The Perfection Trap

Sometimes the hardest thing of all is to simply get started. The moments in your life where you want something so badly, but it just doesn’t happen. There is something holding you back. An inner fear. You may want everything to be just right before you start. Or there may be something stopping you at the back of your mind. Something which says, you’re not good enough to do this so what’s the point of even trying?

One of the hardest elements that I’ve personally had to struggle with is the idea that things don’t have to be perfect. Sure, it would be nice if they were but they don’t have to be perfect for them to still be worth doing.

Seeking perfection stops you from even trying

Because I’ve wanted everything to be just right and because I’ve waited until the conditions have been perfect I have missed out on so many opportunities. Career opportunities, interesting projects, friendships, social gatherings, relationships. You name it, the incessant drive for everything to be perfect has cost me a lot over the years. In fact, the most common refrain that runs through my mind is on the feeling of not enough, “Oh, I don’t have enough to do that”. I’m not good looking enough, fit enough, strong enough, wealthy enough, smart enough, knowledgeable enough to name but a few.

In my mind I’ve built up an idea that the only reason to do something is to be perfect, the only reason to try is if you’re going to be the best. I’ve disassociated the concept of doing something for it’s own sake. Of enjoying the journey. In my mind, the only reason for doing something is if the destination is perfect.

This isn’t sustainable, nor is it particularly healthy from a mental health perspective. In fact, I would go one step further and say that continuously seeking perfection in everything you do, to the point where it paralyses you from doing anything, is a one way ticket to anxiety and depression. Your brain is a powerful entity and continuously falling short of perfect will lead you down a very dark rabbit hole from experience.

To illustrate the absurdity of this situation here are a few scenarios that I’ve personally gone through over the years:

  1. I’m not a famous published author therefore I should never write or publish anything
    1. Result – I never write or publish anything and there is no possibility of being a published author
    2. Reality – Some of what I write is good, some awful. Being afraid of getting it out into the word is the worst thing I could do
  2. I’m not great at the piano and it sounds kind of bad when I play
    1. Result – I don’t practice
    2. Reality – Everyone is terrible when they first start. I make progress every time I practice.
  3. I don’t have enough money for X (travel, purchase etc)
    1. Result – I feel continuously poor and I don’t do activities that I actually want to out of a misguided sense of financial doom
    2. Reality – My objective financial position is better than it has ever been and continuously improving and I would be happier spending some of it on activities that improve my life
  4. I’m not good looking or attractive
    1. Result – I don’t place myself into any social situations with the opposite sex which reinforces the belief
    2. Reality – I’m not unattractive, pretty fit and actually do fine with girls
  5. My research isn’t good enough to be published
    1. Result – I don’t do any research and it remains terrible
    2. Reality – Research is scary and not guaranteed to pay off but it can be intrinsically rewarding in its own right
  6. I’m not strong, flexible, smart, agile enough to do a particular skill
    1. Result – I don’t train the skill, or any of the progressions leading up to it and therefore I never make any progress
    2. Reality – Every time I have invested time in learning a new skill I’ve been able to achieve it with hard work

These are all real examples of my brain actively poisoning the well when it comes to living the life that I actually want to live. When you think about it, stopping yourself from doing something because you’re afraid that it’s not going to be perfect is probably one of the stupider reasons that exists. Particularly since the flaw is generally imagined as opposed to existing in reality in this setting.

Embracing Imperfection

Sucking at something is the first step towards becoming sorta good at something – Jake The Dog

Imperfection isn’t the end of the world. In fact, nothing is actually perfect. Even the most beautiful painting or sculpture has flaws. It’s creator has looked at it and gone shit, I could have done the nose a little bit better. Perfection doesn’t actually exist in the real world unless you’re dealing with mathematical proofs, in which case keep searching for perfection.

So, the first step is to appreciate that it isn’t going to be an overnight success. There is an old refrain which is attributed to Eddie Cantor – “It takes 20 years to make an overnight success”. But, we are bombarded via television, social media and advertising of successful people at the height of their success and we never actually see the 20 years leading up to that moment. We only ever see the airbrushed model who is posed for photographs in an exotic locale, the millionaire or billionaire business success, the neurosurgeon who has just saved a small child, the virtuoso performer at Carnegie Hall or simply our friends holiday photos. We only ever see the highlight reel of society which leads to us having a fucked up sense as to how our lives should actually look.

If all you ever see of the world is carefully manicured images that are designed to induce certain feelings in you (inadequacy, jealousy, envy and longing) how do you expect to feel? You’ll have a warped perception of what the world is really like an unrealistic expectations as to what you “deserve”. The reality is that these images are seeking to sell you something, most often a particular lifestyle or product that you too can obtain, for a few easy payments of $59.99 of course.

