Perspectives on Perfectionism

I was reading random posts on Penelope Trunk’s blog last week when I came across one on perfectionism. Basically, she was saying that perfectionism is stupid.

I have some perfectionist tendencies, but I’m not going to argue with this. I think perfectionism can mean you avoid the feeling of OK, what next, what’s inspiring me today? – you’re always busy “perfecting”, never happy with what you’ve done. My perfectionism has definitely calmed down, and I think this is in part due to some of the experiences I had on my gap year, so I’m going to share them with you.


In 2007, I spent 3 months in China, 2 of them training in martial arts near Yantai in Northern China. I trained with a shaolin monk, for about 6 hours a day Monday-Friday. I existed on perhaps 1000 calories a day. It was intense, but being so focused on the physical was interesting. I spent a lot of time reflecting. I lived for a week without internet access (where we were was pretty remote, Yantai is a small city and we were over an hour drive away).

Shaolin Monks can spend a year working on a form. A form is a memorized series of movements, like a dance with intent. It has to be perfect before you move to the next one – the first is a basic form, no weapons. Then you move on to the staff form, after that there are swords and stuff. It’s pretty awesome. The Westeners where we were, didn’t have to spend a year on a single form – it took around a month for each (where half the days were spent on Sanda – Chinese kickboxing – and fitness). But the quest for perfection was still extreme to me. One of the masters I trained with would threaten to deny us lunch if we hadn’t perfected something, and we would have to train instead. When you’re hungry constantly and lunch is where you get most of your nourishment, this is quite terrifying. Another time, we were doing drills of kicks to his count. I missed a count, and he hit me with his staff. It hurt, but I had to carry on. I effectively did extra (because I did the kick on the count as well) but it didn’t matter. Perfection was what was important.

There was a girl who’d been there longer than me, she was just 17 and behaved like a child – and a bully – too. I never fully internalized the quest for perfection, but she had – in front of the master, at least. Elsewhere she drank alcohol, slacked off, and was a bully. My master, from something he said to me, seemed to know this too.

Lesson? You can pretend to be perfect, but people will see through you if you don’t live by it. Perfectionism in one aspect of your life will not make you a good person, and will not make people like you.

View from the Top
View from the top of the hill we ran up and down 4 times on a Friday
On Fridays, we would run up and down the hill in the picture above, there were steps. Many people didn’t manage it their first week (you’re already exhausted) but I was determined to. It took about 2 hours, and I didn’t do it perfectly. I walked parts of it. I looked a mess. But I did it. The picture on the right shows what I looked like at the top for the last time. I’m beat! The next time was a lot easier.

Lesson? Sometimes, getting it done is what counts. Don’t opt out of something because you’re worried you won’t do it perfectly.

Me after my first 4 times up the hill
Me, after my first 4 times up the hill - killer! But I made it.


In Europe, I traveled with a guy I’d met in China. He was older than me, and frustrated that his life hadn’t turned out as he expected it too. He complained – a lot – he took things out on me – a lot. We had some fun too, though, and so when we parted ways in Switzerland, I thought I would be sad and miss him. Actually, I was just relieved.

Lesson? You can plan, and you can check all the boxes but things can still go awry. Complaining won’t change that, so you’ll just have to make the best of it.

Have you seen the Gaudi Building in Barcelona? From the outside, it looks like whoever created it was high as a kite.

Gaudi Building
Gaudi Building - looks crazy from the outside!

But from the inside, it’s the most beautiful and light-filled building I’ve ever been in.

Inside the Gaudi Building - beautiful and full of light
Inside the Gaudi Building - beautiful and full of light

Lesson? Even if something doesn’t seem perfect, it can be.


After, I headed to Canada to train as a ski instructor. My parents had been learning to ski with the BASI ski school shortly before I left (I was with them). The difference was fascinating. The BASI way is to do a snowplough perfectly before you progress. The result is, my mother does an exemplary snowplough (better than mine!) but I wonder whether she will progress to anything more. She’s committed to it, but so much effort into it, spent so long doing it she’s scared of the alternative.

The Canadian way treats the snowplough as a tool. You have to do it good enough, and then you progress. The purpose of it is to start you moving on snow, get the sensation of the weight on your downhill ski and a sense of where your balance is… and that’s it. Then you progress.

Lesson? Don’t expend too much effort on something that’s just a tool, a means to an end. Don’t commit yourself so fully to something that should just be a stepping stone on your way to something greater.

In skiing, the quest for perfectionism comes later. I’m a perfectionist on my carving technique, I like to ski fast so I can’t really afford not to be. I’ll spend hours doing drills, focusing on where every part of my body is and making sure all my movements are in harmony. But – I want to be a great skiier, and the better I get the further I realize I am from that. For someone who just wants to ski for fun, good enough is fine.

The US

Back in the US again, I ended up working with a guy who’s job was impeded by his drinking habits. My inner perfectionist came out, and I kept picking up the pieces, anticipating where he would screw up and making sure I compensated for his shortcomings.

I resented him so much. He was having a great time, and I was not. I was exhausted by picking up the pieces and disheartened by him having been given the job that I proved every day I could do better. And I thought that someone would notice this, that our boss would realize that he was incompetent and drunk. But she didn’t. In fact she told me that I should have let him fail. I never knew, given the nature of our job, when would have been an OK time to do that. His mistakes all seemed too big, his oversights were on things too important.

Lesson? Don’t be a perfectionist for someone else. You won’t be noticed, because no-one notices disasters that don’t happen, mistakes that aren’t made.

The real kicker? He got the job again next year. I ended up in China, which is cooler, but still. I heard on the grapevine that he didn’t suck. So a lot of what I was doing he could have done all along, he just chose to let me take responsibility – and I chose to take it.


We spend a lot of time and energy seeking out perfection in places where it’s unrealistic. Sometimes we think we’ve worked so hard and are so talented that what we deserve will come to us. That’s nonsense. It wasn’t the case for the guy I traveled with in Europe, and it wasn’t the case for me in the US. Perfectionism is a free pass to ignore the bigger picture, but when you look at it… why would you want to? The bigger picture is a much more beautiful, exciting thing.

Learning to let stuff go when it’s not “done” is scary. But the thought of clinging on to things and missing out is, I think, scarier. Last week I handed in my report for my combinatorial algorithms class, on the clique finding I’d done for Twitter graphs. It wasn’t perfect, there was lots more I could have done, and wanted to. But here’s the bigger picture – my supervisors and I hope there’s something publishable there. So why worry about the micro-picture, my grade, when the macro – a publication – is so much better?

One reply on “Perspectives on Perfectionism”

[…] As a graduate student, if you take a course you have to balance it with working on your thesis. It’s easy for the course to be more urgent, because everything is to a deadline. I deliberately start my assignments a while after they are issued. Yes, this sometimes causes me last minute stress if I’ve misjudged how long it will take or things come up, but if I spend that time before I start on Quadrant 2, I get huge benefits and make progress on my thesis – which is what will ultimately determine the date of my graduation. And I know I’m better at postponing the start date for something that will become urgent, than I am stopping when something is good-enough-but-not-perfect. […]

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