November 29, 2022

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Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, PhD, is a psychology and neuroscience professor and health technology entrepreneur based in New York City.

I am a recovering perfectionist.

No surprise there because the cards were stacked against me. As a firstborn, I was more likely to hold myself to punishingly high standards of flawlessness than my younger siblings. Then, I was drawn to detail-oriented and high-achieving careers — becoming a classical musician and later a psychologist and scientist. These professions are known for attracting perfectionistic types.

The standards to which perfectionists hold themselves are unrealistic, overly demanding and often impossible to achieve. And when perfectionists fail to achieve perfection? We beat ourselves up with harsh self-criticism and are less able to bounce back and learn from mistakes. We’re also unlikely to celebrate our achievements or take pride in improving on our personal best. To a perfectionist, it’s all or nothing — you can be a winner or you can be an abject, worthless failure, with nothing in between.

Women may be particularly vulnerable to the slippery slope of perfectionism. From childhood and beyond, we work hard to become Little Miss Perfect. Often we succeed and are pointedly praised for our outstanding achievements: from grades to good looks, from sweet manners to being a killer on the volleyball court — and later in the boardroom. But these achievements quickly go from being outstanding to merely the status quo. The bar for success is continually raised.

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Research is unequivocal — there is little upside to perfectionism. The relentless pursuit of flawlessness can lead to low self-worth, depressive and anxiety disorders, high stress in the face of failure, and even suicidality. As a result, perfectionists often end up achieving much less than they aspire to because they hold back, procrastinate and even stop taking on challenges altogether — because it’s better to not have entered the race than to have spun out in ignominy.

Excellencism is a healthy alternative

But there is a healthy alternative to perfectionism. It’s called excellencism — working toward excellence rather than perfection. A term coined by Patrick Gaudreau, professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa, excellencism involves setting high standards but not beating yourself up when you don’t meet them. An excellencist is open to new experiences, takes unique approaches to problem solving and is okay with getting it wrong — as long as they can learn from their mistakes to strive toward excellent achievement.

Interestingly, excellencists often show higher levels of healthy anxiety compared with non-perfectionistic people — along with more conscientiousness and higher intrinsic motivation, greater progress on life goals, and more feelings of positive well-being. What they don’t show are the burdens of perfectionism — higher rates of burnout, intense procrastination, long-term depression, debilitating anxiety and suicidality.

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Excellencism takes the best parts of perfectionism and lets go of the toxic parts. It opens us up rather than shuts us down. The rate-of-returns analogy shows us how. Most of us assume that hard work pays off. Research often backs up this intuition: Study more, and your grades go up; put in extra hours on that quarterly report, and your boss is more impressed. With difficult goals, as the input of time and energy increases, the output of success proportionally rises, too. This is the zone of increasing returns — one unit of work = one unit of improvement. Simple math.

But unfortunately, the math isn’t that simple. It’s not only the quantity of effort that matters. Quality does, too. Moreover, the quantity of effort can backfire, and when it does, we hit the point of diminishing returns — putting in more time and effort becomes inefficient and yields smaller and smaller improvements. Worse yet, diminishing returns can escalate into decreasing returns, where putting in more time and effort makes things worse. It’s like adding extra hours of training at the gym, on top of the recommended regimen, only to realize that you’ve overtrained and are so depleted that you can’t even do the basics anymore. That’s where perfectionism tends to land us — in the zones of diminishing and decreasing returns, where more effort to achieve elusive perfection just makes us less productive and less creative.

That’s why, whether it’s writing a story or doing something that’s perhaps a bit more boring, such as proofreading, perfectionists counterintuitively turn out lower-quality work than they’re actually capable of doing. Perfectionists take longer than non-perfectionists on repetitive or boring tasks, create more inaccuracies, and work less efficiently. An obsession with flawlessness affects scientists in much the same way. Highly perfectionistic scientists create lower-quality, less creative and fewer published papers.

The excellencist, on the other hand, tends to find the sweet spot between the perfect and the merely okay — because they can be excellent without being perfect. They operate within the zone of increasing returns more often because they aim at high but attainable standards and invest sufficient — but not excessive — effort to reach their goals. And they know when to give it a break. They’re not stuck on the exhausting treadmill of perfection and end up better able to meet their goals and problem-solve tough challenges in innovative ways compared with their perfectionistic peers.

How to be an excellencist

If you’re like me, you weren’t born an excellencist — but you can practice being one. Start small, and try three steps.

1. Pick one upcoming activity that you tend to get perfectionistic about. It could be personal or work related, or it might be about your appearance. For me, it’s hosting. I feel deep down that if I’m not Martha Stewart perfect, it’s a fail.

2. Make a list of what perfect looks like to you. For my hosting perfectionism, perfect is an impeccably clean house, scrumptious food ready when everyone arrives, all of which is either made by a wonderful caterer or cooked fresh by myself. No ready-made side dishes from the grocery store for this perfectionist!

3. Look at the list and pick something that you will allow to be less than perfect. Perhaps it’s just one thing, perhaps it’s several. But pick something that you can really let go of. Just don’t sweat it. I’ve started practicing letting go of the perfectly-clean-house part and the food-ready-when-everyone-arrives items on my list. Then observe what happens: How did it turn out? How do you feel? How do others feel? When I tried this experiment, I started cooking with my guests instead of for them, and it made my gatherings more successful. Everyone, including me, had more fun.

Practice these steps first in one, then in multiple domains of your life. Soon, you’ll find that shooting for pretty darn good gets you to something that is still excellent — and without the burdens and burnout of perfectionism.

We welcome your comments on this column at OnYourMind@washpost.com.

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