The MuchSmarter Blog

Aim For Perfection Without Ruining Your Life

Steve Schecter
February 26, 2015
Many of us want to be “perfect” in the games we play.

We want a 100 on every test, A+ on every paper, straight As on our high school records, 1600 on our SAT, or 36 on our ACT. We idealize the perfect game in baseball, the below-par score in golf, the flawless musical performance

The pursuit of perfection can be a wonderful thing. I often ask students preparing for a standardized test: “is there a single question here that you have to miss?” The answer is generally no. Given enough of the right kind of practice, the student could get every single question correct. The idea that it is possible to answer every question successfully can help the student see beyond his or her current limits.

The pursuit of perfection can also be a destructive thing. I once had a student named Bradley whose pursuit of perfection derailed his progress for a time. Bradley was an outstanding student who wanted to achieve a perfect score on his SAT.   He so wanted to be perfect that he was unable to tolerate any mistakes. If he got a single question incorrect, he would become highly stressed and need to stop practicing for the day. Had he continued on this track, he might have found himself unable to perform at anything near his usual level of excellence.

So, then the question arises: if the pursuit of perfection can be either a wonderful thing or a destructive thing, what is the best way to pursue perfection? 

Here’s one key idea that I’ve learned from pursuing perfection in the games I play, and from my work with hundreds of students over the years:

Use perfection as a magnet, not as a club. 

Use perfection as a magnet. Let perfection draw you in its direction. Use ideal performance to inspire you with a sense of possibility. Use the idea of approaching perfection as a way to push beyond your previous limits in any game.

Don’t use perfection as a club. In other words, don’t use perfection as a club to beat yourself with. Don’t continually compare your current performance with what it “should be” in a way that makes you miserable. Don’t let the idea of perfection make your current performance “bad.” Don’t let your pursuit of perfection make you unable to handle mistakes and setbacks along the way to your goal. Don’t let your pursuit of perfection blind you to the small gains that you are making each and every day that you practice.

I used perfection as a club when I studied classical piano in college. Every day I compared my performance with what I thought it “should be”, and I made myself miserable in the process. In time, the music had no life to it, and I stopped playing.

When I eventually returned to the piano, I took a different approach. I gave my love to the music, enjoyed the process of practicing and improving, and simply allowed myself to get better and better. I stopped focusing on how I was doing, and turned my attention to what I was doing—and became a better pianist than I ever had been the first time around!

So, if your need to be perfect in high school or on the SAT or ACT is driving you a little crazy—if you’re using perfection as a club—remember this one thing: you’re the one holding the club, and you can stop hitting yourself any time you want. 

Until next time!

- Steve

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