One of the first steps I had to take in my journey to recover from perfectionism was to realize that perfection is not actually possible. Humans are problem seekers; we actively search for them, and then try to fix them, fixing problems is one of our greatest drives. This is the root of perfectionism and also the driving force behind civilization and technological progress. You wouldn’t be able to read this today if people hadn’t thought to fix innumerable problems along the way; we would probably still be in an animalistic state. This does however mean that we always see problems in the things around us and are rarely satisfied with the status quo. And even if perfection was possible it wouldn’t be perfect due to one problem rarely considered.
The primary issue is that since everything has both positive and negative aspects even the solutions we come up with have their own problems, hopefully smaller than the original but not always. Agriculture brought disease and warfare, motorized transport brought pollution. Even the most innocuous solutions, such as clothing for being cold, have the problem of needing to be cleaned or maintained. This cycle of problem ® solution ® new problem means that no matter how hard we work at perfecting the world around us we are working equally hard to create new problems.
But let’s say that somehow your solution didn’t create a new problem, would you have reached perfection? Unlikely, let’s go back to humans being problem seekers. Generally once we have found the most obvious problems we stop looking and focus on fixing those first. The fact that we stop searching gives us the illusion that we are aware of all the problems present, and that perfection could be possible. Yet once they are all solved, since we enjoy fixing problems so much we start looking for new ones to work on; and we will find them. They might be smaller and less bothersome, but they will still be there.
Now let’s imagine that somehow you beat all the odds and managed to solve all the problems in your creation and all the problems their solutions created and have actually produced a completely flawless product, would it be perfect? Unfortunately, we rarely consider that the cost and time put into developing and manufacturing such a flawless product would mean that the price would have to be astronomic. Have you ever noticed how dollar store products tends to be low quality? It’s because they have chosen to overlook a whole host of flaws in order to bring you such a budget friendly price and still make a profit. This is true even of free to distribute creations like my blog. If I was obsessed with making this the most perfect blog about the impossibility of perfection I would never be able to publish it as I would have to go through innumerable drafts and it would continually grow as I am leaving a lot of information out. And if I ever did publish it, it would be far too long for anyone to read and it would be years before the next one came out.
By taking into consideration the opportunity costs of chasing perfection we find that after a certain point we would be better off switching to improving a different problem facing us (note that I used the word “improve”, and not fix or perfect). At a certain point the improvements are so minimal and the costs so great that we are actually worse off than we would have been because we have neglected other issues. A far better approach is to focus on optimizing our products or life so that they stay at the top of their respective bell curves. The funny thing is that often the problems we obsess over are of little consequence. You customer won’t care if your widget is the wrong shade of green if it solves their problem better than the orange one does. And none of your potential customers will ever benefit from your product if you refuse to release it until all the flaws are ironed out.
Bonus reason perfection is unattainable: let’s imagine that somehow against all the odds you have a stroke of genius and in an instant invent something flawless, which also happens to cost almost nothing to produce and distribute. You happened to create a truly perfect product without devoting years of your life to it. And yet the world is always changing. If you had the perfect business plan in January, it suddenly was far from perfect in March when the Covid shutdowns brought the world economy to a halt. And while this is a much more dramatic example than the changes we normally encounter, change is constant, which means that as close as we ever get to perfection it will always be fleeting. The list of very successful companies that are no more because they thought they had found perfection and stopped innovating is constantly growing.