Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1843 short story “The Birth-Mark” centres on a young scientific scholar who develops an unhealthy obsession with a small red birthmark on his wife’s cheek. His wife is noted for her beauty, but for the young scholar the issue lies in his bride’s tantalising proximity to perfection. This one tiny aberration proves too much for him to take. He ascribes the birthmark additional meaning, viewing it as a sign of the “fatal flaw of humanity” and his wife’s “liability to sin, sorrow, decay and death” .
His bride comes to internalise her husband’s feelings and so asks him to remove this single display of her physical fallibility – to “fix” her. He conceals her in a boudoir by his laboratory and subjects her to a variety of alchemical concoctions. The wife observes of her husband that “his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed.” Eventually one of his potions succeeds in removing the birthmark. However, no sooner has it done so than his young bride passes away.
Hawthorne’s tale of the ruinous effects of perfectionism echoes louder today than ever. A study of over 41,000 people published by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill in Psychological Bulletin found that perfectionism’s prevalence in society has increased . Their study, the first of its kind in comparing perfectionism across generations (from 1989 to 2016), found significant increases in the rates of perfectionism among recent undergraduates in the US, UK and Canada compared with those of previous generations . Kate Rasmussen, who researches child development and perfectionism at West Virginia University says that today, “As many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists…We’re starting to talk about how it’s heading toward an epidemic and public health issue” .
As Amanda Ruggeri notes, writing on the subject for the BBC, that rise in perfectionism “doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential” .
The Perfect Body
As Hawthorne’s 19th century story demonstrates, perfectionism is nothing new. But aspects of today’s society serve to exacerbate it. The correlations between the young scholar and his bride in “The Birth-Mark” and the prevalence of plastic surgery in today’s society is obvious. As the bride died in the name of her husband’s obsessive pursuit, so too do a certain fraction of today’s patients die under the knife in pursuit of plasticised perfection. Others irrevocably change their appearance again and again, never quite satisfied, always certain they’re just one operation away. They place their faith in tomorrows, which of course are only – but more crucially, always – a day away.
Cosmetic surgery deaths are the most extreme and garish example of the perfectionism phenomena, but this rut runs far deeper. There’s no longer a need to fly to the Dominican Republic for cheap tummy tuck surgery, after all. Nowadays, one can simply use an app on their phone to slice away the flab, add some colour to the skin or remove those pesky, unwanted pimples from photos. You can easily obfuscate any and all potential flaws you see within yourself at the click of a button. Social media is awash with amended images of falsified selves living picturesque lives. These beautiful unrealities are designed to suppress insecurities (that they end up exponentially worsening) through the fleeting validation afforded by the likes of friends and strangers, who are themselves represented by equally falsified avatars.
Unsurprisingly social media’s impact on body image is most harmful to the young, who spend disproportionate amounts of time online (a survey by the nonprofit research organisation Common Sense Media found that the average screen time for 13-18 year-olds was eight hours and 39 minutes a day). Research published by the American Psychological Association found that “teens and young adults who reduced their social media use by 50% for just a few weeks saw significant improvement in how they felt about both their weight and their overall appearance compared with peers who maintained consistent levels of social media use” .
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation have stated that record numbers of young people are experiencing mental illness, with depression, anxiety and suicide ideation more common in the US, Canada and UK today than even a decade ago . This is of course not all down to the ease of Photoshop botox or sepia Instagram filters. To think the nefarious effects of perfectionism are limited to the physical would be to miss the mark. Dissatisfaction with the body stems from the mind.
The Perfect Self
Curran and Hill ascribe the exponential rise in perfectionism amongst today’s youth to “increasingly demanding social and economic parameters” as well as “increasingly anxious and controlling parental practices” . In The Tyranny of Merit, the American philosopher Michael Sandel argues that meritocratic capitalism has created a permanent state of competition within society. This system sustains an order of winners and losers, “breeding hubris and self-congratulation among the former and chronically low self-worth among the latter” .
Millennials and those of younger generations are far more likely to have undertaken some form of higher education than their predecessors. And yet graduates, even those with highly specialised Master’s degrees, are finding it difficult to find work in increasingly oversaturated markets. Those who do gain employment are often settling for junior roles consisting of administrative duties that fail to make use of their (generally hugely expensive) education. They find themselves on the unrewarding bottom rung of a ladder that makes no guarantee of further ascent and pays them so little (if at all, in the era of the unpaid internship) that they often struggle to make rent or rely on a litany of exhaustive side-hustles to do so.
Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst and professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths, University of London, notes that in such a culture “young people are likely to grow dissatisfied both with what they have and who they are.” Meanwhile, “social media creates additional pressure to construct a perfect public image, exacerbating our feelings of inadequacy” .
Concurrently, all around us self-help gurus preach the importance of betterment – educational, emotional, physical, financial – in droves. The idea that we must seek something better than what we have – something graspable if we just put the work in (or better yet, like and subscribe) – is pernicious, and fuels the fire of inadequacy. If we are seeking something better, it’s because there is something lacking in what we have. No wonder we feel unfulfilled when we’re surrounded by false prophets promising they have the key to fulfilment’s kingdom. Who knew satisfaction was just a pricey online self-help course away?
