Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Perfectionism is a Loser’s Strategy

July 24th, 2012 · 36 comments

Ocean-Front Writing

Yesterday, I submitted an important grant proposal. In a perhaps overzealous interpretation of my adventure studying philosophy, I wrote the bulk of the content on the island of Madeira, in a hotel room overlooking the Atlantic, which turned out to be wonderfully monastic and productive.

The process was hard. I probably spent around 100 hours total; some energized, but most mired in the dreary hinterland of editing. In standard Study Hacks fashion, however, I was organized, and able to spread the work out.

I bring this up because throughout the process I found myself wrestling with insecurity. Every evening, when I was done with my careful plan for the day, the voice of doubt arrived trying to convince me to spend a few more hours editing or to bother a few more people to take a look at my draft. Did I really want a little bit of laziness to be the reason I lost this award?, it would ask.

I was experiencing the classic battle between perfectionism and lifestyle design. This battle is familiar to those who embrace my career craftsman philosophy, because this philosophy requires a balance between becoming “so good they can’t ignore you” and then leveraging this value to build a life you love.

The former goal attracts perfectionism while the latter can’t work if it’s around.

I’m writing this post to share with you the thought process that helps me navigate this mental minefield…

The Source of Value 

Whether you’re a professor, writer, student, or entrepreneur, your job is to produce products that are valuable to your audience. The more valuable your product, the more reward you receive.

If my grant “product” is valuable, I get the grant. If a writer’s blog “product” is valuable, she gets an audience. And so on.

At the top of this post, I put a plot that displays my intuitive understanding of product value. Consider, in particular, the column on the left side of the plot, which breaks down the contribution of three different factors as follows:

  • The vast majority of your product’s value comes from your underlying ability.
  • The next biggest contributor is providing reasonable packaging for your product. For most audiences, there’s a quality threshold you must cross to be taken seriously. You gain non-trivial value for crossing this threshold. It’s not as important as ability, but it’s important enough that you shouldn’t ignore it.
  • The final contributor is the time you spend obsessively polishing and worrying and tweaking after you passed the threshold required by your audience. This perfectionism-driven work is by far the least important to the overall value of your product.

View from balcony where I wrote much of my proposal.

For example, for my grant proposal, the most important predictor of my success is my underlying ability as a researcher.

Presenting this vision in reasonable packaging — e.g., a clear, thoughtful proposal — though perhaps less important than the proposed research, is still important enough for me to spend 100 carefully-planned hours working on it.

To continue to obsessively polish after that point, however, would offer diminishing returns at best. Once the reviewers understand my vision and see that I’m serious, it’s the quality of the vision that will dominate the process moving forward.

A Loser’s Strategy

At this point, you might still counter that even if perfectionism adds only a little value, it’s still worth it, as every bit helps in a competitive world.

This inane observation brings me to the right column in the plot at the top of this post. This column reflects my understanding of where stress comes from when creating a product. In particular:

  • Building your ability is not particularly stressful. It’s something you work on day after day, month after month. It adds up to lots of culumlative deliberate practice, but no particular day is all that bad.
  • Constructing reasonable packaging can be slightly more stressful as it often requires a lot of work in a relatively short period. But, if you’re a Study Hacks reader, you can tame this process with smart schedules — leaving you enough free time to end your day with a bottle of Coral, watching the sun set over the Atlantic.
  • Perfectionism, by contrast, can be incredibly stressful. It puts you in a state of constant worry that you’re on the brink of failure. It also tends to push you past your energy reserves and into exhaustion.

This is why I call perfectionism a loser’s strategy: you’re generating a disproportionate amount of stress for a small amount of value. The only reason this strategy makes sense is if you’re convinced that you’re never going to get any better at what you do, leaving this minor polishing at the margins all that’s left in your control.

This is a sad view of life.

Here’s the alternative: focus on getting better. The benefits of improving your underlying skills will dwarf the benefits of perfectionism. If you fall just short of some recognition this year then the next year it will be an easy win and the year after that it will seem trivial. In the long run, in other words, this is the approach that allows exceptional achievement to flourish in a life you love to live — an approach, I can attest from recent experience, that lets you shut down the computer and take a dive into the ocean.

