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March 24, 2011

Is Perfectionism Good or Bad?

Perfect Daisy

My Twitter friend Austin Wulf wrote a blog post yesterday, What’s So Bad About Perfectionism?, and that question got me thinking.  My blog readers might know I call myself not just a perfectionist, but an over-achieving perfectionist.  Is that a bad thing?

*smile*  I think it depends.

Is Perfectionism Bad?

As with many things, a behavior becomes an “issue” if it starts causing problems in our life.  Professionals point to this difference to draw the line between a casual drinker and an alcoholic.

And while many things don’t have physically addictive qualities, we can become psychologically addicted to some thing or some behavior.  So if a person’s perfectionist tendencies hold them back from ever finishing or achieving anything, then yes, I’d call that a bad thing.

Despite my fear of embarrassing myself with a poorly written blog post, I’ve managed to stick to my Tuesday/Thursday posting schedule for several months now, even through my deadline cave.  I’ve submitted work for peer review and professional assessment.

I think that proves I’m a “functional perfectionist” in that I don’t let it impede my progress.  So perfectionism certainly doesn’t have to be bad, but is it good?

Is Perfectionism Good?

*cough*  That’s not a fair question to ask a perfectionist.  Of course, I’m going to think it’s good.  I can’t imagine my life any other way.

To my mind, some of the benefits of perfectionism are:

  • Being detail-oriented
  • Having a drive to achieve
  • Being persistent

When I’m overhauling a story, I’d better have a good handle on the details of the plot, storyline, characters, and dialogue.  I often have to tweak multiple details throughout a story for every change I make to a scene because the effects domino through other scenes down the line.

A drive to achieve pushes me to complete projects so I can call them done.  I meet my deadlines despite the sacrifices.  I have goals for my career and my life, and I have a plan for how to get there.

My persistence (also known as stubbornness) prevents me from giving up in the face of obstacles.  I stick with things and see them through to the end.  Rejection or criticism doesn’t mean the end of the road, it just means I’m not there yet.

Those sound like good traits to me, so I don’t have any problem being labeled a perfectionist.  However, as I’ve said, I consider myself a healthy perfectionist.

I don’t think perfection is actually possible, so I’m not crushed when I don’t attain it, but I do everything in my ability to get close.  Others wouldn’t consider me a perfectionist because of that attitude (see here and here).  Instead, they’d call me a high-achiever.

Sorry, but I like the ring of “perfectionist” better.  *smile*

Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?  Does it help or hurt you?  If you’re not a perfectionist, how do you get anything done?  (Serious question there, my friends, I just can’t conceive of that!)

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Roni Loren

I’m a perfectionist as well. And sometimes it’s totally functional and sometimes it’s maddening, lol. It drives me nuts in drafting mode because my need to be perfect can seize me up. I’m getting better at letting and go, but it’s a constant fight. Also, I blogged about this recently, but as a writer if you try to do everything just right sometimes it can hurt your prose by sucking the life right out of it. So I guess I’m trying to find a balance. Perfectly imperfect? lol I dunno.

Mary Elizabeth

Hi, Roni,

I’m intrigued by your comment that if you try to do everything just right sometimes it can hurt your prose by sucking the life out of it. I was starting to think that about over-revising, actually. That sometimes it’s better to go with your initial word choices, that they might be more ambitious, less safe. I’ll have to check out your blog post on the subject.

Shain Brown

I’ve had this conversation with several of my writing friends and each express the same thing. How do I get in writing mode and not give into that perfectionist mode. Honestly.I’m not sure. It wasn’t that long ago and I spent a week on the opening paragraph of my current project.

I guess you hit the nail on the head so to speak. Perfectionism is a great quality to have, so long as it doesn’t impede in your progress. Thanks for the post.

