Use Perfectionism to Achieve Flow

If you struggle with perfectionism, I understand how you feel. For years, I’ve seen perfectionism as my biggest weakness.

But what if there was a way to work better with perfectionism?

What if perfectionism is not a weakness,
but instead a misused strength?

For me being a perfectionist means living in the constant strain of the gap between what I can envision, and what I can create. And my vision grows faster than my skills, so my choices are: finish imperfectly or not at all.

The common advice is to just “push through” and keep releasing imperfect work until you’re finally able to close that gap.

It seems like sound advice. But taking this approach, it will be years of strain until you get to feel the joy of finishing work and being proud of it.

I will not accept that for myself, and neither should you.
There must be a better way…

How Often are You Proud of Your Work?

Here’s something you may have forgotten:

Pride in your work has nothing to do with its external quality.

Imagine a painter who frequently takes a knife to her work, to the horror of those around her. “Stop! It’s great work!” they say, but she trashes it all the same.

Now imagine a first-time potter, who tries and fails repeatedly to make a small bowl. When he finally finishes, he beams with pride over his misshapen “bowl”.

So which is the perfectionist: the painter or the potter?

They both are.

Why the difference then? Why is one disappointed and strained, while the other is proud and content? Is it temperament? Naivete? Does the painter feel the weight of expectations, while the potter has none?

Relativity

I spend a lot of time on the floor with my son Zeno, playing with Duplo blocks. I’ll build spaceships or helicopters at his request. He’ll be making random irregular towers, and declaring them to be a “bird”, “elephant”, or “dinosaur”.

He concentrates intently, and when he’s done he’ll clap his little hands and say “Yaay, [z]eeeno!” as he looks at me with a deep and genuine pride.

It seems  we are born knowing this, but somehow forget:

Quality is always relative.

He doesn’t care that my blocks are “better”. He doesn’t care that his aren’t as good as he will later be able to make them. All he cares about is that he did the best he could with what he had.

And in the process, he challenged himself just enough to experience flow while working. Naturally and without being taught to, he practiced deliberately on the skills that were just beyond his reach.

Perfect Flow: In Practice

Naive ambition tries to sacrifice frequency and focus on one big thing, despite being unpracticed. The "gap" requires putting out imperfect work often, regardless of quality. With perfect flow, you start small, and focus on consistent quality.
Naive ambition tries to sacrifice frequency and focus on one big thing, despite being unpracticed. The “gap” requires putting out imperfect work often, regardless of quality. With perfect flow, you start small, and focus on consistent quality.

So how can we work with pride and contentment throughout our lives, not just in some distant and imagined future? How can we quietly persist in getting better, when we feel the constant strain of the “gap”, and the expectations we have of our own great potential?

Start with something just beyond your current reach.
Work in flow as long as you need to till you feel proud of what you’ve done.
And only then, release your work into the world.

If you want to write great novels, start by writing flash fiction. Give yourself completely to the 250 word story you want to create. Want to blog? Focus on short blog posts, rather than long ambitious treatises. Do you want to develop a product? Make half a product, not a half-assed product. Do you want to paint? Paint small and often.

Don’t stop working until you feel the subtle warm glow of pride. The signal that, while it might not be “perfect”, it’s the best that you can do right now.

And know that it is more than enough.

3 thoughts on “Use Perfectionism to Achieve Flow

    1. Yes, you are right Rick. I didn’t touch on this, but it’s true: it’s important to couple this with finding the essential core.
      What is it that you want to do, and do well. And what can you put aside as not important, and let go.

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