The Perils of Perfectionism

29 08 2011

I ‘ve been a perfectionist all my life. My mother is Chinese and yes, some of the stereotypes about ‘Tiger Mothers’ are true. I had my first piano lesson at 3. If I brought a straight A report card home, my mom would just say “Ok, do it again next time.” I’ve been conditioned since birth to grow up to be a virtuoso pianist who moonlights as a surgeon and does pro bono charity work as a lawyer for the disenfranchised in my spare time. In a word, to be perfect.

Perfectionism can be a positive force. It motivates people to work hard and keep high standards. After all, being the ‘best you can be’ is what self improvement is all about. However, we’re here today to talk about the negatives of perfectionism, and how the need to go beyond excellent and be perfect can actually keep us from progressing in our goals.

We are all familiar with the idea that perfectionists are over-achieving workaholics but here are some other warning signs of perfectionism.

Perfectionists don’t try new things

Perfectionists avoid being anything less than perfect at all cost. Usually this means working to the bone to achieve perfection but sometimes this means inaction. Often, when a perfectionist tries something new and they aren’t immediately good at it, they give up (see my post last week about my 2 week stint on the bass guitar). When the new activity is already perceived to be difficult, many perfectionists don’t even bother trying at all.

Perfectionists don’t get things started

Even when perfectionists do decide that they are going to take on a difficult new task, they are slow to get the ball rolling. If there is any worry that they might perform poorly, perfectionists will procrastinate and attempt to delay that poor performance as long as possible. It’s funny that perfectionists often come off as slackers.

Perfectionists think “I won’t start this project until I know the right way to do it.” Perfectionists have an ‘all or nothing’ attitude. Either something has to be done impeccably, or not at all.

Perfectionists don’t get things done

In addition to not being able to start projects, perfectionists often have trouble finishing them too. It’s not that perfectionists aren’t productive, they’re usually workaholics. What stops them from actually finishing projects, though, is getting too hung up on small details. They waste time on perfecting individual components and lose sight of the bigger picture.

No matter how much work they do get done, perfectionists will never feel finished. They will forever be chasing perfection when it doesn’t exist. Perfectionists run at full speed but never get anywhere. It’s stressful, exhausting and debilitating.

How to Overcome Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a tough habit to break because it’s so closely tied to feelings of worth. In order to improve, we must learn to separate healthy goals from harmful obsession. The key to this is to re-examine our motivations.

Perfectionism is often fueled by external, rather than internal causes. Perfectionists want to be perceived as excellent by others. They feel they have an image to maintain, an image to present to everyone else.

The irony is that perfectionism, though it does not necessarily stem from the self, is self-imposed. We must, however, remember that it is only us that holds us to these standards. If at any point we choose to change those standards or those goals, we can.

So what should our goals be?

Perfectionists often strive for things: a promotion, a raise, a title or recognition. It’s better, however, to work toward values and actions: doing things with integrity, being a supportive team member, working hard or being enthusiastic. It is a far more admirable thing to accomplish something with a positive spirit and to grow and learn in the process, than it is to accomplish it perfectly.

So even though we all want to be MVP, to be perfect and to get those gold stars, being ‘Most Improved’ is just as worthy a pursuit.

Can you relate to these traits of perfectionists? What are your stories of struggling with, and overcoming, the need to be perfect?


Start Being Creative: Get in the Right Mindset

16 08 2011

Last week, I talked about how being a creator is more important than being creative. Being process-oriented rather than results-oriented frees the act of creation from stress, judgements and fear and refocuses on what it should be: a fun, expressive and productive activity.

In this blog post, we talk about being creative in the most traditional sense, in terms of artistic expression. The types of hurdles we face during these kinds of projects, however, can be applied to any new life endeavors. Just like a bodybuilder has to gradually train to be able to bench press 250 pounds, we need to gradually build up what it takes to make significant changes in our lives. Learning to overcome anxiety, insecurity and fear when undertaking personal side projects exercises the same qualities required to conquer those bigger goals.

We all have some artistic or creative dream we’ve always wanted to accomplish: be an amateur photographer, finish an oil painting, write a novel, play the mandolin…etc. These hobbies or artistic projects are usually a low priority compared to our careers, family or friends. But if it’s an interest that you’ve kept in the back of your mind for years, it’s worth dusting off and really taking a stab at. Here are some tips to get you in the mindset to start being creative.

Cut the Excuses!

No more saying that you lack the time, the materials or the knowledge to start a new project. Claim you don’t have time? Just chip away at it bit by bit. If you can spare an hour to watch a TV show or mindlessly click through StumbleUpon links, then you have the time.

Oil painting requires paints, brushes, palettes, an easel, canvases, paint thinners and varnish and those can cost a lot. So practice sketching in the meantime. Study up on technique, color mixing, composition and perspective while you start to gather up all the other supplies.

You say you lack the knowledge? Well of course you do, you haven’t started yet. Remember, creating is a process. Van Gogh didn’t conjure up Starry Night with a snap of his fingers. For that matter, Van Gogh didn’t conjure up the talent it took to create Starry Night in an instant either. The knowledge is there for you to take in as soon as you decide to start. The more you create, the more you’ll learn.

Celebrate your imperfection!

If ever you are discouraged from even starting something new (whether it’s being creative or trying a new career move or starting a new relationship) the reason is typically fear. We are afraid of not doing things right or of not doing them well.

