Paralyzing Perfectionism

by: Andrew S

November 20, 2010

Writer's blockSemesters back, I had a visiting speaker tell our business communications class that there is no such thing as Writer’s Block. Many of my classmates (as well as myself) were taken aback at this bold assertion — because certainly, we had experienced and could discuss this common phenomenon. We knew intimately the experience, so how dare this speaker invalidate us?

But the speaker continued: “What you call writer’s block is nothing more than your refusal to write crap until you’re all cleared out.”

This seemed reasonable enough for writing (not that I heeded the implied suggestion for fixing writer’s block — I don’t want to be caught dead writing or typing crap, after all!), but I didn’t anticipate the implications elsewhere in my life.

This semester at school has been brutal. All of my teachers have supposed that it’s a really great idea to all assign group projects — without consideration of our workload in other classes. The fun part about these group projects, however, is that they all involve outside agencies and organizations — it’s not just about working on a report or a case together. It’s about helping a growing corporation diagnose what went wrong with its rollout of its new talent management software suite, or helping an understaffed museum advertise its very existence to the diverse constituencies of a county.

This has led to new pressures. Now, the pressure isn’t just to perform for one essay, or to perform for a teacher, or to perform in front of a class…in addition, our reputation, with the community, with the “real world,” so to speak, is at stake.

What I’ve realized here is that writer’s block — or at least, the pathological fear that produces it — certainly exists in this environment…and in a far stronger way. It’s one thing to produce crap…but it’s another thing to produce crap and present it to a stranger in the community, with whom you hope to work for a project and by whom you will be evaluated as a representative of your class, your university, your generation, and by who knows what other criteria.

How can you request a meeting with an elementary school principal when you aren’t sure what you want to say?

How can you be so sure what you want to say when you aren’t even sure what the team’s goals are?

How can you be so sure what the team’s goals are when you’ve never launched a promotional campaign before, and so you don’t know the costs or time requirements to launch one successfully, or even the best practices for reaching people? When you don’t know whether elementary school children can even be made to be interested in a museum that you yourself know you wouldn’t have been interested in when you were a kid?

Why are we taking marketing classes if they don’t give us any inkling of how to actually carry out anything like this? Why are we taking managing classes if we end up managing as we’ve always done before? What is the purpose of a business school?

What I’ve found interesting is the stark difference between my teammates and myself. I feel ashamed at my teammates for being unafraid to move forward without all the details; I feel embarrassed that their materials have flaws, that their presentations lack full understanding of the nuances, that their style is careless.

Why do these people want to sabotage our team?

Microsoft Kin

I wondered what Microsoft could have been thinking here?

(…as an aside, I used to wonder why companies used to release such shoddy products. I used to wonder why video game companies released games that had glaring control problems, or graphical hiccups. Wouldn’t they make sure to test more? Didn’t they have market research that could evaluate what consumers want before releasing the product and having reviewers thrash the product? Wouldn’t they make sure to have something that was absolutely wondrous out the door..? How could companies be so careless..!)

…but why is it then that when I confront others about this, instead, I am the bad guy?

My teammates are angry at me for only asking questions and standing still; they are upset that because I don’t know x, y, and z, I haven’t moved forward with what I know about a through w. What they tell me finally shuts me down, “We understand that we do not have all the information you want, but don’t you understand that if you do nothing at all just because you are afraid of doing SOMETHING wrong, you will have NO chance to do ANYTHING right?”

When I say I shut down, I shut down. I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day. I tried to draft a response after the meeting. I tried to call to riposte. I tried simply to comprehend what they were saying.

But I couldn’t.

I had never thought about it that way.

(The reason why companies release less-than-perfect products is because if they demanded perfection, nothing would be released. One cannot account for everything…and even the things one can account for may not justify the time, resource, or expertise commitment required to address it. Perfection leads to scope expansion, feature creep, running over budget [a budget, I might add, that was probably made on educated guesses that turned out not to be so educated after all].)

I think I’m getting better. It physically, emotionally, and mentally drains me to try to do something with incomplete information. My blood still runs cold whenever I must answer a question with, “I haven’t thought about that; I’ll have to get back to you on that!” I have to turn away whenever I hear criticisms of my presentations or after-action reports that I know could have been fixed had I waited one more day…had I practiced one more time…had I bided my time just a bit longer. I withdraw after every presentation that I know could have been just a bit more polished, despite the fact that the audience can not perceive most of the flaws that I view as glaring.

I am recovering from paralyzing perfectionism.

To Live a Creative Life We Must "Loose" Our Fear of Being Wrong

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16 Responses to Paralyzing Perfectionism

  1. Paralyzing Perfectionism « Irresistible (Dis)Grace on November 20, 2010 at 10:28 AM

    […] This week at Wheat & Tares, I discuss my realization that I Have A Problem: I am a paralyzed perfectionist. […]

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  2. Ben on November 20, 2010 at 12:54 PM

    Your thoughts about perfectionism remind me a lot of something I read last week about software, 1.0s, and feature-creep.

    This is something I struggle with myself.

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  3. Ben on November 20, 2010 at 12:54 PM

    Crap, if my comment is in your spam list, will you add my website to your “ok” list?

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  4. Andrew S on November 20, 2010 at 1:03 PM

    Ben, these days, I can’t even tell why the spam filter spams anything. I hope one day it’ll become smarter.

    I loved the article.

