The Trap of Perfectionism

Many of us pursue our chosen path in life because we have been influenced by the works of the masters. We see Warren Buffet and imagine that it would amazing to be the investor who replicates his incredible results. We watch Iron Man and think of how awesome it would be to be an engineer who builds such incredible machines. Entire life plans are formed on the basis of reaching the same level of perfection as the best of the best.

But there is a serious problem with this kind of planning: it aims to be too perfect.

Iron Man perfectionism

Not everyone will be able to reach such levels of perfection. Iron Man looks cool, but there are also thousands of people who became engineers in their careers who weren’t anything like that. They had mediocre jobs with mediocre pay. They weren’t experts, they weren’t very financially successful, and they certainly weren’t what one would consider perfect.

Here’s the more typical, average case for most people. You start out by setting a huge goal and are full of confidence; you’re going to become just as good as your perfect role model! Shortly after you get going, you realize that it’s not that easy. The results of Warren Buffet and Iron Man don’t come quickly, if at all. Your initial results are mediocre at best, making you feel discouraged, even anxious at times.

We call this the trap of perfectionism where one unrealistically aims for perfect results in a very short period of time, thus falling into a trap of over expectations and failure.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to achieve big goals or to become like your idols. The real issue is expectations. We can’t all expect to be the gifted one that replicates the master’s results in a matter of weeks. The natural way of the world is that most of us will take a lot of time to acquire the knowledge, experience, and wisdom required to achieve great things.

Who’s to blame

The media is partially to blame here. Looking at the news or Instagram or Facebook makes it look like everyone is successful.

The news only ever posts stories about those who succeeded. You’ll never see a news story about the entrepreneur who tried their best and failed. You’ll never see a news story about the average person working in tech, business, or sales. But you will see all the stories about the person who achieved wild financial success. Anything short of perfection is hidden away from the public.

On social media, people only ever show their best moments, making it seem like everyone else is living perfect lives. This creates a badly distorted view of reality. Studies show that people who spend more time on Facebook or Instagram are less happy. One study even goes as far as to show that such behaviour causes anxiety disorders. Social media gives us a totally imbalanced perspective because our own life struggles are clearly visible to us on the inside, but on the outside, everything else seems so much more perfect.

We can’t blame the media entirely though. We, the watchers of the news are the ones who tune in every night and believe the stories that are told. We, the users of social media, are the ones who decide to endlessly scroll through it all the time. A better mindset is needed to overcome these bad habits.

Getting back to realistic achievement

We need a better picture of what the world is really like and what is realistic. As we said, the news and social media create an imbalanced image. The way to get back the balance is by looking at the whole picture of what is possible

We should not only look at Iron Man and expect that to be the norm. We should look at the engineers working in R&D who have families to feed. We should look at the average scientists in academia. We should look at all different types of people: those who have failed, those who have succeeded, and those who are still going to get the full picture.

Let’s dig out the early stories of the writer, architect, or entrepreneur. Let’s really take in how much hardship and failure they had to go through to finally start seeing the fruits of their labour. Let’s learn from what they went through so that we can make more informed decisions.

With this more realistic view of the world, it’s clear what must be done. Failure plays a legitimate and necessary role in teaching us. Every time we fail, we gain new information about what not to do. We then use that information in order to improve and try again. Over time, all of those failures and learnings will build up to success.

That’s how the experts made their achievements. Lots of work and learning over a long period of time. Failing forward until enough experience and wisdom had been acquired in order to succeed. It’s the price you have to pay for the opportunity to succeed. But it’s also a beautiful part of the journey.

In conclusion

The desire for perfection is often a result of having a distorted view of the world. Real-life and work is far more complex than is portrayed in the media.

The key to overcoming this trap of perfectionism is to get a more balanced view of the world. To look at all things and all people, both the successes and the failures.

Failure plays a very legitimate role in learning. It’s the main way that we all learn and move forward. Hard work over a long period of time is always the path to mastery. That is the most realistic expectation and the one that will give you the best chance of succeeding in the long run.

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