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Perfectionist paralysis

| 43 comments | Category: positive mentality

Perfectionism is usually thought of as a desirable quality to have. You can’t get better than “the best”, right?

Well, in my opinion perfectionism is among the worst possible attributes a person can have if they really want to achieve anything in life.

Yes, high standards are important, and yes, if what you do is riddled with too many mistakes, it becomes worthless. But one thing I see perfectionists consistently end up having with their goals that leads them to achieving nothing is…

Paralysis by analysis

In their quest to achieve perfection, they actually achieve nothing. “In theory” they are in the right direction, but in reality they have nothing to show for it but number of hours clocked.

Want to write a book? First you need to research how others did their book (read blogs or buy books about it), pick the right time of year and wait until you have the time to focus entirely on it. You need to be in the right “frame of mind”, and then just before you sit down you need to clear all distractions so you are in absolute peace to do the work.

Right – it will never happen. Perfect circumstances don’t exist. Unless you are flexible and accept that, you’ll never even get started!

While in the states I am seeing a very large number of people who are planning to write a book (way more than in other countries, I’m not sure why). And yet almost none of them do. They’ve wanted to for years, but there’s never a right time.

I decided slightly over a year ago that I would write a guide to learning languages (before then I had no intention to ever write a book) and less than two months later it was out there. Could I have done things better? Of course! I’ve spent a whole year since, tweaking and updating it.

But if I had waited until I learned enough to do things “perfectly” then I never would have gotten it out there. If I hadn’t made it public, then I wouldn’t have had true motivation to add more to it to make it complete. Steve Gothin calls what most people do, fear of shipping.

The “best” language learners are actually the worst ones

It’s the same with languages. I come across so many language learners, and I honestly believe that the worst ones by far (if their end goal is to speak and if they are serious about putting in the work, since lazy learners are a completely different species of crap learners), are those who refuse to let it be anything but perfect.

They need to know as many words as possible before they dare try to use them with a native. What if the native casually mentions his pet budgerigar and you haven’t learned that word yet? Then everyone will point and laugh at you!

And they need to have grammar so tight that even the most pedantic university professor wouldn’t be able to critique them.

This is indeed a great approach to take if you want to pass an exam. The more mistakes you make, the closer you get to that F! But that’s not how the real world works.

The most successful people in the world are those who make lots of mistakes consistently. One of the richest men in the world Richard Branson has had a huge number of business successes, but it’s only because he has also had a large number of flops – companies that lost millions. Lack of fear to make mistakes is how he did it.

This week in Austin I get to hang out with some incredible people who are changing the world in their own ways. Almost all of them have stumbled their way to success and failed on many occasions, but they continue regardless. And that’s why they’re successful. A perfectionist would never do this – they’d wait endlessly to tweak what they are working on before even thinking about showing it to someone else.

With languages I find that people who know tons are usually “almost ready” to use it. They’ll be stuck in that “some day” feedback loop forever. The “best” language learners, who can quote all the research papers, have access to all the course material and can tell you words for the most obscure vocabulary, tend to be the worst speakers when compared to more active users of a language. They keep second guessing themselves or thinking too much.

Or they have put all the work into anything but speaking, so they simply don’t have any actual experience using their language with human beings.

When I start with a language I take the imperfectionist route.

I muddle together whatever words I have learned so far and throw in lots of non-verbal language and I pretty much always get my point across. It ain’t pretty, but I use social dynamics to “hack” my interaction to be fun for the other person. In the first week, I always use what I have, to do as much as I can in that language.

Then after a few months what I have actually becomes good out of necessity, eventually good enough to be “pretty damn good”. (Or “C2 level” in some of my languages, in academic jargon).

That’s WAY better than a perfectionist approach. You can’t start from perfect, so why keep waiting until you reach perfection before applying what you know? Don’t let perfectionism paralyse you when you are capable of speaking “imperfectly” but adequately right now.

Other views on perfectionism

I’m not the only one who sees how terrible a perfectionist approach can be for your goals. Others can explain this flawed use of perfectionism as an efficient strategy much better than I can, so I’d suggest you check out these posts to hear my views echoed by others:

Why being a perfectionist may not be so perfect

Overcoming perfectionism

Both of these articles list several of the real reasons people are perfectionists, and these are important to consider.

Of course, there are those who disagree but at least reframe perfectionism as being more useful in the long-term. In the short-term it can’t help you at all.

