Here's why perfectionism is actually great

Credit:    Kaboompics

Credit: Kaboompics

If you've been reading mainstream blogs over the last few years, it's likely that you've read a lot of posts about perfectionism. The majority of content out there about this topic is very negative — especially regarding its impact on mental health — and it seems therefore that the general consensus is that (striving for) perfectionism is a very bad philosophy/way of life to follow.

However, I argue that this point of view is only relevant for two specific types of perfection(ism). If you look at perfection through a third and different lens, you'll realize that it's actually a fantastic and underappreciated concept that should be enthusiastically advocated.

Let's use this different lens then.


But first, let's define these two types. The first one is the obvious one: you keep working on something until it is spotless and you will absolutely not stop working on or be satisfied with it until it has reached an absolutely impeccable state. These perfectionists want every single detail of their work – even the smallest and finest of them – to be without fault no matter what the circumstances are. 

The second one is the one that Merlin Mann talked about a long time ago in episode 147 of his Back To Work podcast when he said that he believes that "the real perfectionism that people see in life is just not doing the thing. It’s more like ‘I can’t envision this thing being perfect regardless of any effort so therefore it is something I will not do.’" These perfectionists are so stuck in their own heads that suffer from a form of analysis-paralysis where this negativity/fear leads them to simply not doing anything. It's a more insidious form of perfectionism whose signs are barely observable and, as Merlin Mann said, "becomes at best procrastination or, at worst, self-hate."

Perfect Cell

It wouldn't be normal blog post of mine if I didn't somehow incorporate an element of anime into it. As always, however, I only do this if it truly is relevant and useful in making my point; this case is no different. Hence, allow me to introduce you to the character named Cell from the show Dragonball Z.

Cell is a biologically-engineered fighter whose competitive advantage is that he possesses the DNA of each of the strongest fighters to ever have lived on or visited Earth. As explained in episode 143 (from minute 10 till minute 13), Cell's creator, Dr. Gero, reasoned that the best way to create the ultimate fighter was not to spend decades training one from the ground up, but to simply fuse the best abilities of the best fighters into one entity. 

You see, in an effort to create the supreme fighting organism, Dr. Gero devised a means by which he could fuse the cells of the world’s greatest fighters into one and then cultivate that cell into a singular invincible entity.
— Cell (Dragonball Z)

These abilities were not only the best and strongest, but they were also largely complimentary. The regenerative abilities of one fighter; the intelligence and cunning of the other; brute strength from yet another, and so on. This measured and strategic synthesis of a wide range of abilities resulted in "a singular invincible entity" or, as Cell more often preferred to say it, ultimate perfection.

You're probably still wondering what on earth this has to do with anything besides pleasant nostalgia about one of my favorite (and probably one of the best) shows from my childhood. I use this because it is, in fact, the best metaphor for explaining how to truly interpret perfection.

Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.
— Vince Lombardi

The Third Interpretation: Skill-Stacking

In my opinion, the best and healthiest way to interpret perfection is indeed from this perspective of Cell from Dragonball Z. Stop wasting your time working on something till every minor detail is perfect; get out of this state of paralysis that came about because you can't ever envision your work being good (enough) regardless of your effort. Throw all of that away and adopt a form of perfection that is actually great: Cell's multidisciplinary mastery or, in regular people's English, skill stacking.

Like Piccolo I can fully regenerate as long as my core remains. Like the Saiyans my power increases greatly after I heal from near death, and like Frieza I can survive anywhere.
— Cell (Dragonball Z)

Master writing by learning from the greatest writer(s); master public speaking by learning from the very best speaker(s); master cooking by learning from the finest cooks; master your profession by learning from the best in your field; master your relationship skills by learning from the best in that field; become a great athlete by learning from the best athletes; and on and on I could go. You can do this by reading books, watching videos, subscribing to online course providers like the Great Courses Plus or Skillshare, or various other methods. C'mon, it's 2018 and you have the Internet. You can find a way.

You don’t have to be world-class in anything to succeed. If you’re in the top twenty percent in a number of skills that go well together, you end up with unique enough skill stacking that will be sought by others.
— Jordan Harbinger

This approach to perfection takes the negative of the first type – the inability to be satisfied – and turns it into something positive, which is to constantly strive for mastery of a new skill. It also destroys the insidious nature of self-loathing of the second form by encouraging mastery of as many skills as possible instead of frivolously chasing perfection in just one thing.

True perfection is mastering as many skills as you possibly can. You don't have to be perfect at each one of these skills; you merely need to master them or, as Jordan said, be in the top 20% in these skills. Then, you simply move on to learning and mastering the next skill. If you master everything, you can be and do anything because you take and master all these skills into one perfect and extraordinarily rare entity: you.

I truly believe that it is only through this approach that you truly can be, as Cell would say, ultimate perfection.

Ultimate perfection. I have spent decades waiting for it.
— Cell (Dragonball Z)

See you, Space Cowboy.