May 27, 2024

Shortcuts: It’s Just Fine to Make Mistakes

That column eventually grew into a book, “Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong” (Riverhead), which will be published Thursday.

Here is an excerpt:

Perfectionists often get caught in the endless cycle of regret and blame that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to move on from their mistakes.

“Perfectionism,” says Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation in Boston, is “a phobia of mistake-making. It’s the feeling that if I make a mistake, it will be catastrophic.”

Wait a minute here. Aren’t we always complaining that things are going to hell in a handbasket — that no one really cares about doing a good job? Why not strive to be the very best you can be?

And that is true up to a point.

Being a perfectionist is not a bad thing; in fact, it may mean you have very high standards and you often achieve those standards. Those who have perfectionist tendencies, but those tendencies do not rule — or ruin — their lives, are what psychiatrists call “adaptive” perfectionists.

They find it important to do certain things in the right way, but this need does not hinder their lives and can actually help them achieve great success. For instance, Dr. Szymanski told me, he likes all the glasses in his kitchen cupboard lined up a certain way. That does not mean he freaks out if someone changes them (as friends sometimes do for fun), or that everything else in his house is equally ordered. He also strives to be the best executive director and psychiatrist that he can be.

But he knows he is not a great tennis player, and that’s O.K. with him — it doesn’t mean he will give it up because he is not world class, or line up a pro to work with him seven days a week. He is O.K. being O.K. at some things.

On the other hand, what psychiatrists call “maladaptive” perfectionists need to be the best at everything, and if they make a mistake, it’s a crisis. It is also not just about how they perceive themselves, but how others perceive them: they believe they will lose the respect of friends and colleagues if they fail. They have to hit all their marks all the time.

Their need for perfection can also sabotage their own success. They do not turn in projects on time because they’re not yet perfect. They can’t prioritize what needs to be done quickly and what needs more time to complete. They want to rigidly follow rules to get things “right,” and this often means they’re terribly uncreative, because creativity involves making mistakes, Dr. Szymanski says.

Even worse, they don’t learn from their mistakes, because if, God forbid, one occurs, it should be concealed like a nasty secret. So they cannot get crucial feedback — feedback that would both stop them from making similar mistakes in the future and make them realize that it is not a disaster — because they won’t risk punishment or alienation for a blunder. And such a drive for perfection takes a heavy psychological toll, because every flaw, no matter how small, is cause for agony.

A lot of perfectionists feel that they simply have high standards and that it is the rest of the world that falls short.

The problem with maladaptive perfectionists, Dr. Szymanski said, is not that they should not have goals, but those goals are often unrealistic and inevitably lead to a sense of failure.

There is some controversy in the field among those who study perfectionism about whether, in fact, the term “adaptive perfectionism” is valid, as by their very nature, perfectionists have trouble adapting.

Randy O. Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., who has studied perfectionism for years, said he would prefer the term “positive achievement striving,” but he acknowledged that that phrase was going to be a tough one to sell.

It is also important to remember that few people fit neatly into one category or another. We all tend to be on a continuum of perfectionism.


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