    The one thing I’ve come to realize about Apple is that it’s not that they make perfect products — because there are plenty of people who can point out missing or lacking features…it’s that whenever they do launch something, they are very deliberate about the features they include and the ones they do not, and they do not apologize about the ones they do not include.

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  5. Mike S on November 20, 2010 at 1:09 PM

    Great article. I do think that writer’s block can be real. Perhaps my best solution is just to keep writing. Fortunately, if I don’t like it, I don’t have to show anyone, unlike your project.

    Another way my mind works is to chew on things subconsciously for a few days. Like rock candy crystallizing out of sugar water, bits and pieces come together and gradually form a completed work. This doesn’t always work in the group environment, however.

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  6. Mike S on November 20, 2010 at 1:12 PM

    Another thing I thought of. This can also relate to our attitudes towards the Church. I’ve been a member all my life (over 40 years) with all that entails: mission (even AP), temple marriage, callings, etc. But I’ve never received “The Answer” that it’s true.

    Two ways to approach this: Some might be paralyzed by this with regards to staying in the truth, and their solution is to find something that works better for them. My solution is much like in everything else – just keep plodding away in hopes that something will someday crystallize. I really have no clue if I hoping for something that will never happen, or if it’s just around the corner. But I have to accept imperfection, otherwise I’d drive myself batty.

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  7. Andrew S on November 20, 2010 at 2:16 PM

    Mike S, I never thought about using a rock candy analogy (maybe it’s because I’ve never actually made rock candy, only eaten it…)

    Your analogy to the church is thornier, IMO. I’ll have to chew on that for a while.

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  8. Glenn on November 20, 2010 at 8:52 PM

    You would probably freak out if you saw the amount of imperfection and inefficiency that goes on in my neck of the woods by people without the kind of background and training that you are getting who are put in pretty important decision-making positions who still somehow amazingly turn double-digit growth year after year. We have an unofficial slogan “ready, fire, aim” — perfectionism can certainly paralyze progress, but you have to find that balance with quality as well, constantly trying to improve on the go. Anyway, interesting read.

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  9. Andrew S on November 20, 2010 at 9:16 PM

    I probably wouldn’t even have to leave my neck of the woods to freak out.

    But it just seems to me that regardless of the training that we get, we all are operating inefficiently and imperfectly. (E.g., financial crises are caused by people with far more training and background that I have or will have).

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  10. kiley on November 21, 2010 at 1:47 PM

    This was a great post. I relate to the topic all too well. I know that my past and still present tendencies to be a perfectionist are all about being right. The quote that you added at the end of the post was really great. There is not thing wrong with being wrong. (I would add the qualifier that there is nothing wrong with being wrong as long as you recognize it and learn from it.)

    It is not simply a fear of being wrong though. I think some of us link our self-worth to being right therefore being wrong seems reflect personal flaws. Being wrong seems to somehow make us feel like we are less…

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  11. Andrew S on November 21, 2010 at 3:12 PM

    Thanks for the comment, Kiley.

    That is an important insight. Especially since most of us are taught that our worth is tied to what we accomplish, any defects in our products is seen to be a defect in *us*.

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  12. diane on November 21, 2010 at 4:25 PM

    I think this is why I have a fear of speaking at sacrament meeting. Aside from the fact that I have a speech impediment, I always feel pretty stupid compared to some members who speak and have a greater knowledge of the gospel, so I wind up saying nothing even though I know what I had to say was valuable to someone.

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  13. Andrew S on November 21, 2010 at 4:53 PM


    I can understand that, although for some reason, I have *always* loved speaking in public and in Sacrament meeting. For me, I always go into extreme research mode before the talk, so even if I don’t know a lot about the topic before I give my talk, I will have learned a bunch by the time I’ve finished.

    I’ve never had a speech impediment, however…I think that would change my attitude considerably.

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  14. jmb275 on November 22, 2010 at 7:14 AM

    For me, I always go into extreme research mode before the talk, so even if I don’t know a lot about the topic before I give my talk, I will have learned a bunch by the time I’ve finished.

    Well Andrew, I think we’re cut from the same cloth. And similarly, like you describe in the OP, I absolutely DETEST having my name attached to things that aren’t perfect.

    I compare what you’ve described here to writing a journal or conference paper. The truth is, there is ALWAYS someone who will find something wrong with my current approach, mathematical formulae, sentences, results, etc. etc. I’ve seen it over and over again. And yet, somehow, science and engineering continue to solve problems and make the world a better place. In this way, I think it is important to not look at our contributions to the world purely in the positive sense, but also the negative sense. That is, sometimes our contribution to the world is to show that a certain formulation, product, design, etc. is NOT the best way to do something. And the truth is, MOST of science and engineering is discovering what is NOT the solution and then, if we’re lucky, stumbling on the right one.

    I try to keep in mind the PROCESS of discovery, of publishing, of contributing to the world’s knowledge rather than just the end product. There is value in the process, and it is likely that we, as perfectionists, underestimate that value!

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  15. Andrew S on November 22, 2010 at 7:58 AM

    I am also excellent at showing why certain formulations, products, designs, etc., are NOT the best way to do things.

    but then people call me a pessimist.

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  16. Project Management « Irresistible (Dis)Grace on February 24, 2011 at 3:57 PM

    […] I have no problem with doing anything in the world…but as soon as uncertainty creeps in, I am paralyzed by my perfectionism. (This is funny…I actually do a lot of things in a subpar way, but sometimes, it bothers me […]

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