Perfectionism is a Loser’s Strategy

Ocean-Front Writing

Yesterday, I submitted an important grant proposal. In a perhaps overzealous interpretation of my adventure studying philosophy, I wrote the bulk of the content on the island of Madeira, in a hotel room overlooking the Atlantic, which turned out to be wonderfully monastic and productive.

The process was hard. I probably spent around 100 hours total; some energized, but most mired in the dreary hinterland of editing. In standard Study Hacks fashion, however, I was organized, and able to spread the work out.

I bring this up because throughout the process I found myself wrestling with insecurity. Every evening, when I was done with my careful plan for the day, the voice of doubt arrived trying to convince me to spend a few more hours editing or to bother a few more people to take a look at my draft. Did I really want a little bit of laziness to be the reason I lost this award?, it would ask.

I was experiencing the classic battle between perfectionism and lifestyle design. This battle is familiar to those who embrace my career craftsman philosophy, because this philosophy requires a balance between becoming “so good they can’t ignore you” and then leveraging this value to build a life you love.

The former goal attracts perfectionism while the latter can’t work if it’s around.

I’m writing this post to share with you the thought process that helps me navigate this mental minefield…

The Source of Value 

Whether you’re a professor, writer, student, or entrepreneur, your job is to produce products that are valuable to your audience. The more valuable your product, the more reward you receive.

If my grant “product” is valuable, I get the grant. If a writer’s blog “product” is valuable, she gets an audience. And so on.

At the top of this post, I put a plot that displays my intuitive understanding of product value. Consider, in particular, the column on the left side of the plot, which breaks down the contribution of three different factors as follows:

  • The vast majority of your product’s value comes from your underlying ability.
  • The next biggest contributor is providing reasonable packaging for your product. For most audiences, there’s a quality threshold you must cross to be taken seriously. You gain non-trivial value for crossing this threshold. It’s not as important as ability, but it’s important enough that you shouldn’t ignore it.
  • The final contributor is the time you spend obsessively polishing and worrying and tweaking after you passed the threshold required by your audience. This perfectionism-driven work is by far the least important to the overall value of your product.
View from balcony where I wrote much of my proposal.

For example, for my grant proposal, the most important predictor of my success is my underlying ability as a researcher.

Presenting this vision in reasonable packaging — e.g., a clear, thoughtful proposal — though perhaps less important than the proposed research, is still important enough for me to spend 100 carefully-planned hours working on it.

To continue to obsessively polish after that point, however, would offer diminishing returns at best. Once the reviewers understand my vision and see that I’m serious, it’s the quality of the vision that will dominate the process moving forward.

A Loser’s Strategy

At this point, you might still counter that even if perfectionism adds only a little value, it’s still worth it, as every bit helps in a competitive world.

This inane observation brings me to the right column in the plot at the top of this post. This column reflects my understanding of where stress comes from when creating a product. In particular:

  • Building your ability is not particularly stressful. It’s something you work on day after day, month after month. It adds up to lots of culumlative deliberate practice, but no particular day is all that bad.
  • Constructing reasonable packaging can be slightly more stressful as it often requires a lot of work in a relatively short period. But, if you’re a Study Hacks reader, you can tame this process with smart schedules — leaving you enough free time to end your day with a bottle of Coral, watching the sun set over the Atlantic.
  • Perfectionism, by contrast, can be incredibly stressful. It puts you in a state of constant worry that you’re on the brink of failure. It also tends to push you past your energy reserves and into exhaustion.

This is why I call perfectionism a loser’s strategy: you’re generating a disproportionate amount of stress for a small amount of value. The only reason this strategy makes sense is if you’re convinced that you’re never going to get any better at what you do, leaving this minor polishing at the margins all that’s left in your control.

This is a sad view of life.

Here’s the alternative: focus on getting better. The benefits of improving your underlying skills will dwarf the benefits of perfectionism. If you fall just short of some recognition this year then the next year it will be an easy win and the year after that it will seem trivial. In the long run, in other words, this is the approach that allows exceptional achievement to flourish in a life you love to live — an approach, I can attest from recent experience, that lets you shut down the computer and take a dive into the ocean.

COLLECTED. Perfectionism is a Loser’s Strategy (calnewport.com)

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