Not long after university, when my friends and I were frantically looking for jobs, there was a joke that did the rounds: you’re in an interview and you’re asked, ‘What’s your greatest weakness?’
How do you respond? ‘I’m a perfectionist,’ of course.
The point was that this wasn’t really a weakness. Yes, it might mean that you, the candidate, put yourself under greater pressure, but for the employer? They’re getting someone conscientious, exacting. Perfect. It’s a win-win. Or so the thinking went.
You see, our generation of millennials were raised to believe that perfection was something not just to strive for, but to achieve without fail.
At school, A grades weren’t enough – and so, in 2010, A*s were introduced. At university, the number of students getting first class degrees sky-rocketed. Then Instagram arrived and everyone’s perfectionism ramped up a notch (or ten): conventional achievements were all well and good, but it helped if they were accompanied by photogenic holidays, dreamy meals out and the ability to take a perfect selfie.
Sure enough, last month the Personality and Social Psychology Review published one of the largest-ever studies on perfectionism, involving 25,000 participants from Canada, the United States and the UK.
It found that the trait had sky-rocketed over the past 25 years, and that millennials experienced it more than any predecessors. We are Generation Perfection.
The problem is, where once we might have seen perfectionism as a positive, we now know that it’s quite the opposite – linked to anxiety, stress, and insomnia. It can also be paralysing.
I recently met a 21-year-old journalism student who told me that she was so terrified her writing wouldn’t be as good as the super-experienced columnists she admired, that she found it impossible to start anything. She opens her laptop, panics, and closes it.
You could call this the perfection paradox: by expecting too much, she wasn’t achieving anything at all. Or as the author Sharlene Teo put it when I interviewed her recently: ‘perfectionism is a form of censorship.’
But there’s good news. A new generation of thinkers are leading the charge against the tyranny of perfectionism, offering smart advice on how to give less of a f***. So where should you start?
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
When that student asked me how she could get over her fear of being less-than-perfect I’ll admit, I was stumped. ‘You just have to force yourself,’ I said, knowing even as I did that this advice fell firmly into the ‘easier said than done,’ category. ‘Think of it like going to the gym – uncomfortable, but necessary.’
The real question is: how do you force yourself to do something uncomfortable?
Enter The Discomfort Zone: How To Get What You Want by Living Fearlessly by Cosmopolitan Editor-in-Chief Farrah Storr. She draws on research, interviews and personal experience to demonstrate a fundamental truth: that in order to progress, we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zones.
As she puts it, ‘The natural instinct of perfectionists is to avoid anything where there is a high risk of failure and loss of control. And yet true innovation often engenders both.’
The book demonstrates how to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, using a combination of techniques including positive visualisation and the ‘BMD method’ which involves coming up with tactics to make difficult situations more palatable.
The result? Not only does doing that frightening task – whether writing an article, applying for a job, cooking a meal or entering a marathon – become that much easier, but the discomfort of it going wrong (if it does go wrong) should be that much more tolerable too, since you will have the skills to handle it.
Of course, something that also makes the thought of a task ‘going wrong’ less scary is when you start to see its very wrongness as a positive in itself. In other words, when you start to see failure not as a finite verdict but an opportunity to learn.
Farrah calls this ‘smart failure’: ‘Smart failure basically requires you to project what it is you may fail at, as well as assess the scale of the damage caused by that failure.
‘If the potential damage is in inverse proportion to the potential learnings you will take away, then it is worth considering. But ONLY if you examine that failure once it has happened. Ask yourself why it failed at least five times, combing through each step of the failed process. In this way, not only will you gain invaluable information but you will feel in control of the situation – a must for any perfectionist.’
She’s not alone. Last year, the author and journalist Elizabeth Day launched her podcast How To Fail with Elizabeth Day, which has seen her interview Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Alastair Campbell, Lily Allen and others about the things that have gone wrong.
In April, she’ll publish her book of the same name.
‘Letting go of perfectionism also means letting go of your fear of failure and of other people’s opinions,’ explains Elizabeth. ‘Once you’ve accepted that you will fail to live up to impossible standards, failure becomes less something to be scared of and more of an opportunity to build up emotional resilience. I always think of [the Guilty Feminist host] Deborah Frances-White in this context.
‘When I interviewed her for the podcast she talked about failure as ‘data acquisition.’ It becomes a way to collect evidence for what will or won’t work next time.’
In the US, this reframing of failure has been adopted by both Silicon Valley and the country’s Ivy League universities. Harvard’s Success-Failure Project, for instance, features a collection of experiences of rejection and failure from alumnae and staff.
Grow your resilience
This is a concept that’s also explored by Helsinki-based journalist Joanna Nylund in her book Sisu: The Finnish Art Of Courage. The Finnish term ‘sisu’ is hard to translate but it is, in essence, a form of resilience: cheerfulness in the face of adversity.
‘Resilience essentially means having an inner core of strength that isn’t really rocked by outside factors, such as other people’s approval or disapproval,’ she tells me.
‘Of course we all care to some extent – anything else wouldn’t be normal. But I believe resilience is about always having your own back, especially when things don’t work out. It has to do with this mysterious connection between strength and weakness.’
Switch off the spotlight effect
For many, perfectionism is inherently bound up in what others think. So it follows that if we could care less about others’ opinions, we might be able to dial down that drive for perfection too. But how? The solution may lie in switching off what psychologists call the ‘spotlight effect’.
‘The truth is, most people are too busy thinking about themselves to think about you,’ writes Farrah in The Discomfort Zone. ‘When I give speeches, a lot of my internal discomfort comes from worrying about what the audience will think of the way I move my hands or the way I walk across the stage. Yet, the more I look at the audience, the more I reliase they are not thinking about me at all.’
In fact, says Farrah, people notice about 50% less than we think they do. You know that old phrase ‘you’re not half as interesting as you think you are?’ Turns out, it’s true – and that’s no bad thing.
And finally…Find your imperfect role model
One Friday night a few years ago, I found myself the last person in the office of the magazine I worked at, sending that week’s edition to print. Surveying the cover on my screen before signing it off, I kept thinking of potential improvements to the coverlines. I emailed some suggestions to my boss, and she replied: ‘You have to be able to let it go!’
I was relatively new to editing and desperate to win her approval. Her email flipped my scenario on its head: instead of obsessing over how the coverlines could be better, my ‘new’ perfect became being able to let go – so that she didn’t think I was a neurotic wreck.
Joanna believes more leaders should show their imperfections, to lessen the pressure on those who look up to them. ‘’Sometimes I think our failures and flaws are the only really valuable things we have to offer each other,’ she says. ‘Anyone who’s tried a little vulnerability knows it creates enormous rapport with people. This is where I get really excited about social media, because successful people now have the tools to directly communicate their ordinariness and vulnerability to us – if they want.’
So if you’re really struggling to give up that perfectionist streak, try finding a new role model – an imperfect one. When that boss showed me why I needed to stop improving that cover, she made being imperfect aspirational. It was the best lesson should could ever have taught me.
Alice-Azania Jarvis is ELLE’s acting deputy editor and the host of The Sunday Salon podcast
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