36 thoughts on “Perfectionism is a Loser’s Strategy

  1. Steven Davis says:

    Very good.

    Except.

    “Ability” implies to me some level of native talent. “Capability” may be a better term for your current skills, knowledge, experience, and resources.

  2. Study Hacks says:
    “Ability” implies to me some level of native talent.

    I’m not a big believer in native talent. What we think is native talent is often an ability that was practiced for years without you realizing this is what you were doing. But it’s still practiced. And it can still be improved by practice. And so on…

  3. Caro says:

    Excellent post and I completely agree that the bulk of the stress comes from the non-productive obsessing.

    I think it is sometimes challenging though to know when the threshold from ‘reasonable’ to ‘perfectionist’ has been crossed.

    I know I sometimes don’t notice until I blow by it, exhausted and stressed, with ‘reasonable’ a faint speck in my rear-view mirror. I suppose some of it is just experience/intuition and having good information about what your audience may consider ‘reasonable’. It’s hard though if you are attached to the work/outcome.

    How did you know you reached the edge of reason at 100 hours and not after 50 or 110?

  4. Nami K says:

    Amazing, Cal, thanks! Sadly, I spent my college/grad school years in fear of failure (before I discovered Study Hacks!), and thus being on the stressed/perfectionism side of things. Now as a postdoc I’m working on the ability/capability side of things and this post is right on! Thanks so much for your encouragement/inspiration!! <3

  5. Mateus Braga says:

    Continuous self-improvement is awesome.

    And a good way to fight perfectionism, for me, is to think it’s not the end of world if the “product” is not that well accepted. It was part of my improvement.

    I believe “reasonable packaging” has more impact in the value. Not that it should, but I think that’s what happens.

    Thanks for the post

  6. Anthony Landreth says:

    There is a really nice documentary on Woody Allen that came out recently where similar concerns are expressed, but in the context of financing the next film project. If you Google “Woody Allen productivity” one of the first hits is a Business Week chart summarizing the productivity lessons from the documentary. Trial by trial (film, research project) you only have to do well enough to earn another trial, to stay in the game so to speak. If you are confident that you are doing well enough to keep playing, then you can at least put the worst-case career scenario to rest.

  7. John says:

    Isn’t an obsessive focus on perfection one way to hone a skill?

  8. Kuhan says:

    Dear Cal,

    Should I work towards the Putnam Competition in college?
    What is your opinion on joining challenging competitions?

  9. Study Hacks says:
    I think it is sometimes challenging though to know when the threshold from ‘reasonable’ to ‘perfectionist’ has been crossed.

    This is a good point. I think this is helped by focus. If you keep your long term attention focused on a small number of fields, you gain experience over time about these thresholds.

    Isn’t an obsessive focus on perfection one way to hone a skill?

    This is a good question that circles a subtle point. A lot of this discussion is semantic, but I think what I’m honing in on here is that perfectionism often plays out in the packaging of your ability. In my example, in the writing of a grant proposal. The underlying skill that matters is my research ability, and obsessive work on the grant does not help that ability, and really can’t add all that much more value to it. Obsessively focusing on improving a small number of skills seems useful. Obsessively polishing and tweaking the packaging of these skills is not.

    There is a really nice documentary on Woody Allen that came out recently where similar concerns are expressed, but in the context of financing the next film project.

    Is this the American Experience documentary? I watched that. I agree, it had great insights about his process.

    Should I work towards the Putnam Competition in college?

    I care less about the specific activity in isolation and more into how it fits into your life. My Romantic Scholar model of college life has you take a reasonable course load, focus on a very small number of extracurriculars, and leave yourself plenty of time to do the above. If Putnam is your main focus, then go for it. If you’re squeezing it in with ten other things, beware; burn out lurks.

  10. Dave says:

    How did you know you reached the edge of reason at 100 hours and not after 50 or 110?

    Isn’t an obsessive focus on perfection one way to hone a skill?

    The key seems to be consciously setting the bar that you’ll aim to surpass. I suppose the ideal would be to do that before you get started: “What will this look like when it’s finished? How much time will it take? What level of quality do I need? What’s my plan?”

