By Tal Ben-Shahar
Published: April 1, 2009
Recommendation: Avoid | Maybe | Get It | Must Have
Why Should You Read This?
The Pursuit of Perfect makes for an exciting read because it’s written by a positive psychology expert who is also a recovering perfectionist. This duality is intriguing because both are interested in achieving “the best” but have diametrically opposing views on how to do that.
In the book, the author Harvard Professor Tal Ben-Shahar states positive psychologists focus on what is optimal. BUT this definition of doing your best acknowledges that there are constraints. Translation: there are trade-offs. You can’t have it all. There is no free lunch.
Perfectionists believe in an ideal world. They feel if you know the right things, put in the right effort, your journey to success is guaranteed and obstacle-free. While that would be fantastic, Ben-Shahar argues reality is rarely that flawless.
To illustrate, Ben-Shahar presents 2 personal stories.
At the age of 17, Ben-Shahar became Israel’s youngest national squash champion. As he put it, he was excited for about 3 hours before he downplayed his victory. He told himself as Israel is a small country, there aren’t that many squash players. So, is being a champion in a small pond really an achievement?
A true accomplishment is to be the world champion. If you get that, then there is no doubt about your success. So, that became Ben-Shahar’s next goal.
Soon after graduating from high school, he moved to England, where the world champion Jansher Khan lived. He felt the surest way to the top was to learn and practice from the best. Despite not knowing Khan personally, Ben-Shahar did not let that stop him. He camped out at the training camp where Khan frequented and eventually wound-up training with him. While there, Ben-Shahar’s game improved dramatically, especially during the practice sessions.
Unfortunately, over the next 2 years, Ben-Shahar also discovered that the intense physical training and mental pressure he was placing himself under took a toll on his body and mind. To him, the world championship was all that mattered. He was willing to sacrifice everything to achieve that. But his relentless pace had caused his body to burn out. Plagued by injuries and advised by medical experts to slow down, reality had made its view known. In addition, he discovered he was mentally not used to the intensely competitive nature of tournaments at this level of play. Thus, at the age of 21, he decided to give up his dream of becoming the world’s best player.
The second story relates to Ben-Shahar’s class on Happiness, which incidentally became the most popular course in Harvard’s history. One day as he was eating lunch in one of the dorm dining halls, a student asked to join him. Upon sitting down, the student revealed that his roommate was taking Ben-Shahar’s class and then proceeded to warn the professor to be careful. Careful in that if the student ever saw Ben-Shahar, the Happiness expert, looking unhappy, he would tell his roommate. While this was a joke, as Ben-Shahar points out there is a widespread expectation that experts should be error-free. When you are good at what you do, you aren’t expected to have any faults. We all recognize intellectually that is not feasible, yet emotionally we often hold top performers to that standard. That is simply not realistic.
In The Pursuit of Happiness, Ben-Shahar describes how the self-help movement has misinterpreted positive psychology. The misbelief is that you can and should aspire to a perfect life -where everything is possible (no failure, no painful emotions, where the standards for success can be met if you know what to do and put in the right effort). He argues that positive psychology explicitly does not make such claims. It recognizes the limits of being human. But knowing this does not hinder you but instead frees you. It provides you with a more realistic understanding of how to make progress towards your goals and minimize self-criticism.
Be an Optimalist Instead of a Perfectionist
To help identify where perfectionists go astray, Ben-Shahar introduces the idea of an optimalist to show their differences. Both groups have the same level of ambition and intense desire to achieve their goals. But they differ in their view and approach. Simply stated, perfectionists reject reality in favor of an ideal, whereas an optimalist accepts the messiness inherent in the world.
An example is how goals are defined and treated. Perfectionists set goals/standards so high that the possibility of success is tiny. Or if they do hit their target, they are not satisfied for long and set the next goal to be even higher. Hence, no matter how successful they are, they feel it’s never good enough.
The optimalist also sets exceptionally high standards. But when they hit their targets, they savor the moment of victory. They genuinely view it as achieving a milestone versus checking the box. So, when they reach their goals, they feel immense satisfaction and accomplishment for the hard work they put in.
Why is this distinction important? Because Ben-Shahar states the perfectionist mindset creates a situation that is not self-sustaining. Recall, Ben-Shahar was at one point the Israeli squash champion. While that was a significant accomplishment, he “devalued” it by saying it wasn’t “big” enough. And to prove his worth, he needed to be the world champion. So, even when they achieve their goals, perfectionists will often push the goalposts even higher.
Another area where perfectionists and optimalists differ is around failure. Perfectionists reject failure and feel it has no role in what they are trying to achieve. The problem is when you treat failure this way, you create constant anxiety. Despite your best efforts, you know failure is always a possibility. You fear that it’s simply lurking around the corner and will pop up at the most inopportune moment. So, you check and recheck, but you can’t eliminate the anxiety altogether.
