The whole country is infected with it right now. You can see it seeping into discourse like a poison, choking off voice after voice with scornful cynicism. “Impeachment is meaningless – no president has ever been removed from office that way!” “The damage has been done, why disrupt the system further?” “The system itself is rigged; there’s no point in playing at all.”
“You poor fool,” they say. “Don’t you understand there’s no point in fixing anything if you can’t fix everything?”
Listen. I get it. We’re all in a frantic fog right now, the kind of mindset you fall into when you’re constantly being gaslighted by an abusive narcissist. Someone is trying to destroy your reality and substitute his own, and that person desperately needs you to believe that any step you take to protect yourself is pointless if you can’t fix the whole world in the process.
But ask yourself why he needs you to believe that. Why is it so important that you do nothing to improve your circumstances, defend your loved ones, advocate for yourself? Why is an abusive person always mortally terrified of you making the slightest move to help yourself? That seems like the attitude of someone who’s trying very hard to not let you find out how little control they have, doesn’t it? That seems like someone who knows the only reason he keeps winning is because you believe him when he says you shouldn’t try.
Termites in your soul
Unfortunately, even if you can get away from that person (god willin’ and the creek don’t rise…) we’re all growing more perfectionist over time, and this mindset will kill you. I’m not being dramatic. Perfectionism is on the rise worldwide, according to a meta-analysis of cohort studies between 1989 and 2016, the first time perfectionism has been studied across generations. It’s approaching a legitimate public health epidemic, because perfectionism is linked (by another enormous meta-analysis of 284 different studies on the subject) to a host of clinical and psychological issues including anxiety and depression, PTSD, self-harm, eating disorders, hoarding, chronic headaches, insomnia, even suicide and early mortality.
Perfectionism destroys your desire to work, undermines your self-worth and creativity, causes you to sabotage your relationships out of insecurity, eats away at your body and mind until it kills you. It shuts down every hope and inspiration with “that’s not enough.” Nothing is ever enough. Perfectionism is like termites in your soul, chewing away at your foundations in a way that you might not even notice until your footing crumbles away beneath you.
Okay, so it’s bad for me… but it also makes me perform better, right?
Well, no. Sorry.
It might feel like being a perfectionist is required – it’s certainly helped you at work, and you can’t offer a single thought on any subject on the internet without some asshole wants to bitch about how there’s a fringe case your suggestion doesn’t address. Social media lets us filter out blemishes and show a perfect image of ourselves to the world, and slowly we start to hate looking at our real, imperfect face. Our feudal capitalist structure more or less forces a competitive, zero-sum view of the world on its children, one where there is never enough for everyone, and so basic human rights and safety can only be offered to the very deserving. It’s a compliment in some circles, one of those things you say when the interviewer asks, “What’s your biggest weakness?” “Oh, I’m a perfectionist – I work too dang hard! Please, exploit my maladaptive coping mechanism for our mutual monetary gain!”
But it doesn’t actually work. In a study from 2016, our friends Mr. Hill and Curran of the 1989-2016 meta-analysis found that athletes, employees and students alike saw very little or no benefit to their work, skills or progress from perfectionist tendencies and attitudes, and vastly increased their likelihood of burnout. The same study found that perfectionists quit faster because they’re afraid to make mistakes, so they often leave a trail of abandoned enterprises behind them. Perfectionists take longer to complete the tasks they do manage to finish, because they’re wasting time agonizing along the way. You’re working harder, not smarter.
So what can you do?
Perfectionism would have you believe that there are only two percentages that matter: zero percent, where you currently are (and always will be, says that nasty voice in your head), or 100 percent, where you must get in order to accept credit, feel pride, be finished and move on. The baseline for accomplishing anything becomes 100%; that’s your expectation for yourself, and so you project that expectation on the people around you. Anything less than exactly what someone wants (even if they weren’t clear about what exactly that was) feels like a total failure. In order to be acceptable, you have to be flawless.
These aren’t useful percentages. They’re about as informative as a black-and-white view of the world, and about as connected with reality – that is to say, not at all. What do complete, effortless success and utter, crushing failure have in common? You don’t learn anything from either one.
So let’s replace these all-or-nothing percentages with something more useful. Let’s try… 1% and 70%.
Start with 1%
Sometimes, to combat our extreme mental blocks, we have to get a little extreme in response. The perfectionist brain wants to look at this 1% and round it down to zero, and you’re gonna have to fight that impulse with everything you have.
Let’s say you have something very stressful and emotional and difficult to do – say you want to buy a house. That’ll stress anybody out. What are actual, mechanical steps to buying a house?
- Find a house you want to buy
- Pay for the house
- Sign a TON of papers
- Move in
Most difficult tasks in life are like this: a series of physical and mental tasks, none of them individually especially challenging. Everything we do, no matter how emotional or stressful, from planning a funeral to breaking up with someone to discussing climate change with the UN, can be broken down into a series of simple mechanical tasks. Usually those tasks are some form of “write some stuff on papers” and “talk to some people about stuff.”
