I am a rehabilitated perfectionist. How did I originally get to be that type of person? Probably because I was born with that personality trait. Or perhaps it’s a result of my German-origin parents (what’s called in Yiddish a “yekke” – but that can degenerate into “yekke-putz”). I can recall only one incident when I was young that might have egged it on: I came home from school one day with a 98 on my math test, and my father asked me: “why didn’t you get 100?” But that was the only time I ever heard that line at home (although it has stuck in my head, so who knows?). “Tiger parents” they were not, although they expected that at least I always put in a good effort.

Perfectionism is a silent “disease” – not anatomical but rather psychological. When we are faced with such a person, it’s also almost always hidden from sight – or perhaps I should say that most of us can’t see it hiding in front of our very eyes. That’s because we tend to look with envy or awe at successful people, or at least those who produce things that are way above what we are capable of. But all that hides the inner turmoil – or at least nagging angst – of the “successful” person. Their “problem” is that they set an impossibly high bar for themselves, and since they can’t really reach it, they get disappointed with what they have produced. That at times can lead them to waste inordinate amounts of time “fixing,” “improving,” “redoing” or other types of “productive procrastinations” that are actually very unproductive.

There are two reasons for such added unproductivity. First, perfectionists can never fill their own Olympian expectations. The attempt is akin to Xeno’s Paradox: you can keep on getting closer and closer to your goal, but each “half increment advance” only brings you that much closer – you don’t ever “arrive.” A second reason, as with almost every other area of life: the “Last Mile” is the most difficult or most expensive (in time or money).

But let’s say that ultimately a perfectionist does succeed in reaching perfection after great effort. What was gained? What was lost? The gain is minimal, if we are to compare the “really good” (even “great”) initial product with the final one of “perfection.” Meanwhile, what is lost is precisely that: WHILE s/he was redoing and refining the product again and again (and again), s/he could have produced all sorts of other very good/great things – worth far more than the minor incremental improvement of that initial, one product.

There are, of course some exceptions. If we are working on a work of art (fiction, article, computer program, or any other “product” for which we hope/expect it to last for a very long time), then it does make some sense to take the time to refine over and over. Mozart was notorious for simply dashing off whole symphonies and sonatas with nary a second look – until he worked on his later quartets and quintets (revolutionary for their time), for which we see in his score a huge amount of changes. For understandable reasons, composers in general can be given lots of leeway in their path to musical “perfection.” As the 20th century compositional giant Arnold Schoenberg once explained: “A composer’s most important tool is an eraser.”

Furthermore, none of this is to suggest that we shouldn’t look at our “first draft” as a rough sample of the final product. Some people (“hares”) work straight through in a creative frenzy; they need to go back and carefully polish their work. Other people (“turtles”) slog through an initial creation; their work might be closer to “ready for prime time,” but here they have to consider the totality of what they have done, given how much time elapsed between the beginning part and end section of their work – two poles that might be less connected than warranted. In either case (and other working styles as well), checking and refining is not neurotic perfectionism but rather good work practice. Checking and refining several times over is a problem, probably hiding such a psychological issue.

So how did I “heal” myself from my “disease”? I simply set a hard and fast rule: maximum TWO additional “polishing/proofing” run-throughs. After that, no matter what, I send it off. Therefore, if you find a minor error here and there in this essay, so be it. My “extra” time – as will be yours, whatever you’re doing – is better spent moving on to the next project.

In the final analysis (hopefully, not too much analysis), it behooves all of us to internalize the immortal saying: “perfection is the enemy of accomplishment.”

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