When the Pursuit of Perfection Inhibits Our Best Effort


While recently cleaning and organizing my office, I happened upon an old issue of Psychology Today containing a piece by Eric Maisel detailing the intellectual limitations many of us face in pursuit of our personal and professional goals [“The Smart Gap,” October 2013]. 

While reading, I began to think about how the idea of perfection often prevents us from striving for the best outcomes we are capable of achieving.
In the short piece, Maisel writes,

You may not be fast enough, beautiful enough, or smart enough for your ambitions. But, while there is no good solution to this quandary, there are ways to reduce the emotional pain of falling short.”

He then goes on to offer practical advice on getting the most out of our brains, engaging in work that matches our intellectual prowess, and offers a bit of insight on being kinder to ourselves in terms of what sort of work and goals we pursue and whether we should torture ourselves over our shortcomings.  In closing, he offers,

We all feel the gap between the fantasy of pitching in the seventh game of the World Series and the reality of who we are. Well, it turns out that we may not be Newton or Einstein either.”

I certainly understand the sentiment expressed here and while reading it I began to reflect on behavioral patterns that I have observed with my clients as well as within myself. When we conclude that we are indeed not “Newton or Einstein,” how often does that realization lead us to avoiding a pursuit merely because we may not be the absolute best or completely perfect at it?

To say this differently, should a man who loves music and has longed to learn how to play the piano, give up the idea entirely because he understands no matter much he practices or how much passion he has, he will never be Mozart?  Should the woman who loves to paint trash her water colors and throw in the towel because she will never produce a Rembrandt?  Should the joggers we see dashing through our neighborhoods every morning hang up their running shoes because they know no matter how hard they train, they will never win the Boston Marathon?

Our art may not make it to the Louvre, but that doesn't mean we should stop painting!

The answer to the above questions is obviously no, but all too often we allow our pursuit of perfection to stifle our best effort. Rather than focus on some lofty work of genius or world renown level of excellence, we are far more likely to find pleasure in pursuing, and satisfaction in achieving, what amounts to our personal best effort.
When we develop a healthy outlook in our lives, we can look past our limitations and focus on maximizing our unique human potential. Part of that emotional knowledge I so often speak of and write about is the understanding that the goal is to simple be the best versions of ourselves and nothing more.
So rather than lament that which we have no control over, let us dream our dreams and paint our canvases with all the skill and joy we can muster. Our end result may never hang in the Louvre, but if we can gaze upon it knowing it was our joyful best effort, it may well make it a masterpiece all the same!

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