According to research examining 43 different studies over 20 years by York St. John University, perfectionism is linked to burnout as well as depression, anxiety and even mortality . That’s right, perfectionists die younger . Since it’s so linked to such disastrous outcomes, then, why is it we can’t kick the perfectionist habit?
Because we don’t want to. For all its obvious faults, most of us still attribute some kind of value to perfectionism. It’s become job interview parody to say that your greatest weakness is that you’re a perfectionist. As we all know, this is really a sneaky positive. Perfectionism has come to be associated with a strong work ethic, ambition, and high attainment.
Researchers argue that these benefits are illusory. Sarah Egan, a senior research fellow at the Curtin University in Perth who specialises in perfectionism, eating disorders and anxiety, notes that “the difficult part of [perfectionism], and what makes it different than depression or anxiety, is that the person often values it. If we have anxiety or depression, we don’t value those symptoms. We want to get rid of them. When we see a person with perfectionism, they can often be ambivalent towards change. People say it brings them benefits.”
It becomes an endless loop. Perfectionism brings a person dissatisfaction – maybe even depression or suicidal ideation – so they go to a therapist to fix the problem. They want to get rid of the depression, they say, but they don’t want to lose the perfectionism that contributes to it as they believe it offers them something essential. It’s like going to a personal trainer and demanding they help you lose weight while telling them you have no intention of cutting the daily fast food, sugary drinks and excessive alcohol from your diet. Something’s gotta give.
Obviously ambition, diligence and high standards are positive traits. The problem is that these traits are wrongly associated with a kind of “healthy” perfectionism, when really they’re not perfectionism at all. They’re conscientiousness . As Hill notes, “Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards…Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself” . Wanting to do well is good. Beating yourself up if you don’t is not.
Humanity’s quest for perfection
It’s possible that perfectionism is just part of our nature. Cohen draws parallels between the human strive for perfection and religious and mythical tales of divine wrath. Prometheus and the Tower of Babel provide examples of what happens when man tries to overextend his reach: the relevant divinity rains down punishment. According to Cohen, “Religious striving for moral and spiritual improvement goes in tandem with the sombre recognition that perfection belongs to God alone.” Or more strikingly, “In the religious imagination, the notion of human perfection is blasphemy” .
What to do?
As the late author David Foster-Wallace noted, “if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything” . The writer Rebecca Solnit is also succinct in her denigration of perfection’s pitfalls: “The perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun” .
To break out of the perfectionism trap takes a shift in mindset – an acceptance of fallibility. It’s a false economy, really. You can’t achieve the perfect, so why are you trying to? Elizabeth Gilbert says perfectionism is nothing more than, “fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat” . And even that may be giving it too much credit.
Hard as society makes it, it’s important not to focus on the birthmark. Better to reserve your attention for the living, breathing woman on whose cheek it sits. Singer Jeff Rosenstock’s primal shouts on his album closer Perfect Sound Whateversum it up nicely: “Perfect always takes so long because it don’t exist. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist.”
It can be worth remembering that.
“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill.
In December, the world watched footballers have their hopes shattered, dreams dashed, and chances of glory snatched away, all on the most public of stages. The World Cup comes around only once every four years. It is the sport’s grand prize, the white whale for players, coaches, and fans alike. But for all but one team in the tournament, failure is inevitable. And though the stakes and the public nature of that failure may be unique to elite sportspeople, professional disappointments more generally are not.
Failure is one of life’s great levellers, crossing boundaries of nationality, class, gender, and identity, landing at everyone’s feet eventually, often many times over. The question, then, is not if we will fail, but how we will react when we inevitably do. For footballers, the course is already chartered. They left Qatar and returned to their domestic leagues, where they have had the chance to lick their wounds with a stellar back half of the season. These seasons will reset again in the summer, providing a blank new page on which they can start to write over the disappointment of this tournament’s already fading ink. Those of a ripe enough age will even have another chance at World Cup glory in four years’ time.
But what about those in other careers, whose path is less obvious, who don’t have clear markers or institutionally mandated resets? How can we use professional failure as a tool for learning, a way to grow resilience and add weapons to our arsenal, rather than letting it hold us back, dragging it around forever like a weight around the ankle?
Have you failed?
In his book In Praise of Failure: The Value of Overcoming Mistakes in Sports and in Life1, author Mark H. Anshel notes that, “We often misuse the word failure, especially in achievement settings.” In a work context, our idea of failure is more often based on our own internal expectations than anything tangible: the promotion we felt we deserved but didn’t get; the raise that wasn’t as substantial as we had hoped; the client feedback that wasn’t as glowing as we expected.
When assessing such moments, it’s important to have some perspective. It’s impossible to shake off our subjective lenses entirely, but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least try to step back and assess our situation with as much objectivity as we are capable of. Is what’s happened to us a genuine failure or simply a result of external life not living up to our internal narratives? Is what you’re experiencing truly a failure or simply a setback? Pursuing these questions, Anshel concludes that we often ascribe the term failure to undeserving events. “What is often called failure consists of not meeting goals or expectations, or not achieving perfection.”
