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Patrick Pontificates: Against Perfectionism

Today, I have a confession to make. I have to admit something about myself. I have to confess that … I’m an incorrigible perfectionist! I always want to do everything correctly. I want the work I produce to be perfect.

Okay, I admit that confession sounded a bit strange. You may be wondering why I think perfectionism is such a bad thing. Isn’t trying to do well a good thing? Isn’t the pursuit of perfection a good way of motivating oneself to succeed in college?

Well, it can be. In theory, striving for excellence is great. But sometimes, our pursuit of perfection can end up hurting us. We can waste too much time on projects, and thereby leave ourselves less time to work on other things.

Not convinced? Here’s an example. When I was in middle school, I wasted months putting together a 226-page report about Chinese history. (I only needed, like, 20 pages or something.) As an added bonus, the report even came complete with an unsolicited appendix discussing the general superiority of the Roman Empire over the Chinese dynasties, which was perhaps not the smartest thing to give to my Chinese-Canadian social studies teacher. Did I need to waste this much time on the report? Nope. Did it help me to waste all the time on the report? Probably not.

This example shows that we need to direct and channel our perfectionistic impulses in appropriate directions. If we channel our perfectionism well, we can use it to help ourselves succeed. Fortunately, this channeling is a skill I acquired sometime between middle school and college. Thus, in college, I was able to use my perfectionism in those contexts where it was useful, and I ended up producing some pretty high-quality work, if I do say so myself. And I was able to suppress my perfectionistic instincts in those contexts where perfection wasn’t required.

Now, how do we know when it’s appropriate to be perfectionistic?

Well, basically we want to be selfish. Yes, this is one of those contexts where selfishness is perfectly acceptable. I’m not only officially giving you permission to be selfish, but actively encouraging you to be selfish.

We want to ask ourselves some questions:

  • Is putting extra effort into the pursuit of excellence on this task actually going to help me achieve my goals?
  • [If you answered “yes” to the first question]: Is putting extra effort into the pursuit of excellence on this task going to do a better job of helping me achieve my goals than putting extra effort into the pursuit of excellence on other tasks?

If you answer “Yes” to both, then great! Go ahead and strive for perfection. But if you are spending time and energy on some non-leisure, school-related thing that’s not going to help you, be selfish and turn your energy towards something that will help.

I realize it can sometimes be tricky to tell which projects are more important than others, but never fear, I’ve written some thoughts about that as well.

We want to be selfish, selective perfectionists: not perfectionists about everything, but perfectionists about things that help us succeed.

And what are your thoughts?
Are you a perfectionist?
Do you agree or disagree with my suggestions?

Please add your thoughts in comments!

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Patrick Dwyer

Patrick is an autistic graduate student in the psychology department at UC Davis with a broad interest in helping to ensure that autistic and neurodivergent people can lead fulfilling lives. He plans to use eye-tracking and electrophysiology to explore the heterogeneity of the autism spectrum and different phenotypes of autism, and is particularly interested in studying sensory processing and sensory sensitivities in autism. He has also facilitated peer-support groups for other autistic college students. You can find more of Patrick’s writing on his blog at autisticscholar.com.

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