April 06, 2017

The Perfectionist Fallacy and How to Overcome it

The Perfectionist Fallacy is the idea that a "perfect solution" exists and that you should keep searching for it before taking action. More importantly, it's a totally illogical hindrance to your happiness and success. In this post, we'll unpack the inherent complexity behind the perfectionist fallacy, what problems exist, and how you can overcome it.

"Perfect is the enemy of good." Have you heard this quote before? It's a quote I've heard be touted many times before. The problem with it is that it seems somewhat counterintuitive. By all means, shouldn't we always aim to do things perfectly? To have everything under control? Maybe in an ideal world. But, the truth is, waiting and 'wanting' for things to be 'perfect' holds us back as individuals and as a society. When this happens, it's a prime example of the perfectionist fallacy at work. What, then, is the solution to this conundrum? As simple as it may sound, rather than trying to be perfect, we need to take action. Now. To not think about making mistakes, failing, or not doing it 'right'. But rather to change our mindset, and to start doing the things that truly matter to us.

[su_pullquote align="right"]Powerful obsessions, like perfectionism, can stop us from starting. Stop us from progressing. And, equally, important—stop us from finishing.[/su_pullquote]

In a post on Psychology Today, Dr. Alex Lickerman points out that an "obsession with perfection can paralyze." It can stop us dead in our tracks and prevent us from achieving what we're capable of. Powerful obsessions, like perfectionism, can stop us from starting. Stop us from progressing. And, equally, important—stop us from finishing. The reality is, we cannot pursue an endeavor without some form of imperfection. Whether we like or not, imperfections happen, they exist, and we all have to deal with them. In this post, we'll unpack the inherent complexity behind the perfectionist fallacy, what problems exist, and how you can overcome it.

What is the Perfectionist Fallacy?

The idea that a "perfect solution" exists and that you should keep searching for it before taking any action is called the "Perfectionist Fallacy" or, sometimes the "Nirvana Fallacy." Informal logic, the perfectionist fallacy would be considered an informal fallacy. Informal fallacies make for a interesting debate because they are logical given the premises are true. The problem is, the premises are not true. There are two parts that specifically make up the perfectionist fallacy.
  • Part 1: There's the assumption that some "better" or "ideal" solution to a problem exists.
  • Part 2: There's the conclusion that no action should be taken until this perfect solution is found.

Examples of the Perfectionist Fallacy

To make this more clear, let's look at some real life examples of the perfectionist fallacy. Say, for instance, someone is against using vaccines in children because they deem that vaccines are not 100% effective. This would be a classic example of the perfectionist fallacy. The website Logically Fallacious defines the fallacy partly as "ignoring the fact that improvements are often good a enough reason." The premise of this argument is based upon anti-vaxxers saying that, because vaccines are not always effective, we should throw them away. Their worldview, at least in this circumstance, is too highly idealistic. Their ideal worldview is, therefore, vaccinations shouldn't be used unless they work 100% on everyone. So, if it were up to anti-vaxxers, we would throw away the benefits of vaccines simply because there is the non-ideal reality that vaccines aren't 100% effective 100% of the time.

To take a more mundane example, say there is a young person learning how to play the piano. This person has a somewhat perfectionist personality and is frustrated that they keep making mistakes. During practice, they can't seem to get the simple pieces they are learning correct, and keep playing the wrong note here and there. Eventually, their frustration sets in and patience wears out and, they give up playing the piano altogether. Can you relate?

What's happening here? Well, the young person, without even realizing it, has fallen victim to the perfectionist fallacy. The problem is, they made the unspoken assumption they would be "perfect" before practicing. As a result, they've come to the conclusion that they should not play the piano anymore until they are "perfect." Of course, in order to get closer to that idealized "perfection," the person has to practice!

The Problem with the Perfectionist Fallacy

[su_pullquote align="left"]Success is not about how often you fail; it's about how often you get back up after failure.[/su_pullquote]

It's obvious that falling for the lies of the perfectionist fallacy is not going to help us achieve our goals. Many us fall victim to the perfectionist fallacy. Some more than others. How can you tell? They often say things like "I'm trying to lose weight and went over my calorie limit today, therefore I might as well just eat as much as I want!" Or, "this acne medication removes only 70% of my outbreak, I'm not going to use it anymore."

You might be afraid to try new things because you're worried you might fail or not be "perfect." But, as we described in the hypothetical example with the young person learning to play the piano, this is a paradox in and of itself. There's no way around it. In order to get closer to perfect in a new thing, you must practice. The problem with the perfectionist fallacy is that it's an illusion. One that keeps us from confronting reality our own reality. So put in the practice even if it means you might not get it perfect the first few tries.

How the Perfectionist Fallacy Prevents us from Achieving Success

If a person can't try new things because they can't deal with being less than perfect, then it will be difficult for them to achieve any kind of success. In order to be successful in life, whether it be in your career, at school, in sports, or any other area, making mistakes and learning new things is important. Practice is necessary, and by definition, practice is going to come with imperfection! Falling for the perfectionist fallacy results in an incredibly negative downward spiral. One that can significantly affect all areas of your life.

How the Perfectionist Fallacy Prevents us from Trying New Things.

Starting new things expecting it to be perfect right from the beginning is almost impossible and unrealistic. It may even lead you to think—why even bother? Thinking this way will only set you up for disappointment and frustration right out of the gate. See, the problem with thinking this way is you'll be prone to becoming "paralyzed," "incapacitated," and unable to have the confidence and motivation to try new things. Besides hindering your own success, falling victim to the perfectionist fallacy also has a negative effect on your enjoyment of life and can impact your well-being.

How to Deal With the Perfectionist Fallacy

So, if you find the perfectionist fallacy is hindering your growth, development, and success in different areas of your life what can you do to combat it? The first thing you can do is recognize when this fallacy invades your thinking. Take inventory of your life. For instance, have you recently been avoiding anything because of a belief that it would be better to do under a different set of circumstances, or at a different time? Maybe you've been putting off reading that book because you're waiting to be in the "right" frame of mind. Or, you're putting off that marriage proposal because you haven't figured out the "perfect" way to do it. When these type of thoughts cross your mind, combat them with immediate action. In that moment, do something, take some form of action that will put you on the path to success.

In the words of Jason Kowal, "probability beats certainty". This is the essence of the fallacy so use probability to your advantage. Recognize the problem areas in your life then, challenge them with logic. When you feel your perfectionist tendencies begin to surge, realize you are subscribing to the perfectionist fallacy. Don't allow yourself to exhaust all ends looking for that "perfect" solution. Even if you believe that if you overturn just one more stone you'll find it. Don't fall for it. Rather, understand that this is part of the perfectionist fallacy trap. Sometimes, it's important to take a leap of faith. Be willing to take a chance, roll the dice, make mistakes, and fail. So, allow yourself to subscribe to imperfections. The sooner you do this, the quicker you will no longer be trapped by the perfectionist fallacy.

See also: Imperfectly Perfect: Making Peace with Your Imperfections.

The perfectionist fallacy can come into our thinking without us even noticing. Modern society puts such high expectations on all of us—and this makes it easier for us to fall for the fallacy. People may think, "what's wrong with aiming for perfection?" But, this is part of the allure of what turns out to be a trap. It takes some soul-searching to see if you have any of these issues, but try not to wait for the "perfect" moment to do that! It's time to start living and stop waiting for the "right time." Otherwise, you could spend your entire life waiting for the "right time." Call out the perfectionist fallacy for what it is—a totally illogical hindrance to your happiness and success, and start challenging it today.