Perfection is Unattainable – Progress is Within Your Reach!

by Amy Steinberg Published Feb 20, 2018 Last updated Feb 20, 2018

Salvador Dali said, “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”

Yet, many people are paralyzed by perfection. After all, perfectionism sounds great: who doesn’t want to be perfect? However, aiming for perfection is a great way to become disillusioned and unsatisfied. Why? Simply because, as Salvador Dali references, perfection isn’t attainable. Aiming for perfection makes many people quit when they could have made incremental progress toward a goal.

Progress, Not Perfection

If you frame your goals in terms of perfection, you are likely to experience feelings of failure frequently. As we talked about in a previous article ‘In Reality, Failure Should Always Be an Option’ our failures are brilliant opportunities to learn. The issue comes when we have a toxic relationship with failure. Telling yourself “I’m going to fail at this,” or “this cannot possibly work” are ways to make sure that you do indeed quit or that you definitely don’t succeed.

By choosing a goal for yourself that is a step past where you are now, you can find yourself far more satisfied, and more importantly, actually making progress toward the goal.

What is “Good Enough?”

Have you ever been told to throw out “perfect” as a planned outcome? Instead, look at what the necessary goals are, the things that will make a project acceptable or unacceptable. In real life, you want to be known for excellence, but it is arguably better to be known for consistency and dependability. The ability to realize that you’ve done all that is reasonable and must move on from a task or project is an important skill to cultivate.

At the same time, it is essential to separate what makes a given project or product “good enough” from whether or not you yourself are “good enough.” When you allow work or other pursuits to define your worth, you are likely to not only experience some failure but also to feel a loss of identity.

Isaac Asimov addresses this need for self-confidence head on:

“And above all things, never think that you’re not good enough yourself. A man should never think that. My belief is that in life people will take you at your own reckoning.”

We need to reckon ourselves worthy and good enough. We are neither perfect nor are we irreparably flawed and finding peace in that in-between space is one of the essential components of making progress.

What’s at the heart of perfectionism?

Brené Brown, psychologist and researcher, points out that:

“Many people think of perfectionism as striving to be your best, but it is not about self-improvement; it’s about earning approval and acceptance.”

We have to realize that people will respect and approve of us without things being some hypothetical level of “perfect” – instead, we need to see how we can accept the person we actually are, and work within those constraints.

Regain a Creative Approach by Rejecting Perfection

Geri Halliwell said it well when she said,

“Perfectionism kills art. I find that if I criticise myself, it spoils the fun. You can get paralysed by analysis – it takes all the playfulness away.”

When you allow perfect to take over, you cannot see the out-of-the-box solutions needed to make a big difference. Certainly, a creative solution may fail, but perfectionism will take away the joyful part of your work by steering your concentration towards checking off the boxes and crossing items off your to-do-lists. Daring to try something unorthodox can be the first step toward real progress.

A Natural Byproduct of Progress is Some Failure

Progress isn’t a linear path. In almost all cases, there may be times when the way is unclear and the “perfect” option isn’t available. You must at some point make a choice and vow to learn from the consequences of that choice. This can be a hard moment, but it is also the first step to a breakthrough.

Realizing that the natural path of one’s progress is fundamentally connected to some tangents and missteps is only the first part of understanding progress. You must also have the personal strength to acknowledge that something did fail and that there are things to be learned from that circumstance.

Famous musician Johnny Cash made a great point when he said:

“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.”

This is a great way to diverge away from perfectionism. If you choose to learn and don’t try to forget, you still can give yourself space to move forward.

Remember How Rewarding Your Efforts Have Been

Perfectionism tempts us to ignore the past. It uses any negative evidence, like criticism or bad feedback, to show that everything is awful.

A progress mindset is a good way to break out of this negative perspective. Just looking to the past for positive examples can be a great way to remember that things can improve in the future. In almost every case in our past, we have delivered imperfect work that we worked hard on, and the results were positive. Finding this evidence is essential because it gives us fuel for the journey.