I used to be a partial perfectionist.
I say “partial” because certain aspects of my life, such as my clothing, weren’t especially important to me and I didn’t need them to be perfect. With my young children I decided that my enthusiasm and support were more important than my insisting on perfect crayon drawings.
I say perfectionist because often I would settle for nothing less than that ideal. In high school I wanted the highest grade in every class. When I began practicing law I wanted each letter or agreement to be perfectly composed and perfectly typed, and that was in the days before word processing equipment made at least the typing relatively easy.
After a few years running my own law office I learned the hard way that I was a hopeless prisoner of perfection. Some of the troubles I encountered in that particular prison were:
- Perfection was costly. I was paying my secretary a lot of money to retype letters so they had absolutely no visible erasures.
- My output was less than perfect because perfection took a lot of time.
- I was always dissatisfied with my own work and the work of everyone else in my office. This meant that the business day wasn’t much fun for them or for me.
- I procrastinated. When I faced a new project, such as handling my first probate, I was afraid I wouldn’t do it perfectly. So I put it off, in one case for more than a year (and I was fired by that client).
- I often fell short of my goal. I found that I couldn’t be perfect— at least, not very often. I was disappointed in myself. I was a failed perfectionist.
A year or two later I realized even more fully that the quest for perfection carries a high price. I met Peter, a young computer programmer who was still a robust perfectionist. At that time there was no suitable software for my property management business so I hired Peter to write a custom program.
Peter began work in March. For months we worked together into the night. Peter was marvelous. Every week he invented a new shortcut or proposed an even more elegant algorithm. Peter was a genius, and I was certain that eventually he would create a program that would be the envy of the industry.
Highlight “eventually.” Spring passed into summer. Soon it was Thanksgiving and we seemed no closer to actually using the wonderful product of Peter’s inspiration than we had been in March.
“Peter, when do you think you’ll be finished? We’re going to have to start using the computer in our business soon.”
“Just a few more months. I’m working on some entirely new functions which will really speed up the processing time.”
“Okay, but we really need to finish soon.”
Peter programmed on. And on. Nights and weekends he haunted our office. I found him hunched over the miniature video screen at 7:00 a.m. Monday morning and at 11:00 p.m. Saturday night. Takeout bags from McDonald’s littered his desk. Peter was a workaholic.
Perfectionists often are. They have to be.
On December 15th I faced a decision. Either we would begin using our computer, which had now been sitting in our office unused for almost a year, on January 1st, or our accounting department would have to spend the next three weeks preparing manual records and forms for the new year. I talked to our extraordinary programmer.
“Peter, the computer goes live on January 1st.”
“We’re going to do it.”
“Alan, I don’t see how.”
“Peter, we have to start using what you’re working on. If we don’t, I’m going to immediately have to start three people preparing manual records for next year. And if we don’t start using the computer in January we’re going to have a horrible mess trying to combine the first few months of manual records with computer accountings later in the year.”
“I understand, but I want to make the program as good as it can possibly be. I need more time. Maybe by March 1st,” he offered.
“January 1st. Not negotiable. If it’s less than perfect, so be it.”
Peter sighed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
The following January 7th we went live on our new computer. The programming gods must have been smiling because the transition was surprisingly smooth. Our new program was certainly less than perfect, but it worked just fine and I was pleased that we had progressed past perfect.
Get Past Perfect.
When my daughter Heather was six she came into my library to visit, and showed me two of her drawings. “This is the fast drawing, and this is the slow drawing,” she said.
“Is that because you drew one fast and one slow?” I asked.
I liked both. Heather liked to have fun, and was not concerned with perfection. As a result, I think she came closer to perfection than most of us.
I have nothing against perfection, especially when I’m at 37,000 feet in an airplane. But I know that my life is more fun, and more productive, when I am able to Get Past Perfect.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alan C. Fox has lived a long and joyful life, achieving tremendous success in many different arenas, both personally and professionally. He has advanced degrees in accounting, law, education, and professional writing. He has expanded his commercial real estate company, ACF Property Management, Inc. into a billion dollar enterprise since founding it in 1968. He founded Rattle Poetry Journal (in 1994), a nationally renowned publication including his conversations with noted poets. He’s an active philanthropist, founding The Frieda C. Fox Family Foundation, a non-profit that provides funding to youth education projects. And in the midst of all this, he has raised a large and loving family with his wife of nearly 35 years.
In Fox’s latest book People Tools for Love and Relationships: The Journey from Me to Us (August 2015), he lays out time-proven techniques that you can use to enhance your connection with your spouse or partner, your family and friends—in fact with anyone who is important to you. From learning how to talk about money with your partner, how and when to apologize, to increasing trust and intimacy, each tool addresses a specific issue and provides a simple, straightforward approach that you can adopt to create a positive result.