You know how to do those things, that’s not hard. What’s making it hard is you’re saying to yourself, “It’s time to buy a house! So let’s go… buy a house!” You’re asking yourself to go from 0% to 100% in one action. That’s impossible, and you know it. This can become a way that we avoid doing things – we deliberately avoid analyzing the problem or figuring out what kind of help we need, because if we did, we would have to, like… do it.
So start with 1%. If something is overwhelming, start breaking it down into smaller tasks. You’ll know you’ve hit a workable level when you find a task that makes you snort with derision – “That? Of course I can do THAT, that’s a cakewalk.” Great. That’s your 1%.
Your perfectionism is something you’re going to have to defeat over and over in order to accomplish anything. You’ll have to beat it when you begin, and again while you’re doing the thing, and again when it’s over and you want to scrap the whole mess because it’s not flawless. Beating it when you begin is about accepting that 1% is indeed progress. It’s more progress than you were making while you were arguing about how much progress it was, isn’t it? But you thought arguing was a good use of your time. So instead, spend that time doing 1% of what you need to do. The argument will still be there when you’re done; we can have it again if you want.
Beating perfectionism when you finish is about accepting that 1% is indeed an accomplishment. If you get something done and every time you say to yourself, “Well, yeah, you did that, but that was fuck-all, that was nothing compared to all you still have to do”… tell me, is that the kind of sentiment that gets you all fired up to do stuff? Because for me, it’s not. For me, if I want to get something done, I have to be able to reward myself based on reality, what I actually did, not what I should have done or could have done. Your “should” and “could” don’t exist. They’re inventions, made-up stories meant to encourage you to behave, like Santa Claus. Why are you living your life like you’re on the Naughty list from birth when Santa doesn’t even exist?
At 70%, pull the trigger
Now, I don’t want to get caught in the fallacy that most of the world is currently mired in, that being the idea that because someone is a billionaire, he has profound insight that you can and should use to become like him. Most billionaires got that way by failing upward with inherited wealth. If you put them in a basement apartment on minimum wage for a month, they’d show up at Wal-Mart thinking they need an ID to buy groceries. These people, for the most part, do not have any useful tips for success beyond Rule 0: Be born a white man.
But… one thing that all successful people do more than the people below them is make decisions, right? That’s the whole job of the CEO, making decisions. He might not have any expertise, might never have seen the product his company sells, couldn’t tell you how to make it or what’s in it, but if you ask him, he’ll decide what to do and things will move forward.
Jeff Bezos, our Glittering Capitalist Overlord, told his shareholders in 2016: “Most decisions should probably be made with around 70% of the information you wish you had.” Why 70%? “If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re being slow.” Think about it – when you’re doing research, trying to figure out how to solve a problem, at the beginning, there’s a lot of new data. But once you’re closing on 70% sure, you’re not learning any new essential data. You could spend six hours trying to increase your knowledge from 70% to 75%, but you probably won’t stumble upon any new, immensely critical data, and you can’t guarantee your decision will be any better for the extra time spent.
Most people agonize. They have analysis paralysis. They want to nail down every possible piece of information and go into something feeling like they’re 100% prepared. But what will happen if you instead stop when you’re about 70% sure… and just try it? Bezos points out that course-correcting is usually pretty low-cost – most decisions can be reversed or adjusted once you’ve begun. So assume you’re wrong; okay, you jumped the gun a bit and if you’d waited, you might have avoided making the mistake you just made… but you might not. It might have happened anyway.
And what if you’re right? You moved before anyone else. You’re not just right, you’re right and FIRST. That’s how people make the big bucks, by taking a gamble and guessing right when everyone else is too afraid of losing to roll the dice. In order to win, you’ll have to lose, a lot, and not let that scare you into giving up.
If you’re a programmer, and you want to know if your code will work… do you read the code? Is that the most efficient way to find your own mistakes? It’s not, really – if you didn’t see the mistake when you wrote it, you probably won’t when you read it over again. The best way to figure out if your code works is to try it, to run the damn thing and see what breaks.
When we sit in stillness, trying to figure out the perfect course of action, the best step to take for the maximum reward, the one solution that will work forever in all situations… we’re trying to debug the code without ever having run it. It’s a waste of time. We simply don’t have the information required to make a coherent judgment at that point. The experiential data you’ll get from just fucking doing a thing is the stuff Bezos can’t write down and no list of life hacks will tell you, and it’s essential to success. Any decision you make without experience doing the thing you’re deciding on is going to be less than sound, because it’s based on a faulty foundation. It’s full of termites, and they’ll tear down everything you build if you let them convince you to sit there and watch it happen.