What Causes Perfectionism, And How To Make It Your Friend

What Causes Perfectionism, And How To Make It Your Friend


In this article, we'll discuss a concept that hijacks many people in the pursuit of their careers, projects, and dreams: perfectionism.

There are many theories as to where perfectionism comes from, and the root cause can differ across people who experience it.

We'll explore perfectionism, why some of us experience it, and define a way to turn it from our worst enemy into our best friend.

What Causes Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is, broadly defined, the friction we experience in completing our work due to a feeling that it has not reached a stage of being perfect, or even satisfactory.

I have experienced perfectionism in many forms across high school, university, and in my career.

After all, when we sit an exam, we may be asked any question out of a pool of dozens. So, our brain tells us, we better know the answers to all of them. You know, just in case.

In the same vein, if we're answering a question during an interview, we want to stand out from the rest of the candidates. Our brains might trick us into thinking the only way to do this is to produce the perfect answer. What our brain doesn't tell us, is what the interviewer is looking for. Maybe they aren't interested in the answer to the question at all, but in how we communicate during the interview. If only we knew this before beforehand!

How can we be sure something is perfect? To produce a perfect piece of work, we must have a perfectly defined and unmoving target, which is very rare in the real world.

So, can we ever aim toward perfection, and should we?

When Perfectionism Is a Good Idea

There are scenarios with clearly defined outcomes where our work can be or even must be, to the extent possible, perfect. It seems like a reasonable idea, for example, to produce the perfect test plan for a new commercial aircraft entering the market.

Through this reasoning, it becomes clear what kind of traits make any kind of project eligible to be classified as perfect in the first place:

  • Measurable — the scale which culmination represents perfection, for example, the number of crashes versus the number of safe landings during our new commercial aircraft tests
  • Objective, rather than subjective — in other words, it is not somebody's opinion whether it is perfect, but it's a cold-hard fact
  • Contextual — an Olympic gymnast's perfect score only makes sense within the guidelines and scoring framework of gymnastics 

Otherwise, we have no right to call a piece of work objectively perfect.

That being said, even though perfection can be achieved, it isn't always best to do so.

For example, imagine we owned a printing press that costs $100 a day to operate and produces newspapers with a few typos on each page. Then, imagine we could upgrade the printing press, which could then produce newspapers with no typos at all, except it would cost $1,000 a day to operate. We spoke to our marketing team and they determined that a few typos on each page are not a big deal. We spoke to our finance team and they say that, with the new operating costs, we would be forced to increase the price of our newspapers or quickly run out of business. In this case, although possible, we should not strive for perfection.

The above is an example of a case where perfectionism is possible but not worth the monetary cost. In other situations, striving for perfectionism may not be worth the risk or the time. These are all examples of resources that we must deploy to reach perfection, and the more resources are needed, the harder it is to achieve it.

Perfectionism is hard, and sometimes, it's not worth it.

Chris Williamson said it best.

Loving and Hating Perfectionism

Perfection can feel good when it's achieved. After all, we all love to produce quality work. It showcases our skills and makes us proud of what we have accomplished.

However, striving for perfectionism can be dangerous when:

  • It is not worth the cost, risk, or time
  • It causes significant delays which are not justified by an improved outcome
  • It blocks progress or completion of the task altogether

The problem, we often find, is that merely striving for perfection can feel amazing. Here is where you may find yourself stuck for hours, weeks, years, or even decades.

The source of this pleasure in my experience has come from various places:

  • Telling myself that I am acting in my best interest in making sure the project is perfect before I release it to the world (being naive to the fact that early feedback is key to a successful launch)
  • As a form of procrastination, to delay harder tasks in place of simpler ones, or to delay having to show my work to the world altogether

Perfectionism can also have roots in a deeper sense of self-doubt, low self-esteem, or incredibly high standards. In this case, although we're frustrated with the task at hand, we feel compelled to push forward toward perfection.

In this short video from the series Malcolm in the Middle, Hal, Malcolm's father, sets out to complete a simple task: changing a lightbulb. He quickly becomes distracted by countless other tangential tasks that also call for his attention.

The problem is that not only has Hal spent time and money pursuing many unrelated tasks and not completing any of them, but if we could enter the fictional world of Hal and talk to him, he might even have forgotten what he set out to do in the first place!

When confronted by Lois, who asks him whether he's changed the lightbulb yet, his answer is simple:

What does it look like I'm doing?

This lets us peek into the inner workings of Hal's mind, who has proven to be the perfect perfectionist. He believes that the chain of unrelated tasks (fixing the wooden panel, the squeaky drawer, driving out to the store, and finally fixing the car) are all, in fact, related, and must also be completed in the exact order he discovered them before he can finally begin his work on the lightbulb.

Hal's mind has convinced him that his house must be in perfect shape, immediately. We can bet that, had Hal gone to bed that night knowing about the minor defects without having fixed them immediately, he would have struggled to fall asleep. So, here's the first lesson: learn to be ok with imperfection. 

Many, just like myself, experience perfectionism due to a combination of negative and positive emotions:

I would hate for this project to be released incomplete. I would hate the negative judgement I could receive from others for my imperfect work.

I would also love for this project to be perfect, the crown jewel of my portfolio, a state-of-the-art encapsulation of all my knowledge.

Reframing Perfectionism

If you suffer from chronic perfectionism, a mindset that may help you is as follows:

Perfectionism means good enough every time

Of course, we're not talking about aircraft testing or newspaper printing. We're talking about your project, passion, or career.

First, define what a good enough execution means for your project — writing a thousand words a day for your novel, or studying a foreign language two hours a week.

Second, strive to be perfect in your consistency.

Understand that perfection is subjective, and where it's not, it's usually the product of many iterations over a long period.

Realize that we grossly overestimate how much people focus on us. 

Understand that sustainable growth comes from compounding, or in other words, doing the same thing to a good enough standard, consistently, for a long time.

Learn to be ok with imperfection.

Be willing to be a beginner and look silly.

But, above all, be consistent.


In this article, we explored the theme of perfectionism and how it has the power to affect us either positively or negatively. We learned that villanizing perfectionism isn't a good idea, as it can sometimes be a valid and useful approach. We looked at some practical examples of when perfectionism is a must (testing out a new aircraft entering the market and expecting zero crashes), and when it is not (Hal trying to fix all the issues in his house in one day, and not achieving any).  

And if perfectionism negatively affects us in the pursuit of a goal, we learned how to reframe it into a healthier mindset — that we shouldn't be perfect about the outcome, but about the consistency with which we work on it day-in and day-out.

Andrea Cerasoni in Rome, Italy
Andrea Cerasoni

I'm Andrea, a Software Engineer, Technical Editor, and aspiring Fantasy Author. I'm originally from Rome, Italy, but am currently based in Glasgow, United Kingdom. I read and write classic Fantasy: the sword-and-shield, dragons, and wizards kind. In my articles, I talk about writing fantasy fiction, productivity, coding, building a website or platform, establishing a personal brand, and more!

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