Optimalists recognize that despite your best-efforts avoiding failure isn’t always in your control. Instead, you learn to accept that it can happen and figure out ways to recover from it.
Rejecting painful emotions is another area the two differ. Perfectionists reject painful emotions. When you do that, your mind paradoxically intensifies the same feelings that you are trying to suppress, making things worse over time.
Optimalists take a more mindful and active approach. That is, to move forward, you need to acknowledge and address the pain despite the discomfort. Psychology shows that repressing negative feelings does not mean the problems will disappear on their own. They will return at some point, so you might as well take a stab at them.
Finally, when you reject real-world limits and constraints, you create unreasonable and unattainable standards leading to frustration and feelings of inadequacy. That is the fallacy of the perfectionist. They seek the ideal because it signifies the paragon of success, but you can never get there.
Ultimately, Ben-Shahar says perfectionists self-sabotage by creating a massive amount of unnecessary tension as they aspire towards their goals.
Optimalists accept the road to success is not a smooth ride. And that you need to be ready to deal with the “nonideality.”
So, if you’re a perfectionist, then the key to preserving your sanity while moving ahead is to become an optimalist, and the following takeaways show how to do that.
Learn to Fail or You Will Fail to Learn
Nobody likes to fail, but there is a difference between a normal aversion to failure and the intense fear of failure. Aversion to failure motivates us to take necessary precautions and to work harder to achieve success. By contrast, intense fear of failure often handicaps us, making us reject failure so vigorously that we cannot take the risks that are necessary for growth.
Failure is an inescapable part of life and a critically important part of any successful life. We learn to walk by falling, to talk by babbling, to shoot a basket by missing, and to color the inside of a square by scribbling outside the box.
While much is made of perfectionist high standards, fundamentally, perfectionism is about how they deal with failure and the associated criticism. Perfectionists are extremely hard on themselves and others when making mistakes. They believe it is possible to be error-free.
Optimalists take responsibility for their mistakes but learn from their failures. They accept that making mistakes and experiencing loss are unavoidable. They are also more forgiving towards themselves and others.
Ben-Shahar suggests these differences stem from different viewpoints. The perfectionist focuses on the negative. They see the bad as an active force in the world and good as passive. Hence, they expend effort on eliminating the bad (no mistakes, no errors, no failures, etc.) and believe that good things will happen as a consequence. But the point is the “good” is not the goal. It’s secondary.
In contrast, optimalists are more benefit-finding and perceive the good as something that must be actively pursued. The bad is what happens in the absence of doing good. As Ben-Shahar quotes Edmund Burke, “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
So, you must strive to do good things, not just avoid making mistakes. Note: if you do nothing, you don’t have a chance to fail, but you don’t succeed either.
Thus, while perfectionists fear failure and do all at their disposal to avoid it, optimalists understand that in pushing oneself to learn, grow, and ultimately do well, failure will inevitably be part of the experience. As a result, if one does not learn to tolerate failure, they will fail to learn.
Enjoy the Journey, Not the Destination
Ben-Shahar states perfectionists and optimalists also differ in their process for achieving goals. When perfectionists go after a goal, they only see the destination. He writes:
For the Perfectionist, failure has no role in the journey toward the peak of the mountain; the ideal path toward her goals is the shortest, most direct path- a straight line. Anything that impedes her progress toward the ultimate goal is viewed as an unwelcome obstacle, a hurdle in her path.
Thus, the perfectionists believe that if you plan correctly, the journey should be short and uneventful. Any obstacles should be foreseen and avoidable via careful thought- failure has no role if you plan and execute correctly. As a result, they obsess over, “Are we there yet?”
For the Optimalist, failure is an inevitable part of the journey, of getting from where she is to where she wants to be. She views the optimal journey not as a straight line but as something more like an irregular upward spiral – while the general direction is toward her objective, she knows that there will be numerous deviations along the way.
Hence, optimalists pay attention to the journey. They say, “Look at how far we’ve gone.” They acknowledge that there will be bumps, wrong turns, detours, and maybe even dead ends along the road- some foreseeable and others not. While most will be unpleasant, some might be agreeable and even present new opportunities.
The point is optimalists do not obsessively focus on the goal that they do stop to smell the roses along the path. They recognize that life is mostly what you do on the way to your destination. And that you want to be fully awake and savior any positive moments that do pop up. This mindset is what helps keep them moving forward.
