“If you are going to drive for perfection, you have to be strong enough to handle imperfection.” – Jared Tendler, Office Hours #14 (Yeah I’m quoting myself, it’s a good line)
Perfectionism is a broad, complex problem that shows up in a number of different ways. I actually talked about one of them, when you procrastinate to avoid being less than perfect, in last month’s blog.
The thing with perfectionism, however, is that you can’t just label it as “bad,” because it is also a high driver of motivation. That motivation, in turn, helps you achieve impressive and sometimes big goals.
Being motivated to aim high is important and I don’t want you to stop. And yet, you can’t label perfectionism as all good either because while aiming high is great, there are a number of negative consequences that can come from it. Most notably, perfectionism can damage your confidence. Motivation stays high but confidence flat-lines.
You’ll know that perfectionism has crossed that line and become a problem if you:
- Put intense pressure on yourself to achieve but can’t handle the pressure
- Feel like nothing is good enough, even after winning
- Have trouble relaxing due to internal pressure
- Never applaud good results, or not for very long
- Don’t recognize your progress
- Have a hard time moving on, letting go, or getting over a mistake
- Treat all mistakes as equal
- Become self-criticism over the slightest missteps
- Constantly compare yourself to others
- Obsess over mistakes, unable to let them go
If you recognize yourself, you are not alone. Perfectionism is one of the most common flaws I see. The question is how can you keep the upside motivation, while ensuring that your confidence continues to climb too. To do that, you have to take a closer look at how you evaluate yourself.
To keep your confidence high, you need accurate feedback about your progress and skills, and an accurate perspective on your results. The problem is that as a perfectionist, you don’t do this very well. Most commonly, you fail to recognize progress or give yourself appropriate credit for your wins and accomplishments.
Why? Because you don’t (can’t) measure up to the unrealistic benchmark you measure yourself against. Then, having not met the benchmark, you feel like you are constantly failing or, at a minimum, underperforming.
While an objective observer might say you’ve been successful, you don’t see it. You are only focused on having fallen short of what was expected.
As a result, you become self-critical and get down on yourself. Or you might become risk-averse or angry. As this pattern repeats day after day, your confidence doesn’t have the ability to grow and improve in the way it should relative to what you are actually achieving and improving upon. At worst, your confidence ends up with a great, big, gaping hole that ends up feeding the perfectionism even more because you convince yourself that the answer to being satisfied and confident is becoming more perfect.
The reality is that as long as this dynamic exists, nothing will ever be good enough and you’ll be one of those successful, miserable people who have achieved a lot but remain so unsatisfied you are constantly irritable and unhappy. Maybe you sense your life is out of balance and are frustrated because you are not really getting enough for this imbalance to exist. Or maybe you recognize that those execution problems are costing you more than you are willing to accept.
But while the issue of perfectionism itself can be intense and lead to high emotional volatility and other execution-oriented problems, the antidote is actually quite simple. It takes work, yes, but you can get yourself to a point where you can retain that intense drive to achieve while growing your confidence simultaneously with your achievements.
Reshaping Your Perspective
When I talk with clients about how to correct this problem, their first thought is often that I am asking them to lower their expectations or aspirations for themselves.
NO. I want you to keep your aspirations really high but I want you to change how you evaluate yourself along the way. To do that, I strongly advise that you complete the task I outline in the Perfectionism section of The Mental Game of Trading (page 215 in Chapter 7).
This task may seem simple but don’t underestimate its value. In fact, I’ve had some new clients with this problem who read the book and just skipped it, not realizing how much it would help them…something they found out after our first session!
To summarize what you need to do, and to assist in completing the necessary work, I created a new worksheet outlining the steps of the process.
Step 1: List out your professional accomplishments (Do your personal ones if your perfectionism is a problem there too)
Step 2: For each accomplishment, answer the three questions listed in the worksheet
Step 3: List the skills you’ve acquired as a professional in your field (page 3 of the worksheet)
MOST IMPORTANT: You can only do this work for 5 to 10 minutes at a time, up to 3 times per day. Perfectionism runs deep and doing the work to reshape your perspective is not something you can do all at once, let alone one month!
To truly reshape your perspective is going to take a while and you must commit yourself to a regular routine of doing this work. Like I said, it’s simple, but if you do the work in the right way it will be effective.
For those of you who download the worksheet, I plan to follow up with you in November to see what kind of progress you have made.
A New Definition of Perfection…Over Time
Like many aspects of the mental game, there is rarely one task that resolves a problem for everyone. As you’re working through the task above, you may find other flaws that are part of the problem. One common example is a faulty view of perfection.
Perfection in the minds’ of many perfectionists is a singular thing, an outcome or endpoint that they envision. But they don’t realize that even their definition of perfection changes over time. Your best does, and has, become better.
Think about it this way: let’s say you’ve recently hit your stride and have been performing “perfectly” in your mind, but you’ve also been able to do that in the past, years ago. There’s no way that your past version of perfection could live up to the standard of your present day perfection. The standard has changed because of your past experience, the work you’ve put in, and the skills you’ve acquired. Your definition of perfection increases over time.
Whether you realize it or not, your previous version of perfection had weaknesses that you wouldn’t accept in today’s version of perfection. In the same way, you must have weaknesses today that your future version of perfection would not accept.
Correcting previous weak points is a big part of what has allowed you to become more perfect. Thus correcting your current weaknesses is a big part of what you need to reach a new standard of perfection.
Progress like this happens in stages, not all at once. Followers of my work will know I often explain this using the concept of an A-game, B-game, and C-game. A-game is your best (or perfection), C-game is your worst, and B-game is your average level of performance. Your progress, regardless of what you are trying to improve, is modeled by a small caterpillar called an inchworm that moves in a distinctive way.
Imagine the head of the inchworm is you at your best. The middle part is your B-game, and your worst is at the backend. Your “Inchworm” is your own personal competency in poker, trading, or even individual skills that make up your overall skill in those areas.
In order to improve, you take one step forward from the front (A-game gets better), followed by another step forward from the back (where your C-game becomes less bad). Over time improvement on both sides moves your whole Inchworm forward, and thus your definition of perfection moves forward.
This is what you have already experienced and accomplished. Your old way of thinking about perfection should feel flawed and outdated like your old smartphone.
Now do the work to upgrade your perspective. Get the latest software update, all the cool kids are doing it. (Sure I’ll throw some peer pressure, but I’ve learned that peer pressure works well on perfectionists…whatever it takes for you to do the work.)