Long-term perfectionism is great – I do think that if you want to devote yourself to one language then it is important to know as much about it as you can and to always strive to do better. Of course, I’ll always strive to do better in my goals. But right now perfect is impossible, so why waste your time having that fact hold you back from getting a start on “pretty good”?

Ship it. Get speaking, make mistakes and tidy it up as you go. It’s much more efficient.

Any thoughts?

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  • http://www.davidmansaray.com David the Philomath

    I agree 100% my music teacher at school once said to me that the worse players in the class are the ones that will be the best, because they are practicing what they need to improve. The ones that sound good now are the ones that are playing what they already know they can play.

  • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

    I don’t know it this is universal or not — I’ve always assumed it was specifically a part of American culture — but we seem to have an expectation of two things: first, that you must be working on something big, for yourself (hence, the American dream) and second, that thing must be big enough that you can justify failing at it. Failure at your big dream turns out to be an acceptable excuse for all your crutches: smoking, alcoholism, overeating, drug use… because why not, right? You’re never going to be a famous author, right? The system keeps you too busy and you don’t have time to write “the great American novel,” right?

    I watch people do it every day. They start something, and make a big deal out of it (I’m gonna run a marathon! I’m gonna learn French! I’m gonna, I’m gonna, I’m gonna) and then they put in exactly ZERO real effort. Sure, they run around the block a few times, or they learn how to say “house” and “tree” in French, but they never do real, actual, work. And then, someone else comes along and quickly progresses past them — with ease, because even the minimum amount of work is enough to be better than no work — and when they see this, they throw their arms in the air and say “Oh, well to hell with it! I’m never going to be good. That guy just started and he’s already better than me!” Boom. Back to the couch. Back to the Chee-Tos. Back to the beer. Smoke another joint. Give up. Why try, right?

    I don’t know if it’s perfectionism, or if it’s just an insane human need to be better than everyone else *at something*…

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Accepting that I’m not going to be “the best” is the most freeing thought I’ve had :) I don’t need to speak my languages better than that guy, or speak more than that guy. I’m just winging it and doing the best I can all the time.

      Comparing yourself to others is so stupid! You only ever see a filtered version of people’s story so that it seems easy for them, which can get demotivating sometimes. That’s the problem with perfectionism; people actually think others ARE perfect, which they aren’t.

    • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

      Something really big you hit on there is that people see someone else who’s far more successful than them at something they’re working really hard on and it discourages them because they don’t know just what that person’s had to do to get to that point, if they did they wouldn’t be so discouraged, they’d realize just how difficult it is and that they’re actually making progress quite nicely.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    http://fi3m.com/think-about nothing ;) The off-switch is to just dive in immeddiately and leave overanalysing for another day ;)

  • Anonymous

    Arguably the most successful author, Charles Dickens never fully planned out his novels/ stories but just simply wrote them and then had them published. The great thing about it was though, because he wrote them in segments, he could always get corrected and the plot improved by his readers(kind of what you do with languages).

    The thing to remember as well though, is that if you don’t get out there and start doing whatever you want to do, you will never be sure if you are picking up any bad habits.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Yes, I remember reading about that! That Dickens released his book in small segments and then they would have gotten edited and improved later. Without knowing this you would just think that he spent years planning those stories and locked himself away until he had perfection. Not how it works ;) You learn by doing!

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    It simply comes down to fear: will you plow through it regardless of being afraid or will you run away? On that note, I have a video for you, I think you’ll like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrlmLvPFdg8 (I’m particularly pointing out what he says about “walls”)

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Goŝka

    haha, I love your photo :D you perfectly showed how cats lie and what faces they have during this :) that is why I love them. and as I think that cats are the best and perfect creatures, it matches the topic of the post ;)
    to the point – you motivate me to really use my target language :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Glad you liked the photo ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I never delay my blog posts. Usually people point out some insignificant spelling mistake to me in each post. If I waited until it was perfect, I’d never blog ;)

    Love the quotes!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    If I started measuring the hours I put into things it would be mimicking other people’s techniques. I don’t do that – I find people and speak the languages as much as I can. Simple as that. Spoke a LOT of Spanish in the last week and some French and German. Not sure how many hours or minutes, and don’t care. Any non-zero amount is good and anything that’s pretty big is pretty good.

    The more of an effort you make the more you will maintain it. If you want an exact number then I think you’re missing the point!! ;)

    Thanks so much for finally commenting, and it’s great to see what you think! I hope you continue reading and commenting! All the best.

