It’s easy to get carried away with the never-ending search for the perfect plan to achieve our goals.
Whether we’re looking for the best diet plan to lose weight, the perfect idea for a book, or project, the best business strategies and so on, the pursuit of perfection can be exhilarating and addictive.
But does this focus on perfection lead to progress towards our goals? Or does it hold us back from achieving them?
Let’s get started.
“The perfect is the enemy of the good”—Voltaire
In the book, Art & Fear (audiobook), authors David Bayles and Ted Orland, describe the story of a ceramics teacher and the experiment with his students, which reveals surprising insights into why some people achieve their goals, and others don’t.
Here’s how the story goes (the original photography class story): 1
On the first day of the term, Jerry Uelsmann, a professor at the University of Florida, stood in front of his film photography students, and announced that the class would be divided in two.
On the left side of the studio, the first “quantity” group of students would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced. The greater the number of photos submitted by the student, the higher their grade.
On the right side of the studio, the second “quality” group of students would be graded solely on the quality of work produced. Unlike the “quantity” group, these students were only required to submit one nearly perfect image, to get an “A.”
At the end of the term, Uelsmann graded the students in both the “quantity” and “quality” group. The results were astonishing.
The best photos were all produced by the first group being graded for quantity.
As Uelsmann looked into the reasons for these unusual findings, the facts emerged: whilst the “quantity” group of students were busy taking photos, learning from their mistakes and improving the quality of their photos, the “quality” group sat around pondering on how to create the perfect picture, procrastinated on taking action, and in the end, produced mediocre photos.
This story highlights the difference in goal achievement, depending on whether we focus on quantity or quality.
As we’ve just seen, it’s the focus on producing a large quantity of imperfect work, that ironically increases the quality of results, and ultimately improves the odds of success with our goals.
“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.”
― Leo Tolstoy
We live in a society that incessantly shoves images of perfection in our faces: perfect bodies, perfect relationships, perfect businesses, perfect houses, clothes and cars, and so on. And overtime, we’ve come to believe that anything less than the best is not good enough.
But it’s imperfection, not perfection, that is the essential prerequisite for achieving our goals.
When we obsessively focus on our goals and strive to achieve perfection with them, we throw ourselves into a downward spiral of low quality results, paralysis and eventually, failure.
We avoid taking risks and exploring new ways to tackle familiar problems. And the longer we fail to reach these unrealistic standards of perfection, the more we lose confidence in our ability to achieve our goals, until one day, we quit.
It’s a deadly downward spiral: you obsessively focus on the goal; you pursue perfection; you stall; you quit.
The truth is, the outcome of your goals is completely out of your hands.
A better approach then, is to focus on what is in your control: the quantity of work or “reps” you put forward towards our goals. By doing so, you’ll give yourself the freedom to create imperfect work, learn from your mistakes, improve, and make progress.
The more you plant seeds of imperfection today, the more you will reap the rewards of success tomorrow.
Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.com, where he shares practical self-improvement ideas backed by proven science, philosophy and art, for better habits. To get these ideas to beat procrastination and improve your focus, you can join his free weekly newsletter here.
1. The original story of the Jerry Uelsmann’s photography class, was adapted to a ceramics story version in the book, Art & Fear.
Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.com, where he shares practical self-improvement ideas backed by proven science, philosophy and art, for better habits. To get these ideas to think and live better, you can join his free weekly newsletter here.
Originally published on mayooshin.com.
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