Perfectionism, Pitfalls, And The Price We Pay
Prior Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance – the ‘5 P’s Principle’ printed out on a violent neon yellow sheet of paper sat undisturbed for years on my dad’s shelf. I say my dad’s shelf because it was predominantly his books that filled the “library” (two log shelves) in the conservatory.
The first time I’d come across this was in Andy McNab’s “Bravo Two Zero.” My brother and I were taught to memorise the ‘5 P Principle’ somewhere in-between ironing our school uniform – to inspection – and larking about with the other kids on our road. Andy McNab’s tales of survival in the SAS (Special Air Service) were a particular favourite of his when I was growing up, and so naturally, I took to reading them in an effort to display just how pliable and obedient I could be.
Prior Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance? I approach this with an inflection of ambivalence and cynicism now that I am decades older, and have experienced how little life cares about our plans. Besides, the truth of the matter is that we often become so fixated with the prior-proper-planning that we forget to show up for the performance.
Deconstructing Perfectionism As A Mark Of Prestige
Here’s a joke about perfectionists: it’s good being a perfectionist. But there’s room for improvement.
Here’s an even bigger joke: I knew I wanted to lighten the tone with a joke about perfectionism so I spent 45 minutes, on and off, scribbling different jokes in a notepad until finally deciding that this was far too much time to spend on a one-liner that people will probably skim over, and so it was decided, I’d nick a joke from the internet.
You see, the real joke is that I could have finished this piece in those 45 minutes and moved on to eating my BBQ chicken and bacon pizza, but I was trapped in a mind vault of perfectionism. Somewhere deeper in my subconscious I was thinking, “come on funny girl, provide the funny! If you can’t do this small thing then what can you do?”
To some of you, this sounds bat-shit bananas but the truth is that a lot of people become trapped in a vault of their own making, typically due to ingrained programming received in childhood. Besides, it’s hard to argue with how valuable it is to be a perfectionist when society highlights it as a strength in some of the most successful people; Steve Jobs, Beyoncé, and Stanley Kubrick are among them and look at what they’ve accomplished!
Everyone knows that the best way to answer, “What is your weakness?” in an interview is by answering, with a faux-thoughtful pause and a deep sigh, “I guess I could say… I’m a perfectionist.” Cue the approving nods.
So there you have it, being a perfectionist is, erm…perfect! Convinced? Nah, neither am I.
The Pursuit Of Excellence
What if we’ve attributed people’s success to perfectionism when it’s an aching thorn in the side? For example, there’s no doubt that Stanley Kubrick is worthy of acclaim but holding the record for the most amount of retakes of a scene (148) nor reducing his actors to tears due to his perfectionism isn’t what makes “The Shining” a classic.
The behind-the-scenes footage of Beyoncé is framed on social media as her demanding perfection seems more like an experienced music artist exasperated upon finding her instructions have not been followed.
And of course, we already know that Steve Jobs’ penchant for perfection came with a lot of pitfalls.
We’ve taken perfectionism to mean shooting for the moon and -at the very least- landing among the stars. In actuality, it’s planning in excruciating detail for weeks, months, years, then shooting for the moon, and being deeply unhappy because often, something outside of your control, meant you landed among the stars so now you will see this as a measure of how unworthy you are for even dreaming of the moon in the first bloody place! The only way forward is to hold this intolerable mistake which you should’ve prior-proper-planned for against yourself and anyone, and anything forever and ever thy kingdom come, amen.
Better than Perfect
You know what the wildest part of that is? Most people don’t require perfection from you, and those who do will move the goal post even if you achieve it.
The “5 Ps Principle” is a great concept for decision-making, it’s even better if you’re in the SAS or in a job where people’s lives are at stake. Even then, mistakes can occur, but mistakes are part of how we learn to do things differently the next time around. Planning properly for things we can control is more likely to prevent poor performance, but anything outside of that can’t be remedied with perfection.
Determination to see things through (Kubrick), the ability to defend your plan based on experience (Beyoncé), and an eye for innovation plus the ability to temper perfectionist ideals (Jobs) are coveted traits, each of which set excellence in motion.
Perfectionism more often stagnates your progress and leads to procrastination because there’s an infinite amount of preparation you can do when you’re holding your fear of inadequacy as a mirror.