    In reality, it sounds like setting/adjusting that bar mid-project is a skill we would improve with practice. I want to practice stepping back from my work and asking “is this already what it needs to be? What, specifically, needs to be done so I can call it finished?”

    Stressful perfectionism, I think, sounds a lot like “random acts of improvement”. Yes, there’s still improvement happening, but it’s not toward any effective goal.

  11. Dinesh says:

    Great post! Amidst the current trend of “be obsessive, chase perfectionism, leave no stone unturned”, this is a very refreshing take and read!

  12. Anthony Landreth says:

    “Woody Allen: A Documentary”… I think it’s a re-release of the American Masters material. This is a link to the summary: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-06-21/the-woody-allen-school-of-productivity

  13. M. says:

    Thanks for publishing this. I’d love to see a follow-up post on how you can focus on obsessively building skills without going overboard into the land of perfectionism-driven obsession. It takes a lot of patience to really build up skills, but I find that in practice it’s hard to obsess and be patient and the same time.

  14. DER says:

    Hi Cal, what would be the best way to cultivate the ability to sit still and focus hard?

  15. Cal,

    A lot of painful experience recently led me to remember this (though let’s hope I actually internalize what I learned.) That said, I want to take what you said one step further:

    Perfectionism gives us not diminishing, but negative returns, and I mean this as a first order effect (the reason why it would as a second order effect–exhaustion–is easy to see).

    Why? Because as someone who has anxiety issues, I realized that “overthinking” is a terrible choice of words to describe obsessing/ruminating. Obsessive behavior involves very little cognition; it’s the process of repeating our biases to ourselves over and over and over again. The result is that we actually become completely blind to feedback, information, and internal breakthroughs.

    This is one of the dangers of having been told our entire lives that we’re rational computers going around making logical calculations about information.

  16. Jill String says:

    If writing is your output, then polishing is part of the process. I’m thinking here of things like writing a book, or perhaps a paper. But the key thing here imhe is to leave a gap before polishing. This will refresh you, and you will return with fresh eyes, and looking at the work more as the unknown reader, than as the writer who was too immersed in the process. Proofreading is a similar kind of polishing, and benefits from a short delay before final proofing.

    The way I write in draft mode as it were, in each sentence the conclusion comes first, and then the lead-up. I spent quite some time just rearranging each sentence in my draft dissertation to reverse this!

  17. Bipasha says:

    80/20 should be the stop threshold. After that its just a land of diminishing returns. To do the remaining 20% of the work well you need to expend 80% more energy.

    But our current school system with all the hyper competitiveness molds an individual to strive to be a perfectionist. 80% grade is not good enough you have to get 99% and be the 1st in class, especially with chinese and indian parents.

  18. John Kim says:

    Alexander: Nicely described! I also think perfectionism does add a cramp on our mental facilities. It ultimately knocks us senseless, like adding minimal improvements that don’t turn out so beneficial.

    Obsessive meticulousness can only fail big time.

  19. Taha says:

    Hey Cal! I don’t want to waste too much of your time and this comment isn’t specific to this article, so I’ll keep this short: thanks for everything and for being so unselfish!

  20. Hey Cal,

    Not sure I agree with the weight you gave to packaging.

    The Washington Post’s experiment with Joshua Bell demonstrated clearly that, no matter what the skill level brought to the table, packaging was an essential component to value perception and delivery.

  21. Melvin says:

    Cal, you’re such a wonder; that this very post just got me out the perfectionist thinking (while I was doing it)! Thanks!

  22. Juliana says:

    @Martin – I do agree with you that packaging is an essential component, but fretting over an already neat package is what Cal is pointing to I think. As an example, I and my husband were cleaning our windows a couple weeks ago. These windows were higher than our ladder could reach, so he used an extension bar to take the squeegee all the way to the top. Of course, it left a few lines (which were visible just to his eyes), which was not as good if done by hand. He was unhappy about it and wanted to spend a few extra hours to do _the_ perfect job, and expected me to hold the ladder while he climbed higher. Is it worth the effort and the time spend by the two of us?

    My point is, if a package is good and if an enormous amount of effort is put to get to the next minuscule level of perfection, I believe that time is worth spent in doing something else more productive. There is not point in getting over obsessive about perfection.