I remember in middle school I convinced my dad to buy me an electric bass guitar. I quit after 2 weeks because I still sounded like I did on day one: like crap. Of course, having the short attention span of a 12 year old didn’t help either, but what ultimately made me quit was the self-consciousness of not doing well. I didn’t even give myself the chance to gain a little skill so I could start being creative with it.

So don’t be afraid if your first painting of a horse looks more like an elephant. Don’t be afraid that you’ve been practicing just one guitar chord for weeks. Embrace it! Own the fact that you are the best horse-elephant painter alive. Write a simple song with just one chord and make your friends sit through a concert of it. Being creative is about expression and having fun.

The best motivational quote I’ve heard for being creative is: “A writer is not someone who is published, a writer is someone who writes everyday.” The same goes for being an artist, a musician, a cook… It is important to first focus on the process of creating rather than on the quality of the thing created because being “creative” requires that you’ve made something in the first place.

Creativity Exercise: Make your own box to think outside of

Ok, so now you have the confidence to begin creating….but still feel stuck? Here’s a tip based on science, that’s right, real science to help you out. You see, absolute freedom of choice actually makes us anxious. We are anxious that we will make a poor choice, that there is some better choice or that by choosing one thing, we lose out on all other things. So if this anxiety about choosing the right way to proceed is paralyzing your creativity, then practice imposing restrictions on yourself.

Paint a picture with just one color. Try creating as many new recipes as you can with just 4 ingredients. Take pictures of just one type of object or theme for a week. Try nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) where the objective is to get 50,000 words down on paper in a month, no matter what or how good those words are. The restrictions can steer you when you get stuck. They can also force new perspectives and new approaches which will let your creativity flourish.

What project do you have sitting in your garage or in the back of your closet? What’s keeping you from picking it back up?

We’d love to hear your comments and tips for creativity!

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5 tools for life change. (And…we’re back!)

25 05 2011

by Maya Mathias

I stopped updating this blog 16 months ago to make HUGE changes in my own life. And I’m now ready to re-launch this ChangePals blog, plus the accompanying it’s-so-freakin’-cool-I-wish-it-were-live-already website (coming this fall) with wiser eyes and a deeper heart.

Since my last post, I’ve learned even more enriching lessons, many of which I’ll share here in the coming weeks and months.

In a nutshell…I’ve moved halfway across the world, made new friends, started a business, secured 6 paying clients in 8 months, hired & trained a couple of interns AND healed a strained relationship with a close relative. Not bad for 16 months’ work.

But it wasn’t easy. No real and long-lasting life change ever is. That’s why the idea behind ChangePals is so powerful. It’s a place where change is your friend, where change is something to be cherished for the growth it brings us instead of the pain it can often cause us along the way.

How can change be your friend?

Think back to anything you accomplished that you’re still immensely proud of. I bet it didn’t come without a fight, hard work or taking a honest look at yourself more than once and saying you could do it. And I bet it involved at least one mentor or good friend who convinced you that it was an accomplishment worth striving for.  A caring someone who supported you when the going got rough and, more importantly, who gave you a kick in the rear when you got lazy and wanted to give up. And ultimately, someone who showered you with kind words and bear hugs when you met your goal.

So….here’s what you can expect from ChangePals:

  1. Inspiration.  We’ll have lots, and lots, and lots (did I forget to say it was lots?) of stories from people who have successfully changed their lives, or have at least learned something about the process of change.  There’s a bunch of science and theory around the idea of change, and we’ll blog about those too, but we also want to focus on the emotional & creative side of change.  You know, those unexpected messages that come to you when you hear someone else’s story and get a little ‘lightbulb’ moment of your own.
  2. Support.  We want ChangePals to be a SAFE and EFFECTIVE place to find the best mentors and friends for your life change.  ChangePals is not a therapy group or a collection of addiction-anonymous associations.  It’s a destination for high-functioning people (like you and me) who just happen to feel stuck in some way.  Between the ideas here and on our new website (launching this fall), we’ll help you ignore the naysayers in your life and find people who can and will cheer you through your change goals.
  3. Resources.  There are a ton of tools and ideas out there about how to make successful personal change.  We aim to blog about the ones that have worked best for us, our friends and our coaching clients.  The tools could be from a best-selling author or our Aunt Susie.  We really don’t care.  All we care about is that people have used it, and that it WORKS.
  4. Motivation.  Yeah, this one’s a tough nut to crack sometimes ain’t it?  The secret is….there is no secret.  ALL of us struggle with a lack of motivation at times.  We just need to keep reminding ourselves of our goal, and to keep our cheerleaders/mentors in the loop so they can help us stay on track.  Most of all, we need to remember not to beat ourselves up when we slip.  We’ll address the art and science of motivation as often as possible in this blog.
  5. Creativity.  In our rush to make it through each day on this earth, we often forget that we are an infinitely creative species.  It’s exciting to be living in a time where all forms of creativity are being celebrated (e.g. storytelling, problem-solving, art, technology etc).  And it’s equally exciting that adults are rediscovering the benefits of play and exploration, especially at work.  Here at ChangePals, we’ll show you how to tap into your creative toolbox to uncover your deepest passions and make the life changes that mean the most to you.
So there you have it.
5 ways that ChangePals hopes to serve you.
5 areas that can guide you through the most sacred and courageous of life choices.
5 beacons to help you design the life you know you’ve always hoped to live.
Tell us…what else would you seek from a friend in change?  Please comment below.