  • QK

    Your post conveys an important message!
    But I think linking to Lifehacker is a very bad idea since that website is what a drug is for a drug addict.

    If you’d organize a fi3m-party & you’d force every participant to converse with others in any language but their mother tongue, chances are that some people will have an aha experience that night.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Actually, I linked to Lifehack.org – it’s quite different to lifehacker. Lifehacker is a great site but has a lot of random articles constantly coming out. Lifehack has a different mix and won’t lead to drug addiction :P

      Yes, I’ll try to organize that kind of meeting! :)

  • http://yetanotherlanguage.blogspot.com/ Crno Srce

    Great advice :-)

    I’ve taken a lot of your advice to heart – just this last weekend I made the effort to take my family to meet an Austrian couple newly arrived in Sydney who were keen to meet and chat with me in German. They were brilliant, and looking back on it I can’t believe how keen they were to help me, and how much fun it was! In fact, just as you suggest in this post and elsewhere on your blog, it became more fun the less careful I was with my grammar. My mistakes increased, but so did the amount I felt free to talk about. Still got a long way to go, but now I can’t believe that I lived in Germany for 6 months and yet I spoke only about half as much in total time as I did just this last Sunday!

    I had been reading your blog in Germany too, but I guess sometimes it takes time for the lessons to really sink in, no matter how much sense they made to me on the first reading :-)

    Thanks again, man. Hope you’re having fun with ASL!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks for reading along! Sorry I didn’t get through to you back in Germany, but better late than never :D

      ASL is great fun! More on that in updates later!

      • http://yetanotherlanguage.blogspot.com/ Crno Srce

        I must admit that I had finished all 100 lessons of Assimil’s “German with Ease” by the time I had this lengthy and rewarding conversation :-) but my conversation partner was so helpful that I’m sure it wouldn’t have mattered if I had been worse (it may have been less interesting for both of us though). The people I talked to in Germany were very patient too, so I really needed to take more of your advice and just force myself to speak German whenever I had the chance!

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

          Yes, people really are happy to help! This never enters into a perfectionist’s bogus mentality. Keep using your German!! :)

  • Anonymous

    Great post. Turning off the perfectionist, the lizard brain, the fear of failure is perhaps the first step toward learning and having fun learning.

  • Alex

    Yep, I agree that perfectionism isn’t useful. Most people who are perfectionists subconsciously believe that what makes them good enough is doing things perfectly. I recommend the Lefkoe Method to get rid of perfectionist behavior, it was very useful to me.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Wow, thanks for sharing that story Pablo! It’s true that people can just think they are lazy without realizing that there is a very good reason behind their laziness. It seems counterintuitive, but perfectionism, as you are clearly showing, will encourage such sloppiness and imperfect learning.

    I’m glad to see you’ve reached that epiphany and I hope it stick!! :)

    ¡Gracias por los piripos! :D :D Seguiré ;)

  • Scott H Young

    Benny,

    I would say that you are the perfect example of a long-term perfectionist (yet absent of the short-term neurosis). You’re recent missions to speak Spanish without an accent show that, in the long-term picture, you care about speaking extremely well.

    The difference is that you still get out there and speak, no matter your ability. (Especially with Karol to nag you forward ;) )

    -Scott

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Well the “perfectionist” in me wants to correct you and point out that it was actually Portuguese I was working to speak with no accent :P

      Glad you agree about the balance! And yes, sometimes having friends to nudge me when a cute girl is involved is important :D

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    And then a few more decades is needed to learn it to even more of a proficient level. I have reached C2 (very much proficient) in less than a year several times. Trust me, it’s possible. But it requires a dramatic change in mindset and feeling like you are butchering the language is definitely not the way to do that!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    That’s great that it’s helping you so much Susan, thanks for the comment :)
    I’m sure your husband will be speaking Italian in no time, once he stops overanalysing everything so much ;)

  • http://www.holidayinn.com/hotels/us/en/perth/purhs/hoteldetail perth hotels cbd

    The cat is so cute here. I do agree with this, I think the best way to learn a different language is to have to the confidence to speak to others, language is all about communication. Nice post though, thanks.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Glad you liked it :) I found that lazy kitty in Thailand :-P

  • Anonymous

    I think that for a lot of us this perfectionism is a result of vague goals. I want to speak [a foreign language] well. I want to write a great book. I want to be a billionaire.