This attitude gives an optimalist a considerable advantage. As Ben-Shahar states:
The Perfectionist’s obsession with the destination and her inability to enjoy the journey eventually saps her desire and motivation, so that she is less likely to put in the hard work necessary for success. No matter how motivated she may be at the beginning, the strain of sustaining an effort for long periods of time eventually becomes intolerable if the entire process- the journey is unhappy. There comes a point when, despite the Perfectionist’s’ motivation to succeed, part of her will begin to want to give up, just in order to avoid further pain. No matter how intensely she may want the promotion from middle to senior management, the Perfectionist may find that because the journey is so long – and it always lasts much, much longer than that brief moment when the destination is reached – she cannot bear to sustain it.
As it’s rare for the journey to be shorter than the time at the destination (which the perfectionists spend a brief moment anyway), if you don’t make the journey more pleasant, you aren’t going to last.
Take Breaks to Succeed
For a perfectionist, consistency, grit, and endurance are critical to success. In fact, it’s not uncommon for them to aspire to a machinelike level. But as Ben-Shahar showed with his experience playing squash, pushing yourself hard without regard to rest and recovery can lead to burnout, unhappiness, and ultimately failure.
Simply stated, if you were to imagine a robot that had to shut down every 15 minutes, that needed to be offline for 8 hours for every 24-hour cycle, as well as required an entire day to recharge after 5-6 days of operation, that would be a lousy machine. But it is a real, fully functioning human being.
Ben-Shahar says that you should view work not as a marathoner who works long and hard until you drop but as a sprinter alternating between intense bursts and rest. To achieve this, he suggests 3 levels of recovery: micro-, mid-, and macrolevels.
On the microscale, he suggests work at most 1 to 2 hours with intense focus. Anything longer causes your performance to drop, and your return on effort is negative. He recommends taking a short break, like 15 minutes after a work period.
But even this work-rest cycle cannot go on indefinitely, and that’s where the midlevel recovery needs to happen. This means getting about 7 to 9 hours of sleep every day. Failure to do so not only results in decreased creativity and productivity but can also lead to depression and anxiety.
On the macro level, take a vacation ranging from a week to a month at least once a year. Ben-Shahar says that many perfectionists feel guilty about taking time off, but you should view this as an investment. When you’re away from your desk, you get your best ideas, and your productivity rises once you have fully recovered.
Ben-Shahar says that introducing recovery into his life has transformed his overall experience. He finds he’s more productive in his 4 to 5 90-minute sessions, with 15-minute recovery periods than if he were to have a 12-hour day. Taking an entire day off every week and going on vacations has led him to have more energy and an overall more positive attitude.
Being Great Doesn’t Mean You’re Faultless
In the book, Ben-Shahar asks, “Why was it so difficult for me to change my perfectionism, even though I knew it was making me unhappy?”
In part, he answers because he associated it with positive attributes. To illustrate, he describes the work of Prof. Ellen Langer with her student Loralyn Thompson. They did an experiment where they created a list of undesirable traits such as rigid, gullible, and grim and asked participants first to see which ones they had found in themselves. Then, of these traits, they were asked which ones did they try to change and whether they were successful or not.
Next, the participants were given a list of words like consistency, trust, and seriousness and asked to rate their importance. Unbeknownst to the participants, the traits on the second list were the positive equivalents of the characteristics on the first list.
What Langer found was that those who valued a particular positive trait struggled with changing its negative counterpart. In other words, if you value consistency, then you will struggle with not being rigid. Subconsciously, you feel that becoming less rigid would make you less consistent.
In short, as Ben-Shahar quotes Langer:
The reason some people have a hard time changing their behavior, no matter how hard they seem to try, is that they really value that behavior under a different name.
Ben-Shahar developed optimalism to capture the positives of perfectionism while minimizing the negatives by highlighting that we are not perfect machines but imperfect human beings.
As an illustration, Ben-Shahar cites another experiment done by Langer. In this one, students learn about 2 “groups” of highly accomplished scientists. For the first one, they only know about the scientists’ achievements. Students rated this set as highly intelligent BUT viewed their success as unattainable. For the second group, which was the same group of scientists, students also learned about their struggles, errors, and setbacks. Interestingly, while the students still viewed the scientists as impressive, they now said their achievements were doable. Same people, same accomplishments, but different perceptions.
What’s compelling is how the first impression reflects how perfectionists often view things. They believe that since no errors, no mistakes, no failures were reported that these must not have occurred. All they see are the achievements and not the reality of what it took to get there. Also, it would not be unusual for perfectionists to see these successes not as the outcome of a long journey but as the first stop on the road to success. Their thinking is, “If they can do it, so can I with the proper planning and effort.”
That view is, unfortunately, incredibly naïve. Just because you don’t hear about the mishaps, frustrations, and failings does not mean they didn’t exist. This perception, however, has been growing with the advent of social media. All people see are the final product: the finished film, the perfect images, and fabulous displays. They don’t read about the 100 outtakes or the Photoshoping edits that had to happen to get that “perfect” product.
