Putting Perfectionism in Its Place: The One Trick You Haven’t Tried

Written by on 21 Oct 2014

I have two very conflicting personality traits.


One, I am a perennial perfectionist.


Two, I am an obstinate overachiever.


This means that not only do I want to get all kinds of shit done, but I want to get it done right.


Lather. Rinse. Repeat.


While you might think this combination leads to a superhuman ability to complete projects and conquer deadlines, it actually lends itself to the opposite phenomenon:




Often times I find myself staring at a figurative “stack” of things to do. Naturally, I want to tackle the stack as quickly and as perfectly as possible. Not only tackle, but dominate.


But then, a weird thing happens—I continue to stare at the “stack.” I think about all the ways to solve the problem impeccably, instead of doing the thing that would help me the most.


Picking up “page one.”


AKA, actually starting.


I’m sure you can identify with this feeling. “Paralysis by analysis”, they like to call it. I just like to call it project perfectionist overwhelm.


This is such a well-known phenomenon, that business professionals and coaches alike have come up with all kinds of analogies for the idea. These include:


  • Boiling the ocean.
  • Eating the elephant in one bite.
  • Turning left to get right.


Now, I know that these are fairly well-intentioned metaphors. They try to make some abstract a bit more concrete. But I happen to think that these analogies fail us in a lot of ways.


First of all, who would want to do any of this stuff? Boiling the ocean sounds impossible, eating an elephant sounds disgusting, and turning left to get right sounds downright dumb.


Second of all, are all projects really that daunting? I don’t so much chalk up my procrastination to the fact that I have too much to do. Rather, I put things off because I want to do them perfectly.


Third of all, really?!?! Yes, you can boil the ocean in buckets, or eat the elephant in bites, or turn left three times to get right, but holy crap—does that really help anyone get anything done?


I don’t think so.


So, in order to combat my particular brand of dysfunction, I had to come up with a few other ways to beat procrastination that a) I wanted to do, b) weren’t so overwhelming, and c) actually made freakin’ sense.


The first of this strategy was taught to me by someone WAY smarter than I am (as all good lessons should be), several years ago while I was still in college. In my usual stubborn fashion, I’m just now coming around to the idea, nearly seven years later. I’d like to share this story with you today, in the hopes that you can avoid the years of pain and suffering that my perfectionism has given me.




As some of you may know, I attended and graduated from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.


Or “pistol wavin’ New Haven”, as we called it.


That’s not in the brochures, just FYI.


Anyway, there are a lot of amazing things that go along with attending a college like Yale. The campus and its architecture are beautiful. You’re surrounded by students from almost every corner of the globe and every culture on the planet. The “work hard, play hard” mentality is magnified by the number of valedictorians and Rhodes scholars you know.


Let’s just say, it’s fun.


But one of my favorite perks was getting to take classes from professors who not only mastered their material—they wrote it.


This was especially true in the psychology department, where I earned my degree.


My cognitive science professor was paving the way in neural testing. My social psychology professor wrote the book on interpersonal interaction. My infant studies professor was doing ground breaking work on toddler cognition.


Everywhere I turned, they were cited on research and by-lined on books.


The Yale psychology department was Mount Olympus, and these were the gods of the day.


Even the Dean of Yale College, Peter Salovey, whose name is part of the popular MSCEIT test for emotional intelligence, would drop in to classes from time to time to pass on his knowledge.


It was on one of these occasions that I heard a great trick for beating perfectionism which I now try to use to fight procrastination.


Professor Salovey dropped in on one of our Intro Psych classes. His topic of choice—“attraction and relationships.” This class was normally very sparsely attended (as are most intro classes) but this time, everybody showed up—and on time!


I mean, what college student doesn’t want to know more about this topic?


He started out by telling us some general, scientific principles behind romantic relationships.


Thus we began with attraction—what determines who we find attractive?


All other things equal, psychology tells us you will most likely fall in love with someone based on the following three variables:


  1. Proximity
  2. Similarity
  3. Familiarity


That’s it folks. Who’s a) close to you, b) like you, and c) knows you. That’s your person.