I am not immune to this, you are not immune to this. No one is. Our brains have evolved over millions of years to be overwhelmingly sensitive to status based displays. Not understanding the hierarchy within your group could be an absolute death sentence if you were ostracised or pissed off the wrong people. Ostracism has been called by some authors as the social death penalty because of it’s impact upon the people who experience it. Being ostracised causes a visceral and physical fear within us and we have built in triggers towards wanting to be socially accepted as a result.

Advertisers and marketers know how we feel about being part of a social group, they use it to instill feelings. In a Coca Cola ad, young attractive people are having a great time at the beach. You want to be part of this group and they’re associating being part of the group with drinking a can of Coke.

To me, this carefully prepared exposure to perfection takes a continuous toll upon our psyche. It sets our expectations in all our endeavours to astronomical heights. We’re afraid to try something because we compare our faltering first steps to the prepackaged highlight reel that is only a touch away on Instagram. We’re embarrassed to try anything in public because that little lizard brain deep in our skulls tells us that we have to socially fit in with the group.

If we choose to embrace imperfection we must do so by seeking to conquer, or simply avoid, this inbuilt social pressure that’s placed upon us. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes it is not. What follows is a useful mental model that I use to help me get out of the perfection trap. You’ll need to find your own, it’s a very individual thing but this can hopefully serve as a good starting point.

Practical Steps to avoiding the Perfection Trap

Being aware of the perfection trap doesn’t mean that we’re going to avoid it. In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. But knowledge, understanding and awareness are the first steps to improvement. I am making an implicit moral judgment here, that we want to avoid the perfection trap and that it is a self limiting phenomenon. This may not be true for all people, but it is definitely true for my own personal psyche.

The following is a step by step breakdown of the process that I go through when I’m faced with a Perfection Trap. There are simply four steps that I follow which tends to be sufficient. Often I’ll need to come back to the first step and repeat again midway through an activity. That’s fine, it’s not a do it once and forget it process for me.

Step One: Decide Why I Want It

The first step is always deciding why I actually want to do something. If I’m going to go through the pain, the hours and the frustration of being good at something and investing my time into improving then I want to have a clear understanding as to why I’m doing it.

It could be for my health, improving my cardiovascular health is definitely up there as I’ve been getting far too winded recently and have neglected that area of development. Creating an additional financial safety net for myself is important too as I may decide to go traveling or to take a new position in an area I’m interested in. Volunteering, playing the piano, writing, meditating, handbalancing. These are all areas that I’m interested in but I need to fully articulate why I want it.

This involves a simple question:

Why do I want to do X?

I then list down all of the reasons why I want it as honestly as possible. As an example, from my recent musings.

Why do I want to learn the Piano?

I want to learn the piano to produce music. I want to have an avenue in my life which isn’t staring at a screen which I can also advance and practice by myself in order to keep myself feeling fulfilled. I have wanted to play since I was young but never had the patience to stick with it. I am jealous of other people who play beautifully and it brings out feelings of longing within me.

Are these particularly good reasons? Maybe, maybe not. They’re honest reasons however which is the most important element. When you sit down and honestly ask yourself why you want to do something you can often be surprised at the result. Sometimes you’ll discover that you don’t actually want something, there’s just some vague sense of “this is what adults do, I’m an adult, therefore I should do this” that comes out. If so, great, you can now stop worrying about it. If, on the other hand you discover that you still really want to go ahead with a pursuit then you can continue down the steps.

Step Two: Ask myself why I’m feeling inadequate

This is a major one that does require a fairly large amount of self awareness to progress. Meditation can be helpful here as it helps to build up a degree of self knowledge and awareness that can be missing otherwise. Journaling and writing down your thoughts are other options here. The important component is the level of introspection you’re able to possess because this step can sometimes be quite unpleasant.

Asking yourself why you’re inadequate involves bringing to the forefront the perceived flaws that you have. The flaws that are preventing you from progressing. Sometimes this involves bringing up some childhood trauma, sometimes it is an internally held belief of “I’m not the kind of person who does those things”.

In most cases, asking myself this question has often been enough to get me out of the perfection trap. Bringing my excuses into the cold light of day and shining the brightest possible light on them has the effect of dispelling them. The monsters in your head seem less scary once you’re not alone in the dark with them.

To continue with the piano example. I felt inadequate because I was stressed I didn’t have the time to practice. The truth was I did have the time, I am a firm believer in the fact that I’m not time limited, I’m energy limited (which I’ll discuss further in the future). I was stressing myself and not practicing, this meant I wasn’t improving, this was stressing me out even more.

To get myself out of this vicious feedback loop I needed to develop a plan which took into account the stress and time limitations that I may have. Sometimes it was very simple, sometimes a bit more complex. But once I was armed with the knowledge that I actually wanted something and that I understood what dark corner of my mind was holding me back I was able to move forward.

