Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to learn.
Have you ever met a person who just wouldn’t show weakness? Today, I will share an intriguing story, something counterintuitive I’ve learned, and some actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will be able to see how perfectionism is making it harder for you to make progress on what’s essential. Let’s begin.
Charlie Munger said, “I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest sometimes, not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up, and boy, does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.” So teach something you learn in this episode with someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours.
Benjamin was medium height, slightly balding, friendly, and I wanted to like him and did, but it was hard to get close to him. Hard to even know him, really. Hard to know him even though I worked with him for months. Hard to know him even though he talked a lot about himself. A lot. Long stories, in fact. Long stories with lots of facts, in fact. With him as the genius, in fact.
He was chess champion at his high school at 12, he won the top engineering award at college. He’s the most celebrated attorney in his law firm for three years running, and I could go on and on and on and on.
His views on politics were presented as black and white. He had the one true answer, so there was no room for anyone else. He would start even lightweight conversations about the latest novel by stating the fact about its value. Winning was getting the other person to give way.
The irony is that with all those stories, hours of surface talking on his part, and surface listening on my part, I didn’t ever feel that I knew him. Why is that?
On my side, I could have asked better questions. I think I was put off by his manner. I had my fill, so to speak. I was already feeling bombarded. But staying at the surface of any conversation is tiresome for anyone because the important insights are below the surface, down deeper where it’s more vulnerable but also more valuable. That’s where the important conversation lies.
On his side, he has a challenge. If everything has already been decided, then there’s no conversation to be had. But it’s even more than that because what he didn’t share, what he never ever shared, were his struggles or what was not going well in his life or any mistakes he had made in the past. He was a man who could not admit weakness.
So what’s going on here? I think he struggled with what might formally be described as psychological rigidity or, more colloquially, perfectionism. It was a defense mechanism, but against what?
The Freudian argument here might be against an incredibly fragile ego, and we bandi that term about a lot. But what it means here is that admitting his mistakes or his weaknesses or troubles would challenge his very sense of self. Or said differently, a fragile ego is a sense of self that is dependent on fragile things.
For example, if you have a self-identity dependent on looking right all the time, you have a fragile identity because you won’t be right all the time. You’re depending on something that you shouldn’t be depending on, and you’ll have to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to twist reality. And that is a pact with the devil because whenever we try to twist reality, we will pay for it, and the people around us will pay for it, and the relationships we wish were stronger will pay for it.
I think sometimes people who struggle with perfectionism, who never want to admit faults believe that that makes them look stronger. But what happens if appearing perfect, being perfectly righteous, is at the center of our orientation in our lives? How will we see our children? Well, they can become a threat to our identity if they aren’t turning out exactly as we want them to. How will we see our spouse or partner, a person we might need to present as perfect regardless of whatever struggles they have? How will we see our own mistakes, or what mistakes? We have to put that on other people. It’s never us. It can’t be our mistake, our fault. How will we see our past behavior through a prism we present as fact? Even though it’s gone through many iterations of cleansing to support our always-right narrative. How will we see the inevitably imperfect elements of our lives? Perhaps there’s something to hide because being wrong, struggling in any way means perhaps we feel unworthy that anything less than appearing right and perfect is unforgivable.
Now, I don’t have the insight on Benjamin with this, but as I was researching this post on Wikipedia, an idea caught my eye. Rigidity can be a learned behavioral trait. For example, if the subject has a parent, boss, or teacher who demonstrated the same form of behavior toward them.
My position is this.
Such perfectionism, such psychological rigidity, is not a sign of strength, and you can’t go far on this subject. Without coming to some of Brene Brown’s insights on this subject, one of my favorite ideas from her is the following. “Perfectionism is not the self-protection we think it is. It’s a 20-tonne shield we lug around, thinking it will protect us when in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.”
So staying with Brene for a moment, she has some definitions of perfectionism worthy of our contemplation. “One, she says Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought. If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of blame, judgment, and shame.”
