The tyranny of the Perfection Trap and 3 simple rules to tame it.

Once, when I was in my mid-twenties, I refused to host a dinner party because I didn’t have a dinner service with ten matching place settings. I could easily have mixed two smaller (but different) sets, yet I fell headfirst into the Perfection Trap and turned down my chance to host our wine club friends. Another friend stepped in and hosted. Days later, it dawned on me; I had not even noticed what plates or bowls she used. For all I could remember, we may have eaten off a selection of wooden boards, paper plates, and plastic bowls! I missed out on hosting a memory-making evening simply because I couldn’t promise myself the end result would be “perfect.” The Trap had triumphed.

The Perfection Trap plagued me all through my twenties; I would rather not do something than do it and face a less than perfect result. But whose idea of perfection was I trying to achieve? I guarantee the only person measuring the level of perfection was me!

This Perfection Trap swallowed up so much time that could have been spent on – well anything. Whether it was an outfit, a meal, or an event, I would agonize over every detail, over-think every point, dissect every element. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved this process, the preciseness of it, but I failed to realize that I was so wedded to the concept of perfect that I couldn’t evolve past that point.

I now know this striving for perfection also hampered my will to learn new things. Learn to cook Thai food? No way—merely because I knew it was unlikely, I would trot out a Michelin-starred Thai meal on my first try. Learning, growing, developing are messy exercises. You get a bunch of stuff wrong, and it could be years before the end result matches the perfect image you had in your mind.

I learned there was a big difference between going for my best and going for perfection.

My thirties and, no surprise, the arrival of children brought me to “good enough is good enough.” (Babies quickly let you know they don’t respect the notion of perfect.) Although the concept of good enough being good enough had always seemed like settling for second best, I began to realize my constant striving for perfection was sucking the joy out of so many activities. Even if I couldn’t find the perfect outfit for the party, I still had as much fun!

So how did I tame the Trap? I adopted 3 simple rules. 

The first was to choose ‘perfection’ projects wisely: Make 64 perfect cupcakes for the kindergarten party after a full day of running my own business, or spend the time with my children? Answer: buy the darn cupcakes.

The second was to set time limits: A client needed a proposal. A ‘perfect’ proposal would take 3-4 hours. A good enough proposal would take 1-2. (Full disclosure: the client couldn’t tell the difference!)

The third was to learn to be okay with what I thought of as failing: Friends for dinner, and all you had time to prep was soup, bread and cheese? It’s fine. People don’t care as much as you think they do.

Whenever I sense the Perfection Trap opening its jaws, I remember how I felt at that wine club dinner. Young and happy with not a care in the world, we sat on my friend’s verandah on a perfect Cape Town summer’s night, and all I wished for was that I had been the one hosting. 

Perfection is an illusion based on our own perception. 

As always, thanks to those who share these musings!

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