats to de-tox and reset. But the method I prefer is one I haven’t heard very much about, and that is to occasionally remind yourself how imperfect you actually are. The drive for future perfection is at least partially rooted in the idea that you have been perfect somewhere in the past, and so therefore should be able to reach or maintain that level of perfection moving forward.
Alas, that simply isn’t true.
When my wife and I were dating and still very much in the honeymoon, we’ll-never-argue-about-anything phase of our courtship, I told her, “You’re not perfect, but you’re perfect for me.” I’ve come back to that phrase multiple times in our relationship, and I say it as a way to remind her that I’m not expecting her to be a perfect person. Because she isn’t. She loses her phone at least once a day and frequently asks me questions only to interrupt me four words into my answer. There’s more, just so you know, but that’s enough to prove that she’s not perfect.
And neither am I. My desk is always a mess, I frequently get distracted and forget what I was planning to do, and I frequently leave dirty clothes on the floor for a day or so before picking them up (heresy!!!!). There’s more, too, but that’s enough.
And you know what? It’s OK. She still loves me, I still love her, and although we make fun of each other and wish that certain things might be a little different, it doesn’t alter the fundamental nature of our relationship.
The same thing is true for all of us professionally as well. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all said stupid things. We’ve all turned in work that we could have put more effort into. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to be our best selves. What I’m trying to say is that when we aren’t our best selves, it generally doesn’t ruin things.
Not only is perfection uncommon, but for the most part it isn’t even necessary. Tom Brady just won his 98th Super Bowl, but he didn’t play a perfect game. He threw 21-for-29 for 201 yards. Those numbers are good, but they’re certainly not perfect. He could have thrown fewer incompletions or for more yards. But it didn’t matter. His imperfect game was good enough to win and further solidify his reputation as the Greatest Imperfect Player in NFL history.
His example is hardly unique. Warren Buffett has made some very stupid trades. Every major movie studio has produced a flop. Every celebrity chef has cooked food their own pets wouldn’t eat. And those are big failures. If you include all the small failures in there too – being late to meetings, forgetting to buy the right ingredients, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time – it’s a wonder that anything ever happens at all.
Except that it does. Despite all of our myriad imperfections, we still manage to produce incredible things all the time. We still manage to keep our jobs, and grow in our careers, and raise our children, and be interesting enough that other people want to hang out with us.
So if you’re as aspiring perfectionist struggling with your constant inability to get there, consider spending some time thinking about how imperfect you actually are, and how little impact those imperfections actually have. If you find that some of those imperfections really are holding you back, you can always do something about them. But otherwise, it might be good to realize that perfection is not at all a requirement of success.