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Why Perfectionists Are Often the Biggest Failures

perfectionismA few years ago on a college campus, a ceramics professor decided to try an experiment on one of his classes. At the start of the semester he divided the class into two groups and explained that each group would be graded differently.

Group 1 would be graded on the total number of pots they could create throughout the semester, with a minor importance given to quality.

Group 2 would be graded on just one pot. They had all semester to work on just one pot so they better make it impressive.

At the end of the semester, the students all turned in their work for grading. To the professor’s amusement, the 5 highest quality pots all came from the group who was focused on quantity over quality. In fact, most of the pots from Group 2 were terrible. They just looked like over-worked lumps of hollowed out clay.

Why did this happen?

It happened because there is enormous value in working at something over and over until you learn from your mistakes and gradually improve. Failure can be an amazingly effective teacher if we allow it to be.

There is also something detrimental to trying to be perfect all the time. Perfectionism can cause us to be overly critical of ourselves and our work. Sure, it can produce great results from time to time but more often than not, leaves a person feeling frustrated and unsatisfied.

From Psychology Today, “For perfectionists, life is an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. A one-way ticket to unhappiness, perfectionism is typically accompanied by depression and eating disorders. What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure.”perfection-its-okay-not-to-be-perfect

As stated above, perfectionism isn’t so much a valiant yearning for higher quality as much as it is a misunderstanding of the value of failure. When we are totally focused on failure or avoiding it, we lose perspective about the big picture of life and learning. We focus on our faults and shortcomings and see them strictly as barriers instead of opportunities.

While many perfectionists accomplish a lot in life in some aspects, a vast majority of them are suffering on the inside. They will never feel good enough or at peace.

I don’t know what the exact solution is. I tend to be too much of a perfectionist and I see myself falling into negative thought patterns of inadequacy from time to time. I seem to magnify my shortcomings and minimize my successes. I’ve struggled with it my whole life and didn’t realize it until the last few years.

For the other perfectionists out there, my advice would be that we start to embrace the enormous value of failing. And that we give ourselves permission to fail from time to time. Paradoxically, the more we fail, the closer we will come to perfection because of what we learn.

Lastly, I actually hate using the word “fail.” I think that the events we call “failures” are only really failures if we allow them to be. Every one of these failures is an opportunity and learning experience. We can step back and say, “Wow, that really did not work out how I wanted it to. Next time I’m going to do it differently.”

We are not perfect. We will never be perfect in this life…and that’s okay. So let’s just do our best and learn from the opportunities.

When we approach it this way, we can truly say that we are “failing forward.”

Who knows, in the end we may just fail our way into perfection.


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  1. A Perfectionist

    That sounds like the worst college class ever. Have you ever worked with clay? It dries out in like 2-3 hours and shows cracks from being overworked. So, this professor is giving Group 2 a frustrating challenge because clay in its nature shouldn’t be overworked and giving them waaaaay too much time to do it. Seriously… a whole semester?!? I’d report this professor to the administration. But in the story, these sheep-like students unquestioningly play out this highly misinformed “experiment” that the professor is doing for apparently no other reason than the fact that the professor gets kicks out of setting up social experiments. He sounds like a real control freak. What is he doing while the class is working hard to prove his point, by the way? Sitting at his desk with his legs kicked up, reading a magazine, occasionally looking up to see the students struggling and failing and deviously smiling to himself as he watches his own expectations unfold before his eyes? Like, Hey, Prof, can we learn something today or does our tuition not cover that?

    This experiment is all sorts of messed up. The people he’s putting into the “perfectionist” group, aren’t even necessarily perfectionists by nature. As a perfectionist, I’d like to think that a real perfectionist, would have (after hopefully reporting this professor’s sorry ass to the dean) figured out a way to create a beautiful and not overworked pot. Meanwhile the real perfectionists are interspersed in Group 1, making many perfect pots rather than just one so the odds are weighed against Group 2 in his highly subjective search for the best pots which is apparently determined by his opinion alone.

    To make this remotely worth reading about, the professor needed to have given a perfectionism survey to the class and then based on that result, assigned the students to groups accordingly. Also… he proooobably should have compensated the students for participation in his study. He should also refund them their money for the class too.

    The title of this article is a little over the top, as well, don’t you think? It certainly drives traffic to this page, so I see what you’re doing, but the contents of this piece show no evidence of perfectionists being failures. Like give me one other piece of evidence, other than that story about some poor college students having a terrible professor. Can you tell me about how Einstein was not a perfectionist and therefore a genius? Or how, FEMA failed during Katrina because they were too busy building the perfect dams? Give me anything else to go on. I would argue that perfectionism is about being detail-oriented and that can often lead to success. Companies like Apple who are obsessed with every detail of design are a good example of that kind of success (high ratings, customer satisfaction and retention, financial success) resulting from their design perfectionism.

    The author even says that he/she doesn’t like the word failure and proceeds to redefine it as “opportunity to learn from your mistakes,” and spends the rest of the article turning failure into a good thing and in light of that, the title of the article (“Why Perfectionists Are Often the Biggest Failures”) doesn’t make sense anymore because then it’s saying that perfectionists are failures… which is a good thing now?

    I’m not disagreeing with the content of the article– perfectionists struggle with feeling a need to be perfect which can occasionally, when taken to the extreme, result in depression, OCD tendencies and eating disorders. This latter part of the article is alright! Just don’t dilute your article with made-up anecdotes to try and prove your point (and if it’s not made up, I’m going to need a source). At the end of the day, though, telling someone who struggles with perfectionism to just take it easy on themselves is probably not going to do the trick. It’s a good reminder, but ultimately, if perfectionism is interfering with your well-being, you should probably seek the help of a therapist who will help you find and understand the root of your need to be perfect.

    Lastly, about the picture that accompanies this article half-way down– the little Dove chocolate label that reads “Remind yourself that it’s okay to not be perfect”– That’s really nice and all, Dove, but I’d like to remind everyone that Dove has in invested interested in people not being perfectionists because perfectionists would likely eat less of their product… I’ll take my reminders from people who aren’t hoping to make a dime off of me, thanks!


  2. I’m not sure about that professor’s experiment. Just one pot for the whole semester, I would think the students in that group did them at the last minute, resulting in crappy work.

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