Image by Christophe Hautier on Unsplash

The Perfectionist’s Dilemma

This article centers around the core idea of perfectionism — people who refuse to accept any standard or outcome short of perfection. It’s important to note that perfectionism is a real, diagnosable psychological condition. In this article, I talk about the more colloquial, non-clinical term of perfectionism as a loose term for people with (unreasonably) high standards for themselves and their work.

The best is the enemy of the good.
— Voltaire

The Problem with Perfection

Perfectionism is complicated. By setting high (and often unachievable) standards for themselves and those around them, perfectionists can challenge the status quo and push the boundaries of what is achievable. Perfectionism is often rewarded by masquerading as strong work-ethic and perseverance, all of which are indicators of success both in and out of the workplace. At the same time, there are major downsides to perfectionism¹ ² ³, many of which stem from the same source:

Perfectionism is exhausting.

While I don’t consider myself a full-blown perfectionist, I can certainly relate. There are evenings where I’ll stay up way later than necessary working on projects, even past the point of diminishing returns (sometimes I study for exams to the point where I start unlearning material, which leads to more frustration). I’ve found myself fretting over binary decisions which both lead to good outcomes, simply because I’m afraid the one I choose won’t be the best … and bombarding myself with counterfactuals after (if only I had chosen ___ instead, I would truly be happy). In the worst case, I’m hesitant to even make a choice out of fear of making a misstep, which often means I pass up the opportunity altogether (I guess I won’t apply to ___ unless if I’m totally ready to make that career step). It’s not hard to see how this kind of rumination would leave you exhausted after a while.

Perfectionists are no strangers to these scenarios, nor are they strangers to the consequences. There’s a treasure trove of articles showing that perfectionism can have negative impacts on both mental and physical health. While these articles do a good job of pointing out what perfectionists are doing wrong, they rarely hit at the root cause — it’s easy for die-hard perfectionists to dismiss their advice as being vague and inconclusive. What’s to stop perfectionists from having their cake and eating it too?

Turns out, the problem with striving for perfection isn’t a lack of effort (perfectionists put in too much effort as is). The key to why perfectionism is so incredibly exhausting lies in the most unlikely source — math.

The Math Behind the Madness

Let’s start with an example. You’re throwing a party for a large social event, full of guests you’re eager to impress, and you’ve been tasked with preparing the food. In a perfect world, you’d know exactly how many people would show up, and prepare exactly the right amount of portions — if you know 100 people will show up, you’ll prepare 100 portions. But the world isn’t perfect — it’s noisy. Sometimes more people show up, sometimes less.

More likely, the number of guests that show up will look something like a bell curve with 100 guests on average, subject to some variance (let’s say the standard deviation is 20). Well, shit. That’s not very helpful, is it? On a bad day you could have as few as 60 guests, and on a good day you could have up to 140 guests.

These two charts show two different views of the same phenomenon. The number of guests is 100 on average, but sometimes you’ll have more or fewer than you anticipate. In the first graph, Y = the probability that X guests show up. In the second graph, Y = the probability that X portions is enough to feed everybody.

Above, we have two charts. What do they mean? The first shows the distribution of guests — as predicted, it follows a bell-shaped curve (also known as a normal or Gaussian distribution), with the most likely outcome being that 100 guests arrive as planned. The second chart shows something differentit tells you, based on how many portions you prepare (on the x-axis), the probability that every guest will be fed (on the y-axis).

If you’re a lousy host, you might just prepare food according to the average attendance. In graph 2, it shows that 100 people in the x-axis corresponds with 0.5 on the y-axis (Fig.2, yellow). That means that half the time, everyone will be happily fed; the other half, at least one guest has to go hungry. Those aren’t great odds if you want to keep your guests happy.

Maybe you have reasonably high standards and you want to ensure that under 90% of circumstances not a single guest will go hungry (Fig. 2, green). In that case, you can see from our chart that you’ll need 126 portions; that extra 26 portions is like a “risk tax” that you pay to stay on the safe side, in case a few extra folks show up.

But what would a perfectionist do? For a perfectionist, 90% isn’t good enough — what about the other 10% of situations where a poor guest will be left hungry? No, that won’t do. A perfectionist needs to ensure that under 99% of circumstances not a single guest will go hungry (Fig. 2, red). You might expect that a few extra portions will cover the difference between 90% and 99%; after all, with 26 extra portions you’ve covered 40% of the risk. You might expect that 5 or 6 portions should cover the remaining 9% (if it were linear, that would be the case). But no. To be 99% sure that no one goes hungry, you’ll need a whopping 147 portions!

