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Friday, April 28, 2006

The Dead End of Perfectionism

Many of the people consulting with psychologists have a problem with perfectionism. Some of them understand the problem and burden imposed by their own perfectionism. They are tired to having to do everything just right; they are worn out. Or they are depressed and they realize where the depression is coming from.

For others, doing things perfectly is a lifelong value, even a cherished value. They do not realize the full downside to the perfectionistic way of doing things. They may be depressed or anxious, and they may want to feel better, but they may want to feel better without giving up their quest for perfection.

There are multiple problems with perfectionism. These are discussed more fully in the chapter available on my website under "handouts."

Here are a few of the problems with perfection as a goal

  • It leads to depression in some people
  • It can alienate other people from us
  • It leads to procrastination in some people
  • It is ambiguous, that is it has unclear and confusing goals
  • It can lead to focusing on minor details rather than the larger issues of life
  • It is impossible to be perfect
Perfection may be a halfway possible goal for the child or teenager. Consider the sixth grader. What do they need to do to be perfect? Make straight A's, keep their room straight, and obey their parents. (Having "perfect" thoughts is more difficult, since sixth graders can have a lot of aggressive thoughts.) But with the coming of high school, it is much harder to make straight A's. And in the college years, almost impossible. Then, the person enters adulthood. They are a worker. What does it mean to be a perfect worker? If the job is straightforward enough, again it might be possible. But then they become a homeowner, and they have a house to keep up. And then they become a spouse. And then they become a parent. Now they have to be a perfect person, perfect worker, perfect homeowner, perfect spouse and perfect parent. Are there really enough hours in the day? No, there aren't. And something will suffer if they try to achieve perfection in one of these areas at the expense of another area.
Being perfect is ambiguous. As we have seen, it is relatively straightforward for a person to know what being perfect is in the sixth grade. But what does it mean at age 65 when we are retired? Does it mean keeping our lawn trimmed everyday and keeping the weeds out? Does it mean that we are volunteering? Does it mean that we are obeying all the rules? Or does it mean that we are learning which rules to break (as for example during the civil rights disobedience of the sixties). Does it mean that our house looks perfect to visitors or that we are being creative with our time? Does it mean that we keep outward appearances just right so that others will approve of us, or that we will use our time wisely so that we will approve of ourselves?
There are large issues in life, and these can rarely if ever be accomplished perfectly. Perfection is something we can accomplish when we vacuum the house. It is not likely to be accomplished in poetry, painting, volunteering, or even just helping out a friend. It is unlikely that we can write the perfect poem or be the perfect volunteer. The temptation for the perfectionist can be to do the smaller things which can be done more or less perfectly.
Perfectionism can alienate the people around us. When they do not live up to our perfectionistic standards, we may be magnanimous and forgiving--or we may be critical. And even when we attempt to be forgiving and "overlook" any mistake, our impatience with their lack of perfection may show through. This can put people off.
Perfectionism can lead to procrastination. We know that once we take on a project, we will have to do it pefectly. This can make it a daunting task, and we may find it easier to keep putting it off rather than doing it "just right."
Finally, studies have shown that perfectionism tends to lead to depression in many people. When the perfectionist falls short of their perfect goal, they may berate themselves, causing low self esteem and this may in turn lead to depression.
As an alternative to perfection, we can aim at doing things well. We can realize that it is better to be fully engaged in life and trying a lot of things rather than just doing a narrow range of activities where we can be assured of the outcome. There are times to be perfectionistic. Pilots are taught to be extremely thorough in checking over their airplane before taking off, for example. And if I ever have brain surgery, I would prefer my surgeon to be a perfectionist. However, in everyday life, perfectionism tends to detract from our productivity and feelings of well being.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Can People Keep Up Psychologically in a Flat World?

The recent book, The World is Flat, offers many stimulating ideas about how the world has evolved in recent years to the poker game it now is--the U.S., China, India, and the other players at the table. It gives a synopsis of the recent past but also a glimpse of the future. For people who have not yet read it, it summarizes the how the computer age has led us into a new economic age in human history.

For the first time, a person in India without an education in a first world country, can compete on almost a level playing field with people in first world countries. In the past, it might be necessary for a person from China who wanted to be successful in business, to train at Harvard or UCLA, and then to remain in the United States or Europe to establish a business. As new businesses become more computerized and more dependent on the internet, the actual geographic location of the business and entrepreneur becomes less and less important. It is becoming less important to do business physically in a first world country. Moreover, there can be a benefit to establishing the location of a business in a third world country if that is where the cheap labor is and if that's where the resources are. Sales and marketing can to a great degree be done over the internet while the physical plant is almost anywhere in the world.

The pace of change is staggering. China is turning out 65,000 engineers a year. In the United States, we are no longer just competing with others in the U.S. We are competing with China, and India, and soon others as well. We have been setting the pace for them to keep up with; soon they may be setting the pace. We have been content (many of us) to work 8 hour days. They are willing to work 12 hour days to be in the game. Can we keep up with them? Do we even want to keep up with them? Can we afford not to keep up with them? And if we do, can we deal psychologically with the continuing changes which will be at our doorstep. For persons in the computer industry, skills start to become obsolete after a year or so of not keeping up. But in the future, it could be six months, and then even less time.

In the past, individuals in the U.S. could decide whether they wanted to be ambitious or not. Whether to work hard or not. Whether to strive for more money, possessions, etc.--or not. And we can still make that choice. However, individual choices now have national implications and repurcussions, perhaps in the same way that they did during World War II. During that war, individual productivity was tied to the survival of the nation. The United States could not thrive and perhaps not even survive if people were to choose the easy life.

But whereas that war was limited to a particular period of time, there is no end in sight to the international competition which is only now gearing up to a full degree. Countries who fall behind, may stay behind for a long time. Countries who choose a life of leisure may end up being the servants of the trendsetters, that is, economically doing the bidding of those with the patents, the copyrights, and the industries.

In a worst case scenario there might be a frenetic pace of competition in which there was no pause. This is the most troubling aspect of the coming situation psychologically. People need balance in their lives. They need some leisure. They need time to reflect. A state of urgency (if not emergency) could be imposed theoretically, not this time by a dictator or the need to respond to a dictator as in World War II, but by the simple need not to be left behind, not to become a satellite nation to other more industrious nations which were willing to do whatever it took to be the inventors, the producers, and hence the dominators of the world economy.
This is reminiscent of the Charlie Chaplin movie, Modern Times, in which the machine conveyor belt gets the best of him . He cannot stop it. Once the machine is started, it seems unstoppable. In contrast to his movie The Great Dictator, it is now the machines (and those who run it) which are in control. Is it possible that the nations of the world could, in their competition to survive and flourish, get onto a treadmill in the world where no nation can afford to pause or get off? Is it possible that no one would dare to get off? And how might this translate down to the level of the individual? Could individuals get caught up in this same frenetic pace? What of the people who cannot deal with that new pace? It is not only cultures but also individuals which must adapt to it.

But perhaps this is looking at the situation somewhat pessimistically, from the vantage point of one living in America, where comfortable living is now rather taken for granted. It can be daunting facing the new crop of 65,000 engineers a year coming from China. But for one of those graduating students, the internet revolution flattening the Earth is indeed an opportunity to break free of poverty and isolation.

The long term consequences cannot be foreseen. But we can keep our eyes open to both the potential rewards and the dangers of the new and accelerating pace of global competition.