Shellie Sakai

Perfectionist, no, attempted perfectionism most certainly! Sometimes, it hinders a great deal. Oh yeah. I can’t look at the screen when I am writing. If I spelled something wrong three sentences up I HAVE to back up and fix it. When the muse is riding you, backing up is not a good idea! It tends to put a stopper in that creativity. So I stare out the window and pretend that the red line on the screen is just marking the spot……. 😀

Elena

As with any character trait, there’s always a good and a bad. I consider myself a perfectionist when it comes to my focus on writing. Writing every day, keeping on task, and outlining.

Rachel

My concern with perfectionism is that perfecting one thing stops you from creating a second thing. Let’s say you make mirrors for a living, and you create a mirror without noticing the glass is wavy. When you do see it, you grind the glass, you smooth it, you work and work and work to make it perfect. In that time you could have started again, with a piece of glass that wasn’t wavy in the beginning, and made an amazing mirror or even three amazing mirrors.

Sadly, possibilities are infinite and time is finite. If you spend that precious time attempting to perfect something that is inherently flawed it’s gone forever.

” If you’re not a perfectionist, how do you get anything done? ”
I work on something, and when I’ve invested a reasonable amount of time, I evaluate it. It’s either ‘almost good enough’ or it never will be. If it’s the former, I decided if more time is justified. If the latter, I move on. I’m not saying moving on isn’t painful or hard, but sometimes it has to be done.

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

Hey Jami – Great post again. As we’ve discussed, I’m a card carrying non-perfectionist. I am a little confused about how drive and persistance are a part of perfectionism. I think these are attributes you have in addition to perfectionism, not because of being a perfectionist. I’m very driven and persistant, sometimes to the point of being a PITA, but I’m not a perfectionist. Having said that, I think people can be perfectionist in some areas of their lives and not in others. I think I’m that way. I’ll spend two hours sometimes on a short letter to a customer I think has to be just so, but when I do yard work I just want to get throught it (Drives my perfectionist wife crazy BTW – See her? She’s the one picking up stray pieces of grass off the sidewalk I missed. Geez). Anyway, I think you’re correct on the “functioning” portion of things. Where people get crazy are either spending 15 years trying to get a novel perfect (no such animal) or throwing out a piece of junk to agents when it should have been polished much more. I think the key is knowing your strengths and weaknesses and then surrounding yourself with those that can shore up your weak areas. Anyway, I’ve rambled on too long. Thanks for a great post Jami. Out.

Jill Kemerer

Oh yeah, I’m a perfectionist, high-achiever, whatever you want to call it. I like to dig in, do things right, and finish all projects. Standards are important to me, so I have quality checklists for my writing. Anal retentive? Probably, but I don’t care. It works for me!

Ashley Graham
Ashley Graham

Oh, yes, that’s me–the self-proclaimed perfectionist. While I love being detail-oriented, sometimes it bothers me. Particularly when I’m in the shower, reading a blog on characterization, or driving around with the iPod blaring and then, all of a sudden, I start thinking, “Hold on. Did I make such and such clear in that scene? And how did it affect that other scene? And how is all of that important to the final scene? Does everything add up? Is everything clear? What if it’s not nearly perfect enough?”

Then there’s the fact nothing is ever good enough for me. Even if my book does get published someday, I just *know* there will be some little insignificant thing I’ll cringe at and wish to heck I could go back and change. But I’ll never be able to.

Still. Being a perfectionist has it’s perks. And, truthfully, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Liz Hellebuyck

“If you’re not a perfectionist, how do you get anything done?”
I am pretty hard on myself and like to have everything perfect, but I think the real question you should be asking is:
If you are a perfectionist, how do you get anything done?

Personally, I can tweak and edit and rewrite until I am blue in the face and it will still never be perfect. I think the perfectionists battle is an unending, un-winnable one.

Not that this makes me stop from trying to achieve perfection.

Nice post.