This is the math behind why perfectionism is so exhausting. It took only 26 portions to get from 50% to 90%, and it took another 21 to get from 90% to 99%! We like to think that the effort that we put into our work translates linearly to the reward, but in reality it doesn’t — each additional unit of effort leads to slightly less reward than the last. What’s worse, the cost of effort scales linearly — each additional guest requires preparing a new portion of food, a plate, utensils, and a seat at the table.

In short, perfectionism is wasteful. All those extra portions go into ensuring that no guest is left hungry, but for the vast majority of situations, there’ll be food left over. That wasted effort is precisely why perfectionism isn’t so perfect after all.

This simple example serves as a surprisingly useful framework for how one might go about dealing with perfectionism — it shows how an additional unit of effort translates to rewards and costs based on this bell-curve analysis. It also tells you how much you should scale up or down your standards — you should stop when the costs outweigh the benefits. And because of the Central Limit Theorem⁴ (roughly speaking, stating that distributions will tend towards a normal bell curve with repeated sampling), the framework is robust and generalizable to a wide variety of situations.

It also gives interesting insights into where perfectionists operate best. The amount of effort put into a task is related to the standard deviation — a measure of the uncertainty of outcomes. In settings where rules, expectations, and rewards are clearly defined, perfectionists prosper because of their ability to control the situation and set high standards. Performing on standardized tests and getting good grades may have come easy to perfectionists, who had clearly marked rules for how effort could lead to a reward. In situations where there’s a large level of ambiguity or uncertainty, however, perfectionists struggle. In those cases, the risk tax is higher. For example, choosing to leave a job or hop between industries might leave perfectionists in a constant state of unhappiness. Unfortunately, we deal with a world that’s noisy — now more than ever before, we are asked to anticipate and react to a dynamic and uncertain world.

Practice Makes Imperfect

The problem with perfectionism lies not in our lack of trying but rather the fundamental constraints of statistics. It’s a well understood problem in operations theory, where the so-called “last-mile” of fulfillment (think Amazon package delivery — the last mile refers to the distance from the warehouses to your specific address) is by far the costliest. While the example of throwing a party is obviously contrived, it’s not hard to generalize to other areas of our lives. Maybe instead of plates of food it’s hours of your precious time, or dollars spent on a project. Maybe instead of guests you’re trying to impress it’s your significant other or your boss (hopefully not at the same time). Whatever the case may be, the key to overcoming the dilemma of perfectionism is to understand how your effort translates to outcomes.

Will the extra hour you spend on this presentation really make all the difference? Will studying at 2AM the night before your exam really improve your grade all that much? Is losing a night of sleep really going to give you that promotion?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you lower all your standards, and I’m not even suggesting that you lower your standards by a lot. The key here is to minimize wasted effort; your effort should be distributed in a way that aligns with your own goals. Choose the things that matter to you and do them well; for the rest, recognize what you gain from living a lifestyle with less waste. As we saw in our example, a small reduction in standards (e.g. from 99% to 90%) can lead to a significant reduction in stress due to wasteful effort. Even a reduction from 99% to 98% will often save you way more than 1% of effort. Those savings can be better distributed elsewhere to move your career and life forward.

One possible solution, then, is to purposefully lower your standards on things that matter less in your life. Not a lot, not across the board, just a little. Go from 99% to 98%. The world won’t end if your clothes aren’t folded perfectly. Your friend will forgive you if you show up 5 minutes late. It’s okay to spend a little time for yourself every day. If the thing that is keeping you from setting out on your goals is the fear of not completing them to your standards, lower them slightly and jump in — you’ll often surprise yourself by the quality of work you can achieve without being burdened by the fear of failure.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with having high standards; the world needs people who uphold the highest standards of quality in their work. At the same time, pursuing a standard of perfection in every aspect of life isn’t only mentally taxing, it’s at best unsustainable and at worst impossible. The modern world calls for people who adapt well to changing and uncertain environments, a setting where the traditional perfectionist will likely fail.

The key to adaptive perfectionism lies in understanding how effort interfaces with outcomes, and how to divest and invest effort in places where it can be used optimally and with minimal waste. With this in mind, perfectionists will be able to thrive and make informed decisions in a variety of settings — and in doing so, bring ̶m̶o̶r̶e̶ just the right amount to the table.

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Jordan Lei

Jordan Lei

Neuro x Machine Learning x Art. PhD Student in Neuroscience @ NYU. Penn M&T 2020. www.jordanlei.com