Dealing with the voice of perfection


Sometimes, there’s a little voice in my head. It whispers to me whenever I set a goal. It came out when I started a business, it's there when I write, it speaks up when I dare try something new. It says this:

“If what I’m doing isn’t perfect, I shouldn’t do it at all.”

Does this voice sound familiar?

It's the voice of perfection. Perfection is something we should strive for, right? What's wrong with perfect? Yet for me, the “quest for perfection” is often an excuse to give up early or not try at all. Perfection is lie we tell to protect ourselves from failure. If something we’re doing isn’t perfect, why do it?

But I know that's an excuse. Life's too short to wait for perfection. Here are some approaches that have worked for me to quiet that voice.

Aim for good enough

I'm imperfect. You're imperfect. The world, well, that's imperfect too. So why should we expect more from what we do?

Aiming for the good enough solution has helped. It's meant working with a solution that’s not quite perfect, but still good enough to be worth doing. The articles I've published, the products I've launched, the self-reflections I'd written — I created them with full knowledge of their rough edges.

What's more important is that you and I, we're doing the work. We're achieving goals. We're developing ourselves. And we're making the world a better, kinder place in doing so.

When I do this, something remarkable happens. Even if what I'm working on today isn’t perfect, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to get better. As long as I keep trying, I'll keep improving. It's much better to land a string of good enoughs than to wait for that perfect that will never come.

Practice self-compassion

Have you ever beat yourself up about an outcome not going your way? About some action you could have taken differently? About something you created not being perfect? I was terrible at this. (And I still have a long way to go.)

"You shouldn't have even tried." "Why can't you do this right?" "You're good for nothing."

Would I ever say this to a colleague? To a friend? To someone I loved? Of course not. If I wouldn't say it to others, then why, why would I ever say it to myself?

I'm trying the best I can. As a fallible human, my best isn't perfect. Can never be perfect. Will never be perfect. And that's okay. Just like those around me, people whose progress I want to champion, I'm still worthy as a person.

So I try to show myself more compassion these days. It makes the perfectionism easier to handle.

Start small

To paraphrase systems thinker John Gall, every complex system that works evolved from a simpler system that worked. This is Gall's law.

A lot of what we want to achieve is built upon systems. Habits. Relationships. Businesses. Careers. And to build these rich and complex systems, we need to start with something simple.

It didn’t take a day to put a human on the moon. It took the years of discoveries, and simpler systems, to get there. My ambitions are far less grandiose than leaving Earth's orbit: sometimes I just want to make more time to read.

So it's okay for our next step to not be perfect, to not be groundbreaking, to not take us in one giant leap from the Earth to the moon. It's okay to take small steps. In fact, those might be the only ones that work.

That little voice? At least for me, it'll be happy with nothing less than achieving that massive goal today. When reality gets in the way, it says to give up. Yet by starting with simple systems I can build my way there. Small wins compound over time.

Accept that you can't be good at everything

I'm an amateur triathlete. I love my triathlon: I love the training, I love the race, I love laying in the grass, exhausted, after an event.

And I love finishing firmly in the middle of my age group.

Well, I don't love it. But I've accepted that if I want my life to include all the other fulfilling, wonderful things that it does, I can't aspire for a podium finish. My family matters. My friends matter. My career matters. And those matter more to me than gold.

This is also why I'm a fan of strengths-based approaches to personal growth. We can't be good at everything — and that voice of perfection would have a field day if we let it examine all our deficits. With myself and others, I try to focus on strengths, on what we enjoy and what we excel in. Instead of focusing on going from "bad" to "average” in one area, I'd prefer to move from “good” to “great”.

The voice of perfection never fully goes away. But we can do our best to quieten it. We strive to accomplish and do all the good we can.