The Perfection Trap (and How to Escape)

Picture this: you’re at the end of your diet. You have a huge grin on your face because you’re eating food you enjoy, you’re getting compliments from friends who've seen you try every diet under the sun, you're wearing the jean size you wore in high school...you’re in the perfect body.

Or maybe you’re running your own business, customers are flocking to you, there’s money in the bank, you’re highly respected in the industry...you’ve built the perfect business.

Now STOP.

Back to reality. These dreams of perfection will never come true.

The first thing to know about perfection is that it doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to set it as a goal.

Perfectionism is NOT striving for greatness; it’s striving for approval. Approval over your performance and your accomplishments, rather than your effort, courage, or progress. When you strive for approval, your identity becomes tied to whether or not you can win praise.

When you let the opinions of others dictate your success, you will always feel disappointed.

Perfectionism is taking responsibility for what other people feel, and finding fault in yourself when the result doesn’t measure up to your expectation. The fastest path to disappointment, and often resultant shame, is blaming yourself for what’s out of your control.

Ironically, perfectionists believe that being perfect will protect them from feelings of failure, when instead it sets them up for feelings of failure.

According to author and shame researcher Brené Brown:

Perfectionism is not the key to success. Research shows that perfectionism hampers achievement. Perfectionism is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis, or missed opportunities.

You can see why it’s a harmful ideal to hold yourself to. So what’s the alternative?

Strive for mastery.

There are three main skills that are going to pave your path to mastery:

When you’re learning any skill, the most efficient way to learn is NOT through repetition, but deliberate practice. That means taking the time to pinpoint where you’re the weakest, and intentionally bringing up those areas before moving forward.

Repetition leads to stagnation because it lacks any impetus to increase your skills. Using deliberate practice in order to strive for mastery simply means you’re going to get better, faster.

Seeking feedback is going to highlight the areas that you’re weakest in, so that you can (surprise!) practice deliberately to improve them.

Feedback should first come from yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing, speaking, or playing the kazoo, you should be paying close enough attention to what you’re working on that you can identify bum notes or where you’re being an insufferable bore.

Whether you know where you need to improve or you’re feeling stuck, asking for outside feedback from a teacher, mentor, coach, or even a friend is another invaluable tool for achieving mastery.

If you can practice deliberately and seek feedback with consistency, you’ll be on your way to mastery. Consistency does not mean never messing up. You can have off days or even off weeks…as I’m writing this, I’ve been sick for half the month, and missed two weeks of gym sessions because I can’t breathe through my nose. Does that make me inconsistent? Only if I don’t go back once the snot factory in my head shuts down.

Consistency means putting in your best effort as often as you can for extended periods of time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were my biceps.

Speaking of my biceps, they’ll never be perfect. No aspect of my life or self will be. And I’m okay with that. I hope that you’ll join me in relinquishing dreams of perfection and instead working, growing, and failing toward mastery.