Your Pencils Could Always Be Sharper

Photo by Ramakant Sharda on Unsplash

Quick Summary

Have you ever heard that answer in job interviews?

The one that makes you feel faintly like defenestrating the guilty party who says, "Oh, my biggest flaw? Hahaha, I'm a perfectionist!"

Only we don't mean it as a flaw, we mean that we have no flaws (or none that we'll admit to) and this pseudo-flaw is actually a virtue.

Except it isn't.

That pesky perfectionism we all cling to to a greater or lesser extent is destroying our self-worth.

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“Shame loves perfectionists. It’s so easy to keep us quiet. Perfectionism is armour.” ~ Brené Brown

Have you ever heard that answer in job interviews? The one that makes you feel faintly like defenestrating the guilty party, only you can’t quite put your finger on why?

It comes after the dreaded question: “What’s your biggest flaw?” I mean, nobody wants to say, “Well, actually, I’d rather gnaw off my own toenails than work as part of a team.”

So, instead, you often hear something along the lines of, “Hahaha, my biggest flaw is that I’m a perfectionist!”

People say it in a self-deprecating, gently mocking way, so you know they really have no flaws so the one they trot out is one that’s often counted as a virtue.

Well, it’s not a virtue.

It’s your worst trait. And it’s also my worst trait.

Perfectionism keeps us all stuck, and it may well drive us into an early grave.

The 20-Ton Shield

Dr Brené Brown calls perfectionism “the 20-ton shield”. She says “we carry it around thinking it’s going to protect us from being hurt. But it protects us from being seen… It’s a way of thinking that says, ‘If I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect — I can avoid or minimise criticism, blame, and ridicule.’”

Think about that for a moment.

Perfectionism doesn’t protect us from pain. It keeps us invisible — and that’s disastrous for humans in general, but especially when you’re running a business.

But Aren’t High Standards Good?

I hold myself — and others — to high standards, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I want to be the best I can possibly be at what I do, all the time.

That doesn’t mean I need to be the best in the world (if you can’t measure it objectively — like the fastest 100m sprinter — the “best” is subjective). But it does mean I always want to do my best.

Sometimes I fall short, and I need to work on being at peace with that.

Some people call this perfectionism, but it’s not. It’s just high standards. You have high standards, too, and that’s great. The world would be a better place if everyone raised their bar a little.

Actual perfectionism, though, is paralysing. It’s not about having high standards and trying to do better. It’s about setting ourselves up to fail. It’s self-sabotage, disguised as a virtue.

We beat ourselves up if we don’t reach our impossibly high goals, and we expect more of ourselves than we ever do of anyone else.

What Is Perfectionism, Really?

If you’ve fallen into the trap of believing perfectionism is somehow a positive trait, as I have in the past, let’s fix that.

Perfectionism is not striving for excellence and it’s certainly not about healthy achievement and growth. It’s a defensive mechanism that allows you to hide.

Perfectionism is not self-improvement, it’s about trying to earn approval. It’s not about getting better, it’s about being seen to be better — and the difference is crucial.

Perfectionism is a debilitating belief that we are what we accomplish, and that our worth is tied to how well we do a thing. It leads us to believe that we are our mistakes, not that we’re humans who make mistakes.

Perfectionism strangles achievement. It’s correlated with depression, addiction, anxiety, paralysis, and missed opportunities. It keeps us on the fringes of life, where everything is safe and familiar, instead of in the trenches where the action happens.

Perfectionism is a function of shame. It tricks us into thinking we won’t feel shame if only we’re perfect; but the truth is, perfectionism comes out because we feel shame about falling short.

And not only that, it has negative health consequences, too.

Fretting Yourself Into An Early Grave

Professor Andrew Hill at York St. John University conducted a meta-analysis (combining data from multiple studies to identify common findings or effects) of 43 previous studies on perfectionism.

He found a link between perfectionism and burnout, which isn’t terribly surprising… but he found something else, too.

He discovered that setting yourself up for continual failure by having standards so high no actual human could reach them can lead to constant worry about making mistakes, letting people down, or not being good enough.

