Harnessing The Power of Perfectionism

[4-Minute Read + Audio] If you truly are a perfectionist, then you would know that everything you put out into the world will always be a work in progress. Perfection is an endpoint that may never be reached, it’s not a starting point.

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Harnessing The Power of Perfectionism

If you truly are a perfectionist, then you would know that everything you put out into the world will always be a work in progress.  Perfection is an endpoint that may never be reached, it’s not a starting point.

I jumped online earlier today to do some fact-checking about a famous quote from Thomas Edison. I wanted to use it to prove a point about the process of creativity and its tenuous relationship with perfectionism. Too often perfectionism and creativity are seen as competing forces – that perfectionism drowns creativity. The theory goes that a mind focused on the pursuit of perfection is too rigid for the freewheeling, organic nature of creativity. 

That’s not the case.

Thought vs Action

Creativity and perfectionism are in fact two facets of the same diamond. The only thing that separates them is one lives in a world of thought and action, the other resides in thought only.

Creativity is the process of making something new; new ideas, new connections, new solutions. Creativity is the result of action.

Whereas, perfectionism is a frame of mind that focuses on pursuing perfection, and is founded on the assumption that perfection is attainable. 

Perfectionism offers an endpoint and a set of boundaries within which creativity takes place.  It greatly enhances the value of creativity because if creativity is allowed to run rampant then there can be lots of doing but very little progress.

So technically, perfectionism is goal-oriented creativity. But it’s not often treated that way.

Edison and his lightbulb moment

That’s where Thomas Edison comes into the picture. 

His quote goes something like this.

“I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

Thomas Edison didn’t invent the electric light bulb; that already existed.  What he did do was take the existing invention and experimented, combining it with other ingredients until such time as he created a product that was reliable and could be mass-produced. His creativity had a clear intention and an endpoint.  He focused his effort on perfecting the light bulb for commercial purposes.

Edison also didn’t do 10,000 experiments, according to experts who have studied his records.  Edison himself didn’t know how many attempts he undertook.  The lamp factory that worked with Edison has a record of 2774 experiments within their facilities*.

Edison also didn’t attain the perfect. His light bulb retailed at 75c each in 1884, the equivalent of $22.71 each today. His innovation of the bamboo filament has since been replaced with wire, and incandescent globes have been replaced with halogens, fluorescents and LEDs.  The journey toward commercial perfection is still underway today.

Image: Edison in his workshop. Source unknown.

The lesson for perfectionists

It rankles me when I hear women say they haven’t started something – a project, business, relationship – because they are perfectionists.  Or they don’t deliver on a commitment because “I couldn’t put something out there that wasn’t perfect.” 

If you’ve heard yourself think or say those types of phrases, then you’ll benefit from being a bit more honest with yourself.

You’re not a perfectionist and perfectionism isn’t your problem. 

If you truly were a perfectionist, then you would know that everything you put out into the world will always be a work in progress.  Perfection is an endpoint that may never be reached, it’s not a starting point.

The challenge you face is one of self-esteem. You’re choosing to hide away from the world.

Why?

Fear of not being good enough.

Fear of losing face.

Fear of letting people down.

Those are the actual mindset barriers standing in your way, depriving you from the richness of the journey ahead.

The joy of learning.

The thrill of progress.

Helping other people.

Making the world a better place.

Feeling fulfilled.

Knowing yourself.

Trusting yourself.

How to recalibrate your perfectionism

If you’re a perfectionist and it’s blocking you from doing the things you want to do  – then here is the antidote.

Weigh up which is most important to you – your fear or living life fully.  Then answer these three questions.

  1. What is perfection?
    • Write down your current perception of what perfection would be like.  What you might see, feel, do. What would be possible.
    • For example, if you want to write a book, then imagine how things would be if you wrote the perfect book. Indulge your imagination, write a rich picture of what’s happening at the launch and afterward.
  2. What will be your starting ingredients?
    • Your focus now is to start inventing that future.  Inventors like Edison start with something that already exists and make incremental improvements, refining it toward their desired outcome.
    • In our book example, perhaps there’s a book that’s already written and you have ideas on how the story could be told better. Of perhaps you wonder how the plot of an old movie might play out in a modern context.
  3. What will be your first experiment?
    • Successful inventors don’t try to tackle all the problems they see in one go.  They identify the key aspects that need improvement and work on them one at a time, taking small baby steps. They learn from each attempt before moving on – and trying again!
    • In the beginning any starting point is a good place to start –  because there are 1000, or 10,000 attempts to be made before a viable answer emerges.
    • Pick one thing to focus on and be clear about how you will get feedback on whether or not it has worked. Perhaps you will show it to a mentor, a peer group or observe particular responses. 

*(https://edison.rutgers.edu/about/news/news/the-edisonian/the-edisonian-vol-9-issue-1-winter-2012)

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