That is the critical point that Ben-Shahar raises. Both perfectionists and optimalists want to excel and succeed. Perfectionists think and strive for an ideal, perfect reality. Unfortunately, such a thing does not exist. You are better off if you do not deny your shortcomings and do the best you can- that is the value of the optimalist.
To me, this was the major epiphany. Like Ben-Shahar, I view perfectionism as providing benefits, but I don’t care for the associated costs. If I can still get the positive without the negative, then why not? Optimalism delivers a way to do that.
Cons: Gaps and Issues
For the most part, The Pursuit of Perfect is on point, but there were a couple of really “out there” sections and were distracting. They are listed below:
- Ben-Shahar makes this comparison where perfectionists are similar to communists in that both feel humans can be better than they are. Capitalists and optimalists, by contrast, recognize that humans act in their self-interest and are inherently flawed. Therefore, perfectionists seek out an idealized human who cannot exist and will be miserable compared to the optimalist/capitalist who accept reality as it is.
- Similar to the above discussion, Ben-Shahar associates perfectionism with Plato’s version of the ideal and optimalism to Aristotle’s view that experience is the foundation of truth. Plato says that our experiences are merely perceptions of an ideal reality, whereas Aristotle says what we experience is the reality, so there is no ideal. Reality is what reality is.
Frankly, I didn’t find either to add to the discussion, which was on the meaning of reality. As an academic exercise, I can see why Ben-Shahar argues that the Western view may be shaped by politics or philosophy. But I don’t see the connection to an individual. One could infer from his argument that die-hard Communists should be perfectionists and corporate CEOs should be optimalists, but we know that isn’t the case. You are likely to have perfectionists and optimalists throughout the politico-economic spectrum.
Regarding Aristotle, Ben-Shahar mistakes perception and reality. In the Middle Ages, people didn’t know about microbes, so they created the theory of spontaneous generation. The point is we have ideas on the world around us which we often take for truth. But that truth is transitory. As our experiences and understanding evolve, our perception of reality also improves.
Another major gripe is Ben-Shahar’s comment about positive self-talk:
The evidence that this sort of pep talk works is weak, and there are psychologists who suggest that it can actually hurt more than it can help.
Now, this is where Ben-Shahar’s position as a professor holds him to a higher standard. Having researched this area, I’m aware that there are benefits when you speak positively to yourself in the second or third person, whereas using the first person (which is what Ben-Shahar cited explicitly in the book) is less. What was annoying is that he makes such a statement and then does not cite the evidence backing his claim. As a prominent expert in positive psychology, his statement carries disproportionate weight. The lack of citation is a significant no-no and speaks to his credibility. As written, he gives the impression that all positive self-talk may be problematic, which is not the case.
Recommendation and Summary
If you are looking to understand perfectionism but not a sufferer, you can skip this book. It’s written primarily for those seeking to overcome perfectionism but who are struggling. If you fall into that camp, then I recommend The Pursuit of Perfect as Get It.
The book’s strengths are the author Ben-Shahar shows through his struggles with perfectionism why people do it. Fundamentally, perfectionists are idealists who believe the road to success should be straight and faultless if you know what you’re doing. If you fail, it’s not because of reality it’s because of you. In The Pursuit of Perfect, Ben-Shahar eventually tears down why this world view is not only false but ultimately unsustainable.
Key takeaways from the book are summarized below:
- Perfectionists reject reality and live in an idealized world that is free of error or failure. It is where everything goes perfectly. Optimalists, on the other hand, share the same level of ambition and goal striving but recognize things never go accordingly to plan despite your best efforts. Optimalists are the ones who thrive in reality, while perfectionists suffer.
- Failure is an inescapable element of success. As such, failing “should” be viewed not as self-indictment but as a learning experience. When viewed as an opportunity, failure teaches us a lesson. The point is to use that knowledge and improve. After all, no baby walked flawlessly from their first attempt.
- Perfectionists place an enormous focus on the goal, whereas optimalists consider the journey along the way. As a result, optimalists view detours and bumps as not necessarily harmful but even possible opportunities. For perfectionists, anything short of a straight path to success is considered to be poor planning. That view is not realistic, not to mention you spend more time “on the road” than at the destination.
- Ben-Shahar reminds us that we are not machines and that if we don’t take time to rest and recover, our performance can degrade significantly. As this ultimately jeopardizes our chances of reaching the goal, perfectionists overvalue working long hours and underestimate the importance of recovery.
- Perfectionism presents a very desirable road to success that is clean and straightforward. This is often how we view heroes or hear stories of people’s achievements. We often see only the positives and rarely hear about their struggles or shortcomings. This mindset creates an imaginary and idealized world. In contrast, an optimalist recognizing the messiness and chaos around us can better handle the frustrations and disappointments that naturally arise when pursuing something challenging and meaningful.
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