    Personally, I really like the idea of “creating an imperative.” For example, I just finished a 2 week vacation in Spain with my family and naturally ended up as the designated translator. It was sometimes frustrating, but I learned a lot simply because I was forced to ask questions I would have dismissed as “too difficult” if I had thought of them on my own. Other people were relying on me, so I forced myself past the awkwardness. I know that this is exactly what Benny describes, but for a lot of us it is hard to do without something forcing us to push ourselves past that point of comfort… creating a situation that forces this is one way around the problem.

  • http://www.thestockproject.com Simon

    This is spot on! I think this is the thing that holds most people back, myself included! The more mistakes the faster you learn.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Great! Now go forth and make mistakes :P

  • Anonymous

    Currently, the world’s Designer   Handbags or Cheap Designer Handbags brand lot of other people’s   favorite and most stylish brands: Longchamp   bags, coach bags,Marc by Marc Jacobs, Mulberry Handbags
     and   miu miu bags and so on. Because of   their style and   color are just a favorite.

  • Anonymous

    Currently, the world’s Designer   Handbags or Cheap Designer Handbags brand lot of other people’s   favorite and most stylish brands: Longchamp   bags, coach bags,Marc by Marc Jacobs, Mulberry Handbags
     and   miu miu bags and so on. Because of   their style and   color are just a favorite.

  • http://www.facebook.com/vitalii.gutnyk Vitalii Gutnyk

    Definitely, I study English and Japanese, I’ve been down through my perfectionism and realization that I’m still no perfect enough so many times.. I’m struggling with it every day. Even though I tutor some people in English grammar I feel like I show off my knowledge of grammar rather than help people learn grammar and use it in practice.
    I agree with you to a point that we all should speak right now, but the only thing is that natives are not willing to speak to me for free :/ People are so busy.
    So I only have non-natives to talk to, which isn’t really efficient. At least I notice my own mistakes and decrease their number as I go forth, but some people don’t :/
    Anyways your article is inspiring and brings me motivation to fight that stupid perfectionism, which i think is kind of a sin, cos it doesn’t make my any happier.
    The euphoria of attaining goals is very short, dissatisfaction lasts much longer.
    So altogether, the main issue for me is finding natives.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ugurmustafarumi Uğur Mustafa

    Hi Benny, I have been a life-long sufferer from perfectionism and I haven’t yet been able to get rid of it, still trying. My perfectionism –the short term one unfortunately– is likely more entrenched and harder to get rid of than many other people because I am actually diagnosed with quite a bad case of obsessive compulsive disorder. (It’s been so bad that I have been getting treated for several years. Thank God, I am better now, but only God –and also probably my parents– can understand what I have been through…)

    My perfectionism hits me in the sphere of speech as well. My American friend with whom I chatted through Skype analyzed this immediately. He said my grammar and even accent are very good, but it is obvious that I am trying too hard not to make grammatical and pronunciation mistakes and therefore I am having great difficulty speaking English. I am actually almost stuttering or speaking even more badly than that, to tell the truth.

    Anyways, I just wanted to point out that other psychologists designate the “long-term perfectionism” not as a sort of perfectionism at all but as “idealism”. I have both idealism (“long-term perfectionism on projects, tasks and goals, in general” to quote from the article you cited) and the short term perfectionism (short-term perfectionism on a PARTICULAR project, task or goal). I am now trying to get rid of the short-term part without losing my idealism for improvement in the long run.

    My perfectionist drive is telling me to check my grammar in this comment a few times and not to post it before it is perfect, but I must resist it. :)

  • Guest

    It’s a wise article. Indeed, some learners don’t succeed in languages because they too focalise in the mistakes they do. I am perhaps a perfectionnist myself sometimes. For exemple, I always take a look into my old German wordbook in order to find the right article (is it der Milch or die Milch ?). That’s why I am not fluent in this language despite studying it during more than 7 years.

    Thanks for this article. There is nothing bad in making slight mistakes while you’re having fun and enrich your mind.
    Alexandre aka AlexMoby in the forum

  • alexandrea105505

    It’s a wise article. Indeed, some learners don’t succeed in languages because they too focalise in the mistakes they do. I am perhaps a perfectionnist myself sometimes. For exemple, I always take a look into my old German wordbook in order to find the right article (is it der Milch or die Milch ?). That’s why I am not fluent in this language despite studying it during more than 7 years.

