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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:
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.