Perfect is the enemy of good
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic, has waged a war on perfectionism, seeing it as the enemy of creativity and productivity, not to mention satisfaction. “Nothing is less efficient than perfectionism,”2 she says. “Done is better than good.” When looking at your own professional disappointment, it’s worth asking yourself whether perfectionism is the true root of your perceived failure. Striving for excellence is all well and good, but perspective is vital. To function at any decent level consistently requires an understanding that all things cannot be well at all times, and that the moments in which we fall short of our own or others’ standards are opportunities for learning. Assess your supposed failures by fair standards, not those of your inner perfectionist, and see if it doesn’t give you some perspective.
But what if you have failed?
Sometimes, of course, we do fail. It’s not about perspective or overly high standards, we just actually made a mistake that had consequences or invested our time and energy in the wrong idea or project. Maybe we lost the company we work for money. Maybe we lost our own company money, or even worse, our company went under. Or maybe whatever company you work for decided they were better off without you and decided to let you go. Any of these things, it would be fair to say, are failures. They also happen all the time, to people at every axis of the talent and success spectrum. So how do we learn from them?
In an article3 in Forbes, sixteen leading businesspeople offered various solutions. The general consensus was that reflection, analysis, acceptance, and a willingness to move onto the next goal were of paramount importance. Chuck Hengel of Marketing Architects recommended, “sitting in the failure just long enough to learn from it.” Jason Van Camp from Mission Six Zero meanwhile advises, “Be willing to try, fail, and try again and again. Failure is fertilizer, and fertilizer is what you need to grow to your full potential…If you don’t have any regrets, you aren’t trying hard enough.”
These are wise words, but it can be easy to dismiss wise words when in a lull. They can seem too engineered, too Hallmark, helpful in the abstract but painfully inadequate in practice. Except, the numbers back them up.
Failing as a numbers game
In their book Building Resiliency: How to Thrive in Times of Change4, Mary Lynn Pulley and Michael Wakefield observe that in a 1984 study on the “key events” that contributed to leaders’ development, 20% of respondents “said they learned significant lessons from hardship, such as job loss, career setbacks, mistakes and failures, or personal trauma.” When the experiment was repeated in the late 1990s, that number had risen to 34%. And the smart money would say that in the modern climate of intense self-reflection and analysis, the number will have skyrocketed even further.
Similarly, in a paper5 published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers conducted a study on what they termed ‘resilient serial entrepreneurs’, using the term to refer to workers who had undergone “past negative entrepreneurial experience” but chosen to re-enter into entrepreneurial activity all the same. They found that these entrepreneurs who had faced hard times, “benefit from enriched cognitive schemas leading them to greater export propensity.” Or, put more simply, they performed better within the international markets the research was conducted in than those who had not previously experienced such professional hardships.
Events within your control
Sometimes we may fail as a result of our own shortcomings, other times due to bad luck or timing. Sometimes, we may even fail because of circumstances totally out of our control, which no doubt leads us to feel especially hard done by. However, one must be extremely careful in assigning events as ‘in’ or ‘out’ of our control, as evidenced by a 2009 article7 in the Journal of Sports Sciences that found that people perform worse in scenarios where they feel the outcome is out of their control than they do when they feel they can have an impact.
A similar study6 was documented in the journal Motivation and Emotion. Researchers conducted an experiment in which one set of participants taking a test were told to try to succeed. The other set of participants was told to avoid failing. Unbeknownst to both sets, some of the questions in the test were unsolvable. The participants told to succeed cottoned onto this insolvability, or at least were so focused on getting answers right that they quickly gave up trying to answer questions that they felt they couldn’t manage, choosing instead to focus their attention on questions they could. The group told to try not to fail, however, “didn’t just get more riled and angrier, they hung in longer” on the impossible questions, leading them to fare worse overall. The researchers concluded, noting the irony, that, “the more people focused on not failing, the more likely they were to fail.”
Risk vs caution, post-failure
The fact that failure is made more likely by a belief that one will fail, or indeed even just that one might, could lead to someone who has experienced failure before taking less risks whenever it is they get back on the horse. But this is the wrong approach. If anything, those who have experienced failure should have a better gauge on their own limits than those who lack such experience, and thus should be prepared to push themselves to their known limits (a far easier and less precarious task than pushing oneself toward limits unknown).
Fear of failure, whether one has experienced it before or not, can only be detrimental. As Anshel notes, “The less we expose ourselves to risk, the greater the chance of failure because we will not grow, mature, develop our skills, and expand our physical, emotional, and mental capacity to stretch our limits and improve.”
Footballers have a clear, pre-defined reset button when they returned from Qatar. For the rest of us, the reset button is ours to press and the blank pages ours to fill. Scary as that prospect may be, if we approach the possibility of failure open-eyed, with a willingness to learn from its teachings, the benefits can be enormous.
6 Lench, Heather C. and Linda J. Levine, “Goals and Responses to Failures: Knowing When to Hold Them and When to Fold Them, “Motivation and Emotion (2008), 32, 127-140.