    Thanks for this article. There is nothing bad in making slight mistakes while you’re having fun and enrich your mind.
    Alexandre aka AlexMoby in the forum

  • muzhchina

    Um dragunov, govorite po angliskii ochen khorosho! Luchshe chem moy russkiy!

  • http://www.sarajaaksola.com/ Sara Jaaksola

    Found my self nodding my head a few times, especially when you wrote:

    “Perfect circumstances don’t exist. Unless you are flexible and accept that, you’ll never even get started!”

    “But if I had waited until I learned enough to do things “perfectly” then I never would have gotten it out there. If I hadn’t made it public, then I wouldn’t have had true motivation to add more to it to make it complete.”

    These apply to almost anything we do, language learning, working, studying, life in general. I don’t have the problem if being a perfectionist (just being too lazy), but I do self doubt myself a lot,waiting for to “get it right” before daring to take the first step.

    Oh and Benny, I’m reading $100 Startup at the moment and noticed your name there on the first few pages. I finally really realized how cool it is what you’re doing!

  • Qukis

    This is such a great post.
    Honestly, I’m so caught up in perfectionism, that I’m paralyzed and unable to take any action regarding my dreams. I even think I have ADHD (which is another topic) – I give up too soon, I get bored easily, I can’t make up my mind and just focus on the thing, I’m totally out of any motivation. But the other day I was just talking to friends and told them the reason I’m unemployed and not doing anything in spite of having all the resources, knowledge, skills, you name it… suddenly I said and realized “I’m too demanding of myself”. Yes, what if it’s not the BEST plan, the BEST project, what if it’s not my perfect PASSION, what if someone will laugh at my MISTAKES, what if no one will value my work because it has FLAWS? Who do I think I AM to DO this work? I’m not as GOOD as others. And I’m in big stress trying to please others, if I find a job and my boss is a jerk, I won’t be able to say NO to the neglect. Then I will get sick as usual and I will have to quit. So much for perfection…
    So these thoughts are the messages of my childhood, adolescence and so on. I become so anxious every time I try doing something that I sabotage my efforts and go back to doing nothing.
    I say, this is not just an issue, this is something to be taken seriously! This perfectionism and low self-worth go hand in hand. Everyone wants to be liked, and perfectionists are just working so much harder because that’s what they’ve learned from their never satisfied parents who just innocently projected their stress on their kids.

    So here’s my story, a story of a struggling Analytic-Paralytic, who’s trying to recover badly.
    Great topic, I’ll be looking for tools to help me recover, since just starting any real work isn’t the best thing I do.

    BTW, first I’m gonna re-check my post for any mistakes, so my English is perfect (I’m not a native speaker). And then, in the back of my mind I will imagine how someone actually found grammar or vocabulary errors and is now laughing at my incompetence.

  • Rich Betters

    Great perspective on things, especially when learning a language.

  • Sarah Warren

    Sadly, this rings painfully true. I was one of those kids who found most academic stuff came pretty easily (I’m not especially gifted at anything, but I was good at it all even if I wasn’t amazingly mindboggling at any given subject), and I am fairly musical and artistic, too. I’m also an anal retentive perfectionist with OCD. This is not a good recipe for getting stuff done. It took me a long time to realised that having to work hard at something didn’t mean I was rubbish at it and should stop trying. I think being reasonably clever and rarely really challenged at school just made me lazy, in a sense, though probably not the kind of lazy most people would mean by that.

    Your post reminded me of NaNoWriMo, and Chris Baty’s book “No plot? No problem!” Obviously writing a novel and learning a language are quite different endeavours, but the idea of just going out and doing it, even if you initially do it really badly, is a big part of his writing philosophy. You’d probably enjoy the book :)

  • Preeti

    My problem is that I just get nervous if people look at me or all the time I feel that others are judging me. I am not good at that ,even if I am good, I am not the best. I just become so nervous that I shiver sometimes. In my mind it is always that If you are perfect then only no one can criticize you and thus it is only way to be confident.At the same time I know I can’t be perfect at all the things.I don’t know ,what to do?

    • LaurenModerator

      Remember that even in your native language no one can ever be “perfect” at it. You’ll hear new words almost every day. Try starting slowly with some low pressure conversation situations with patient, kind natives to help build up your confidence. Check out the bottom of this post about shyness for tips on how to “speak from day one” even if you’re too scared to speak to a native :)