December 26, 2011

Confessions of a Perfectionist

Confessions of a perfectionist.

It’s only a normal part of human behavior that we mostly like what we are naturally good at, and the better we get, the more more excel. I have had the fortune to be both lucky and good in many parts of my life – in fact, I have built an entire career around this.

While many people are happy with being good at what they do, I have always been a bit of a self-driven perfectionist.  If I examine my career, it has been propelled forward, in part, by my continual drive to get better at every process I touch – even when something is being done well, I want to do it better. I have also been very fortunate – having mostly designed by own job – that there are very few things I ever have to do that I don’t like. This is great for a perfectionist because it means that I don’t have to spend hours working tirelessly at things that I am not interested in.

Now for the confession.

One way a real tried-and-true perfectionist maintains an (read – my) excellent track record is by simply not taking on things that they don’t have a high confidence they can succeed in. For example, having already tried my hand at math when young and knowing I was really not naturally good at it, I was not going to follow in the footsteps of any of my family members who are accountants. That would have been a recipe for failure and frustration.

So now I am running. I have failed at running before, more than once.

It’s not that I have never been athletic. I spent many years engaged in fairly challenging martial arts (Academy of Kung Fu), and I have done yoga for almost 20 years. I often though that I should be able to run, but somehow I just couldn’t find anything positive in it – it hurt, it was not really fun, it often required me to be outdoors in inclement weather (I lived in Portland, Oregon for 13 years), it precipitated my asthma, etc. Ultimately, with each attempt, I never got good enough to make it effective exercise – so I would stop and go back to hings I liked, to things that were comfortable. Running was uncomfortable, and I was unsuccessful at it, so I did not want to do it.

So here I am today, knee-deep in a commitment to a thing I have repeatedly failed out. Can’t you here the words in your head already: “If at first you don’t succeed…” But here is the truth – if you don’t have a good reason to “try, try again” most of us won’t. We perfectionists especially will move on to the thing we can succeed at because failure is a black mark on our record.

Here is the trick I have come up with so far. To keep myself running I have had to really narrow my definition of success. Let’s call it the theory of microsuccess. When I started to run, I couldn’t actually run – so my first goal was very small – I am going to run for 5 minutes. I built from there very slowly so that each very small incremental goal achieved was a very small but important success.

Perhaps one secret to succeeding is simply not to fail, and the way to not fail is to not set goals that reach too far beyond your development.

Dozens of microsuccesses later, I am still running and even though I am not on my way to being a world class athlete, I feel pretty accomplished.

Still, the temptation is always there. I have friends who are runners – good runners – and I catch myself wanting to be as good as they are. One day, might I run a marathon, sure? But should that be my next goal? Not if I don’t want to have each and every run feel like an exercise in futility.

Wish I had known this trick the first time I took physics.




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