  23. Ashok says:

    In some ways this blog is the most inspiring thing I’ve come across. I notice at work I have an idea of a perfect solution and then get bogged down and frozen when I realize the magnitude of the task. Of course, the better strategy is to level up and improve with each iteration.

  24. Emily Warren says:

    I like the idea of understanding how perfectionism manifests in our work. Have you every heard of Negative Perfectionism? It’s becoming a topic of focus in psychology. It’s associated with dichotomous (black and white) thinking and rigidity, which I’m sure we can attest are NOT helpful in doing creative work.

  25. demarcus says:

    I think you’re post is great. You are very wise and a clear thinker. But one thing you don’t consider is emotional problems, the development of bad habits, destructive relationships a lack of self discipline. I think the most important thing to have is hunger and desire a definitive purpose to achieve a goal . Without this nothing else matters !

  26. Alexander Boland says:

    John, almost: I was actually arguing that the obsession is not even as good as “minimal improvements at high energy cost”. We may actually be not improving at all, because obsession is based on bias, not rational productivity. (Okay, yes, people are 100% bias, but you know what I mean.)

  27. Jookanq says:

    When it comes to value perception and delivery, packaging often weighs dramatically more than skill/intrinsic value. You only have to look at the marketing of products and skills on the internet and around you to see this.

  28. yora says:

    Theres perfectionism and theres perfectionism. Nothing is good in overdose. If for some perfectionism is attention to details and beind utterly meticulous in whatever they are doing, it should be applauded. If it is constant obsession with time-consuming and unproductive minutia, it is self-defeating. The bottomline is that life is full of gray zones and separating everything into black and white is oftentimes impossible.
    Speaking of passion and natural talent, here’s a very interesting letter by someone who was very successful in his field: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/07/whatever-you-like-doing-do-it.html

  29. ana says:

    as someone who has anxiety issues, I realized that “overthinking” is a terrible choice of words to describe obsessing/ruminating. Obsessive behavior involves very little cognition; it’s the process of repeating our biases to ourselves over and over and over again.

    Alexander, thanks a lot for writing that. It helped me put my own issues into perspective.

  30. @Juliana: thanks for the reply. I agree with what you said about perfectionism. But when you look at the graph at the top of the post, packaging is given very little weight as far as product value goes. My comment about Joshua Bell targeted that piece of the the graph specifically. All ability + insufficient packaging = no value.

  31. Gab says:

    Hi,

    considering a 8:30am-5:30pm work schedule, where you already take your dog aout and do some excercise, I was wondering: what do you do with the free time?

    I can pretty much imagine that successful people would try to use this spare time to gain new skills, deepen into new interests. But I can certainly not imagine doing “nothing” but watching TV or reading news in the internet.

    What do you think?

  32. sc says:

    I wonder what the funding rates are in your subfield.

    In the biomedical world, truly excellent PIs still have a $10^6/y. Veterans from study sections agree that the top third of applications are often indistinguishable, and pickup lines are usually <10%.

    In theory, I think you're right, but you do downplay the noise–and its potentially large effect on career trajectories (and mental health…).

  33. sc says:

    (Commenting again because I forgot to edit for html.)

    I wonder what the funding rates are in your subfield.

    In the biomedical world, truly excellent PIs still have less than a 30% chance (and some would argue much less) of funding on any NIH or NSF cycle. It’s simply not enough to do great science. The proposal has to be excellent [i]and[/i] you have to be a rockstar, although NIH has been experimenting with various provisions to try to protect newbie rockstars who cannot compete with labs with 10 y of more than $10^6/y. Veterans from study sections describe that the top third of applications are often indistinguishable, and pickup lines are usually <10%.

    In theory, I think you're right, but you do downplay the noise — and its potentially large effect on career trajectories (and mental health…).

  34. Diana says:

    i have that nagging voice inside my head telling me to push beyond my limits. It tells me to drink coffee and keep working even though I’ve already done today’s work. The voice comes in whenever I’m having fun and not working… it usually takes on my mother’s and father’s tone, belittling me and making me feel guilty. I guess it’s perfectionism? You’re right I have incredible stress. And I need to be more patient. Keep working but focus on getting better, not being perfect :)

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