Talk about bursting the fairy tale bubble.


But all things considered, this is pretty boring information. I mean, of course you have a better chance of falling in love with someone who nearby, like-minded, and friendly.


However, there was a “more interesting four” set of determinants, as Salovey put them, which might throw a wrench in this otherwise boring plan.


The first of these was the idea of “competence”—how does a person's perceived capability affect their level of attractiveness?


Generally speaking, we are more attracted to individuals who seem competent and less attracted to individuals who seem, well, less-than-competent.


But again, this is a pretty boring idea on it's own. So we dug a little deeper. Here’s what we got.


Think about a really competent person you know. Unless you’re the most secure person in the world, there’s a chance that this attractive, competent person makes you feel a little uneasy. After all, it’s not always fun to be around a person who trumps your stories, knows more trivia answers than you, and just so happens to speak 17 languages… fluently.


These people can be intimidating!


In a small way, their awesomeness threatens ours, and we become a little less attracted.


Turns out, what we really like, the person we really find attractive, is the capable person who screws up occasionally!


The not-so-perfect, perfect person.


This increase in attractiveness towards a person who is competent but “occasionally blunders” is called the Pratfall Effect.


We see this effect mostly in public figures who err in some way but seem to rise in popularity.


Think about the Dallas Cowboy who was recently caught stealing underwear, then given an underwear modeling contract.


It’s weird.


But it works.


This effect happens all the time. Even Salovey himself could remember a time when he was interviewing potential Ph.D. advisors, and the pratfall effect came to his aid. He was begging and pleading with the head of his department to take him under her wing. With one wild gesticulation, he knocked over his coffee cup and spilled coffee all over her desk and papers.


Not missing a beat, he coolly commented, “That was my blunder. Now you’re going to like me even more.”


To which she slyly responded, “Peter, Peter, Peter. You know that effect only works if I think you’re competent first.”


And there he was, years later, Dean of Yale College and Professor of Psychology, telling us the exact same story.


Clearly something worked.


And, if you’re being honest with yourself, you know this works for you, too.


I know you’re like me and Dane Cook (back before he got all offensive)… you secretly like train wrecks.


Sure, you might cover your face with your hands, but you definitely part your fingers and peak through the cracks.


I see you!


Don’t lie!


You secretly sigh in relief when someone else spills at the dinner table. You lean a little closer toward awkward conversations at the coffee shop. You sit near puddles of water in the summer and patches of ice in the winter… you know… just in case someone doesn’t see them.


And this is not because you want to be a Good Samaritan, or because you want a good laugh.


It’s because you want to know that other people aren’t perfect—just like you.


We’re comforted by the idea that other people struggle too.


That it’s not just us.


You can use this idea to combat perfectionism and procrastination in your own life!


All you have to do is remember, that all things equal (and assuming you’re a competent person, which I know you are!), a little failure will actually work in your favor. An occasional blunder will make you human to all the other would-be-superheroes out there. It will show others that, sure, you’re not perfect, but wow, do you get things done!


And once that pressure of perfectionism is gone, you’re free to do what you’re meant to do in this world, without the fear of the devastation of failure.


Don’t let your perfectionism keep you from accomplishing your dreams and adding your gifts to this world.


And certainly don’t let it keep you from serving others and serving yourself.


Move forward. Pick up that first page. Get started.


Even though you know you might fail or do something imperfectly, you can embrace it knowing it will make you better… and coincidentally… more attractive.


Now, who doesn’t want that?




What project are you putting off because you want to do it perfectly? Who in your life has been proof of the pratfall effect, and thus become more attractive after a blunder?


Share your story or your reaction in the comments below.


Did this story resonate with you? Or did it make you think of a story of your own?


I believe that stories unite us. These stories can be traced back to one person, conversation, or observation that provided a turning point in our lives. I’d love to hear if you believe this, too.


If you do believe this, then share it with your friends! Because sharing stories an instinctual, powerful way to touch the hearts of others and change the world around us.

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