Perfectionism is not excellence: Why starting over works

Go Back to the Beginning

Sometimes, it’s necessary to just go back to the beginning. You’re in too deep, and it’s not going to end well. The time has come to retrace your steps and start back at step one. But there’s one problem: perfectionism wants you to save face and not turn around.

A few months ago, I was trying to assemble and set up the self-install kit from my internet and cable TV service provider. You would think I was the IT help desk guru or something, given that I didn’t even consider browsing the directions.

I didn’t know exactly what it was at the time. Was it pride? Ego perhaps? Call it whatever you want. I shall not be shamed into thinking that I need to go all the way back to the beginning should my plan (or lack thereof) not work out the way I intended.

Perfection – Minus a Critical Piece

The moment of truth arrived, and the internal dialogue began as well. Is everything plugged in? Check. Are all the wires connected as I would assume they need to be connected? You bet they are. Is there anything in the box I forgot to connect or assemble? Not a chance. However, I can’t seem to get all this stuff to cooperate with my brand-new television.

I did everything right to the naked eye, but I’m clearly missing something. I would’ve realized I was missing a piece of hardware from the outset had I simply skimmed the directions.

It’s no big deal when this train of thought only affects me and my determination to have a functioning TV. But what happens when this type of thought pattern infiltrates other critical areas of life?

From the Bottom Up

Starting over is the furthest thing from appealing in almost any scenario that needs to follow a pattern of forward progression. Beginning again isn’t appealing when you feel like you are so close to the finish line, but there are times that it’s just flat-out necessary. There are lessons and gems available only to those who start from the bottom up. The same is true for learning a new skill, going back to school, getting married, learning to live life post-divorce, and in so many other scenarios of life. Releasing shame associated with rookie status (and the mistakes therein) is essential to getting what you need at ground zero.

Marginal Gains

James Clear talks about this in his book Atomic Habits. He makes the case for aggregating small, marginal gains rather than trying to leap from novice to G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) when implementing new habits for self-improvement. His observation is, “Improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable—sometimes it isn’t even noticeable—but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run.”

James Clears chart "The Power of Tiny Gains"

He goes on to break it down by the numbers. “If you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up 37 times better by the time you’re done.” How game-changing is that? The small, consistent gains compound over time to help you achieve the big changes you want to see in your life.

Perfectionism is Not Excellence

I had to do some soul-searching to examine why I personally felt the need to want to jump from novice to GOAT status. My search led me to an excerpt from Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. She talks about how some people conflate their identity with their accomplishments.

She refers to these people as perfectionists. “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving for excellence,” she writes. Get ready for the gut punch. “Perfectionism is a defensive move.” Did you feel that? Here comes another one. “Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval.” But who was I trying to get approval from?

My Living Room Debacle

Back to me in my living room with a TV that didn’t work. There was no physical audience present in my home to witness my TV setup debacle other than of my wife passing through here and there to check on me. Surely, she wasn’t as bothered as I was. My baby girl was only a few months old at the time. There’s no way she was passing judgment through those innocent eyes.

However, the perception of others is what drove this thought pattern. The truth is I was fresh off of a recent move to Colorado when I was setting up all this new stuff in our digs. Charmaine, Hannady (our five-month-old daughter at the time), and I came through a series of really major life changes. We bought a house, had a baby born 10 weeks early, and then sold the house we had just bought to move across the country all in a few months.

Perfectionism Personified

It was important to me that this move happen smoothly, and I wanted to be perceived as a husband who took care of his family by those around me. Moreover, I wanted our extended family, friends, and colleagues to know we were good and didn’t need help. I wanted my wife to see me as the husband who thought of every possible scenario and had everything covered.

While most of these people I wanted to please weren’t in my living room, they were at the forefront of my motivation for the perfect and seamless move. Perfectionism personified.

Managing the perception of others is a colossal waste of time to begin with because you can’t control what others think or perceive. The whole execution of a perfect transition went up in smoke the moment I got Covid, our movers got delayed, and now I’m stonewalled trying to assemble my TV without the splitter necessary to give a signal to both the cable box and internet router.

How to Break Perfectionism: Asking for Help

I had to break down and ask for help. Revisiting the directions was necessary. I had to give myself a break and realize that the perfectionism I subscribed to wasn’t serving me well. It’s okay not to know or be prepared for everything. It’s okay to retrace steps back to the beginning when the plan falls apart.

Get the directions, and take a moment to ask for help. You’ll be better for it in the end.

Can I challenge you before we go?

  1. First, I want you to think of something in your life that requires a restart.
  2. Next, it’s time to expose the biggest lie you tell yourself about why you shouldn’t abandon pride and/or perfectionism to start over again.
  3. Finally, who can hold you accountable? Send them a text and ask for that accountability.
Mark Patterson
Mark Patterson

A creator at the intersection of faith and culture


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