“Two, she says, perfectionism is an unattainable goal. It’s more about perception than internal motivation. And there is no way to control perception no matter how much time and energy we spent trying.”
“Three. Perfectionism is addictive because when we invariably do experience shame, judgment and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough. Rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to look and do everything just right.”
And here’s her take on what perfectionism is not. “It’s not striving for excellence. It’s not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is a defensive move. Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Every praise for achievement and performance has become a dangerous and debilitating belief system. I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please perform perfectly prove Perfectionism, she continues, is not the key to success. In fact, research shows perfectionism, hampers achievement and is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities. The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations, and being criticized keeps us outside the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds” (1).
And that is what I observed about Benjamin. He was afraid to be rubbish, afraid to try and fail. And if you are petrified of failure, if you’re petrified of making a mistake of embarrassing yourself in some way, then you won’t be very bold in actually taking action. You might talk a good game, but when it comes to it, you won’t have the courage, the ego strength, so to speak, to be able to withstand doing something you’re not good at. And if you can’t be rubbish at something, you can’t get good at it. You can’t become great at it. You can’t become phenomenal at it.
How can we escape this need to appear perfect?
Benjamin drove me a little crazy, to be honest. And yet I can relate. Too often, I want to be right. I can be defensive if I’m getting feedback that doesn’t gel with my self-image. I have things I’m embarrassed about that I don’t exactly want to broadcast it. It’s not fun to admit that I can be impatient with my children, defensive with my wife, Anna, impatient to achieve results, and I want to look right, and I can be OCD about order cleanliness.
None of that’s fun to share because, actually, as I have begun opening up more about my weaknesses, I find it is quite a lot of fun. As you embrace the courage to be rubbish, and you can read in chapter nine and effortless more about that, you find that you will make progress faster, much faster. And if I were coaching Benjamin now, I would suggest the following that he starts changing the pattern of his speech. That every week he says Something embarrassing I did this week was. For example, for me, something embarrassing I did this week was to go to the completely wrong building for a dinner. I arrived, and instead of a ballroom of guests, there’s a room full of boxes and a confused but polite security guard.
I would encourage Benjamin to share something that he’s struggling with right now. I’d encourage him to share a weakness that he’s working on right now. Something he used to believe was X, but now he believes is Y. I wouldn’t encourage him to overdo this. Oversharing is not ideal either, but you have to risk some vulnerability if you want to connect with people to be known by others or even known to yourself. After all, admitting you were wrong just means you are wiser now. And that’s what, at least, I am on a pursuit to become. I want to become wiser. I want to understand better, faster, and see the world in its complexity, in its brokenness, with more precision so that I can make a higher contribution in the long run.
And I see you out there suffocating in silence, thinking you need to put on the image of all is well. But that’s the clever thing is that all is well, especially if you can admit that all isn’t well. You, the real you, is not your appearance of perfection. It is not the shame that you carry about being found out for your imperfection. I know that having to seem perfect seems like it protects you, that if you admit to being broken that you will suffer more. But I’m not so sure about that anymore. And the real you is able to observe all of this. So the real, you cannot be the shame, and it can’t be the image of perfection. It’s something else. Something different stands apart from all of that. And the fear you have is a phantom that comes into existence at the same time as your attempt to appear better than you are. The truth will start to set you free, or at least a decision not to lie to yourself. And that will start to set the people around you free as well because they’re struggling too, and they’re not perfect too.
Come back to Brene for a second. Perfectionism is not the protection we think it is. It’s a 20-tonen shield we lug around, thinking it will protect us when in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.
Thank you. Really thank you for listening.
What is one idea you heard today that caught your attention? Who is one person you can share it with? Who needs to hear this message within the next 24 to 48 hours?
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(1) 4 destructive traits of perfectionism, from Dr. Brené Brown. (n.d.). [online] Available at: https://www.thegrowthfaculty.com/blog/4destructivetraitsofperfectionismfromDrBrenBrown.