Gene Lempp
Gene Lempp

Definitely a perfectionist! I have the same issue with “word confetti” and am unable to leave it on the screen, correct it, add it to the dictionary, put white out over the red (joking, but sometimes I think it would work). Generally, being a perfectionist has not been an issue, for me, although it tends to be for others. On the professional level, perfectionism, at least for me, has become competency, an eternal drive to make everything as efficient as possible, and, well, slackers hate that. Honestly, I don’t see any of that as bad.
On the other hand, perfectionism can be a flaw at times. When I hit a failure, I immediately want to know why it occurred. That desire can become a force of nature in the mind and threaten to sink the ship, as in Perfect Storm. However, if I survive the storm, and so far always have, on the far side of the storm comes a drive to learn, to gain competency and seek excellence in whatever area was lacking. Perhaps it isn’t so much a matter of bad or good but how, as with every situation we face in life, we handle and utilize it. Strive for excellence and allow perfectionism to become the engine that drives it.

Murphy

I think I’m with Kerry on this one.

The idea of perfectionism or being a perfectionist has always fascinated me. Example: If someone asked you if Murphy was a perfectionist, you’d say no. Why? Because you’d automatically think of my misused or misplaced commas. (among the other un-perfectionist type things I do – like not having an excel sheet full of workshop schedules for a conference 🙂 )

BUT, if you asked anyone of my clients, a family member, or the car dealer who sold me my car if they thought I was an annoyingly precise perfectionist? They’d all say yes, because when it comes to business, family, or nailing a deal – nothing is missed, misplaced or left uncharted by me – ever. Interesting…

Murphy

Newbie Author

Guilty. But, I usually don’t admit it. Especially in public.

Not a perfectionist about everything. Only certain things. Otherwise, I’d never get anything done.

My biggest challenge? Moving to the next chapter. I just keep editing. Improving. It’s never quite good enough.

Finally,when I decide to move on, I tell myself, “That’s good enough for now. I’ll come back later and finish.”

Mary Elizabeth

By your definition, I would say I’m a perfectionist. There definitely gets a bit of twitchiness about my right eye when it’s my partner’s turn to clean the kitchen. I rein it in and don’t say anything, though, which is why we’re still together, I think. I did manage win the bookshelf battle, so all our books alphabetical by author’s last name. 😉

As far as work goes, I sometimes have to consciously force myself past the pick-every-word-carefully mode or I’d be writing on the same project forever. NaNoWriMo broke me through the barrier initially, and I sometimes use Write or Die to crowbar me through a stuck area or when I get caught in the endless-revision whirlpool. Otherwise, I have a pretty good rhythm for writing/thinking.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

Cheryl Reifsnyder

Hi Jami–Can you tell I’m reading your back blog posts? And there are so many winners! Yes, I consider myself a perfectionist. As to whether it’s a good thing or not–that depends on the circumstances. It’s great when I’m copy editing a document, because I can get it darned close to perfect. It’s great when I force myself to rewrite a novel until it shines even though it’s oh-so-tempting to send it out early.

But I’ve definitely noticed a tendency to work on a project–particularly in areas where I’m less comfortable–almost up to the point of submission, and then never finishing. I think the unspoken logic is that if I don’t submit, I won’t be rejected. One of my goals for this year is to bring some of those projects to daylight again.

So far, the results have been encouraging: I forced myself to submit a query to a national mag even though, after doing all the research, I’d decided it was a stupid idea. And guess what? I got a nibble. Not a sale (yet!) but enough to show that they took my idea seriously.

Great post–thanks!

mohamad ibrahim

Hi, Jami, My name Mohamad Ibrahim , PHD, faculty of Education, University of EL-Minia, Egypt

Darcy Peal
Darcy Peal

Although I definitely call myself a perfectionist it is a different story when someone else calls me one. Mediocrity has become the norm in all aspects of most peoples life, so even if I only do a slightly better job than them they call me a perfectionist.
The worst thing about being a perfectionist is that it greatly increases the amount of time any given project takes me to complete. So while I complete one task and it is “perfect” others have completed 3 or 4 of the same thing and since mediocrity rules they are considered to be “better” workers. What a load of garbage that is!
I always strive to complete things “perfectly” since I never considered anything in life to be a race for productivities sake.

Perfectionist and proud of it! Thats me!

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