I’ve never seen myself as a perfectionist. I’ve often fancied myself a carefree, gun-slinging decision-maker who pushes the limits and takes risks. This has been true at times.
But more often, I’m paralyzed with indecision, afraid to get things wrong. More often, I let tasks hang out in my inbox for weeks, turning them over and thinking about them. I’ll begin to execute, then I’ll back away and refocus on the problem in a different way.
Truth is, I’m more of a perfectionist than I’ve ever realized.
Last summer, I started a hotdog cart business. Yet I’ve left my cart in my garage way too many times. Why? Well, when I started this business, I had this idea that I would serve gourmet hotdogs with elaborate toppings. I would wear a fancy bow-tie and have Edison-bulbs strung along my cart. My perfectly-painted chalkboard sign would tell you the dozens of toppings and offerings I had (including a select assortment of La Croix sparkling water). I would have hotdogs named after each of the neighborhoods in Nashville, along with fancy toppings like “whiskey chili” and “Nashville hot coleslaw.” I was going to revolutionize the hotdog business in the greater-Nashville area (and in the process, make tens of thousands of dollars in my side hustle).
Perfectionism is brilliant at making me set sky-high expectations for myself, setting myself up for the inevitable letdown and paralyzing indecision that comes with having to navigate towards an unrealistic future.
The reality always ends up falling somewhere short of the ideal.
And in the gap between the ideal and the reality, I get frustrated. That frustration turns into anger with myself. So, I end up avoiding the thing that caused my frustration (which is precisely the opposite of what I should be doing).
I’ve been reading John Acuff’s book called Finish. In it, he argues that most people don’t finish important projects and items because of their perfectionism. Perfectionism hides in many ways. Sometimes, perfectionism tells you that your work isn’t good enough. Other times perfectionism causes you to unnecessarily complicate things, rather than keeping your goals in focus. Perfectionism is brilliant at coming up with excuses.
Acuff calls some of these “Noble Excuses” because we often hide our perfectionism behind noble-sounding reasons (i.e., “I don’t want to sacrifice my family, therefore I won’t work to get promoted to the next level” or “I would finish my college degree, but I want to be here for my kids.”). These Noble Excuses are simply a way for us to hide behind our perfectionism. They provide us with just enough of a cop-out to where we don’t have to confront our own fears and shortcomings.
My procrastination is actually perfectionism in disguise. My perfectionism causes me to survey hundreds of possibilities, but it also doesn’t allow me to proceed with any one of them when I should. Instead, I let deadlines drive me. The harsher the deadline, the better. I wait until the last minute to pull things out of the proverbial fire. Why? Because if I only have one hour to do something, then I have a reason for the imperfection of the product or project. I can dismiss any criticism–mostly directed from myself–by acknowledging what a fine product it is relative to the time crunch I was under. My procrastination isn’t really procrastination at all. It’s indecision fueled by my own perfectionism.
This is a fairly new revelation for me. I’m working on doing more things imperfectly this year. I’m working on managing my own expectations and being kinder to myself. I’m working on making decisions and dealing with the consequences, on getting things done and moving ahead.
Because growth is messy and imperfect.
And progress beats perfection.