Hill found this “can contribute to serious health problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, fatigue and even early mortality.”

In other words, you can worry yourself into an early grave. Which, I think you’ll agree, isn’t ideal.

And if that doesn’t get your attention, try this: on a more immediate timeline, perfectionism and the problems it causes can destroy your love and enthusiasm for what you do. I’ve been there, and it’s awful.

There’s a difference between doing your best and knowing you’re doing your best and being okay with not quite meeting your goals every single time — and setting yourself such lofty goals you always fail and always feel like crap because of it.

Live In Glorious Technicolour

I don’t want you to feel like crap — and I don’t want you to stay stuck. I want you to live a full life in glorious technicolour, giving no fucks about what strangers may think of you. Strangers don’t matter.

Friends, family, clients — they matter.

So here’s what I’d like you to do, starting now:

Be willing to do something you can’t do yet. Take a risk. Learn that language. Learn to play an instrument. Take a pole dancing class. Even if you can’t do it perfectly right away. I’m learning to play the guitar at the moment, and it’s delightful and frustrating in equal measure. The frustration is part of the delight, though — because when I finally do crack the exercise I’m working on, it feels soooooooo good. Perfectionism stops us from trying new things in case we look stupid. (So what if we do?)

Remember the end product isn’t the most important part of this. Being able to play the guitar will be brilliant, but it’s not the most vital piece. The journey — learning — is where the real pleasure lies. Perfectionism stops us from being present in the moment and savouring the process.

Finish things, then ship them. Perfectionism stops us finishing, because nothing is ever good enough. Your pencils can always be sharper… but they’re sharp enough now.

Start things. Perfectionism causes us to procrastinate, to wait until we’re “ready” or we’re “sure”. Come closer, because I have a secret to tell you: we’re never ready. We’re never sure. Start now and see where it takes you.

Work faster and ship your product now. Perfectionism makes us take far too long, and that means we miss our moment. We miss opportunities. We try to go far beyond excellent enough and strive for perfect… but perfect doesn’t exist. Do it. Do it well, then ship it. Then improve it as you go along.

Be happy about other people’s successes. Perfectionism stops us from taking joy in others’ achievements and makes us focus on our own perceived shortcomings. It makes us small and envious. Be generous and delighted.

Play. Play games, have fun, be silly. Perfectionism stops us from doing those things because people might think we’re idiots or not as good as we should be. Let me ask you this: why do you care? Watch children play, and try to remember how to do it. Kids don’t care what others think (until adults teach them to care); nor should you. Not when it comes to having fun.

What Are You Waiting For?

Perfectionism destroys your sense of self-worth and makes you believe you’re not doing anything worthwhile. It makes you believe you’re not really making a difference in the world. Humans need to feel like we’re making a difference; making money alone isn’t enough for us.

You are making a difference, I promise you that. Even if you don’t realise it.

So stop waiting. Start doing that thing you’ve been putting off, and start it now. There is no better time.

If the thing you’ve been putting off is writing your book, ask yourself why. Is it because you’re afraid you’re not a good enough writer? (We can fix that. You can get better.)

Is it because you don’t think you have anything to say that people will want to hear? (You do. We can pull stories out of you that will hold people spellbound.)

Or is it because you’re afraid people will hate your book, and ridicule you?

Some people might hate your book, it’s true. But most won’t, and you almost certainly won’t be ridiculed. I want you to focus on the people who love you and your book. The ones you can help. They’re the only ones who matter.

Stop waiting. Start writing.

Start Writing Your Book Today

If you want to learn more about how to write, self-publish, and market a book for your business, snaffle yourself a copy of How The Hell Do You Write A Book? Then check out the blog and podcast for more articles and guides. If you want a little (or a lot) more help, find out how you can work with me.

About Vicky...

Vicky Fraser is the founder of Moxie Books and author of How The Hell Do You Write A Book and Business For Superheroes. She helps business owners write life-changing books, connect with readers and new customers, and grow their businesses. When she's not doing that, she's hanging from a trapeze by her feet.

About the Author Vicky Fraser