Step Three: Develop a broad plan (and set of systems) of where I want to go

Once you’ve established that yes you actually want something, and taken into account your personal demons, you can start creating a plan of action. The plan should have some clear basic steps, preferably something that you can do every day to progress and have some measurable elements along the way. In short, basic plan setting that you should hopefully have a grasp on from childhood.

The point of this broad plan and the systems that flow from it is to have an anchor for my setbacks. I find that if I’m able to zoom out from being completely ensconced in the micro level day to day actions that I get a lot of perspective. Yes I may have had a shit day and not made any progress, but look at where I was last month. I’m still way way up from there. So I should give myself a little break, get some sleep and then continue on it tomorrow.

For me, a general plan has the following components:

  1. Something that I can work on everyday
  2. Something that I can measure over the longer term
  3. Milestone activities

To take my example of learning the Piano.

  1. My system is that I will play one song (about five minutes) every day at a minimum. If I’m feeling good I’ll continue but I give myself permission to stop after I’ve played one song.
    • You can hopefully see how this gets rid of the “I’m so stressed I don’t have time to practice” mentality. I’ll always have five minutes to play a single song at some point over my day and can’t really use it as an excuse.
  2. Every two to four weeks I take a video recording of myself playing a particular piece. This can be anything, but I take a video with sound so that I have a key measure of my progress. How it sounds
    • Currently the piece is “Prelude in C from Well Tempered Clavier”
  3. My current Milestone activity is to play Fur Elise. Yes, a lot of people can play it, but I really enjoy how it sounds and I enjoy striving towards it. Once I’m able to successfully do this then I’ll pick a new milestone to work towards
    • The point of this is to have something you can look back on and say “I did that, I achieved it”. You can continuously progress in many different ways but our personal psychology will always draw us towards big events. The key moments that we define our life with.

Step Four: Implement the plan using Micro Steps and Momentum

Finally, we’re down to execution. One of my favourite sayings is the following:

Ideas aren’t worth anything, it is execution that matters

I use this to ground myself. I can have the best idea in the world but if it just stays as an idea within my head then it’s worthless. I have to actually bring it out into the world in order for it to have any worth. Micro steps and Momentum are two strategies that I use to help me progress slow moving goals that require continuous work over a long period of time.

A micro step is the smallest possible thing you can do to make progress on an activity. It’s small, because you want this to be zero effort to start, you shouldn’t be stressed out or worried about planning something and slotting it into your busy schedule. A micro step can even have nano steps if you choose. An example:

  1. Walk to piano
  2. Sit down at piano
  3. Play a single song

This is the micro step that corresponds to my plan of ‘something I can work on everyday’. It’s an incredibly short commitment that I’m making to myself. I’m not locking myself into hours of playing or going through complex exercise after complex exercise. Though that may be the organic result of the practice. I’m simply sitting down and creating some music for a few minutes. If I’m not feeling it at all, I could be tired, cranky, sick or just plain procrastinating then I’ll leave it after the song has finished and go away.

Now, if I am feeling it then there are two options here:

  • Freestyle
  • Slot into an established plan

I find a combination of the two can be really useful. Having a rough outline as to what you’re going to do once you’re committed to something is essential for making progress. Otherwise you’re just fucking around. You need to have some structure to your practice in order to improve. That’s a topic for a different post however.

Now, micro steps are best used with Momentum. Momentum means that you have a degree of inertia in your life, if you’ve been practicing something every day then it’s very easy to keep practicing every day. There are no mental stumbling blocks because you’ve built up the habits required to keep progressing. Momentum is what gets you through the bleak days, strategies such as “Don’t Break the Chain” work well here as they tie in nicely to the daily practice.

From a practical perspective, if you’ve got a plan that is only ever worked on once a fortnight then your momentum is poor. 10 hours once every ten days might be worse than one hour every day in this case because of the psychological elements. On the other hand, some things may require substantial dedicated time that you can only slot in every few days. This is fine, but I would recommend a Daily Undulating Strategy where you can still keep the momentum up. For example, 5 minutes every day for three days and then four hours on the fourth day is better than just doing four hours on the fourth day and nothing on the other three.

Think about how you’re planning and see if you can introduce additional momentum into it. It makes a massive difference from a psychological perspective when you can improve every day.

Summing Up

The perfection trap is a mental loop we find ourselves in. It stops us from trying to achieve an activity through the act of comparison. When we compare our own imperfect states to the masters, the virtuoso individuals or simply those that got likely through their genetics or birth we become paralysed. Unable to act. Depressed or anxious.

Instead, acknowledging that perfection is a continual process not a fixed outcome can help us to keep progressing, to keep advancing ourselves.

The simplest strategy to conquering our fears is to be aware of them and the four part strategy I outlined above should help with this. Try it out, see if it helps. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too. Keep experimenting because being in the grip of the perfection trap is no place to live.


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