This is Called “Situational Perfectionism”

Situational perfectionism is when something happens that causes your perfectionism to spike. Examples include:

*You’ve invested in your writing or other dream – say, by taking a class or buying a piece of equipment – and think, “Now, I’d better make that pay off.”

*You’ve just finished a workshop or class, and are feeling all, “Now, I’d better do something fabulous.”

*You’ve committed to your dream by taking time off from your job, moving to part-time work, or hiring a babysitter, and are thinking, “Now I’d better make the most of this precious time.”

*You’ve had a professional success, and are telling yourself, “Now I’d better do even better. Everyone’s watching me.” (Second-Novel Syndrome is thus an example of situational perfectionism.) And,

*You’ve had an early success, and are now feeling extra pressure to perform. (Same “everyone is watching” imperative, plus you’ve probably never even had the practice at coping with failure that the rest of us stragglers have had!)

Note all those “now’s”: perfectionism is usually short-sighted, whereas compassionate objectivity always takes the long or broad view. Wisdom is nothing but perspective and proportion.

Here’s another example of situational perfectionism:

It was April of 2009 when everything changed. I had been on twitter almost two years at that point, as @abigvictory, using it mainly as a platform for crude jokes and observations about sports….

What happened after I went from 1,000 to 28,000 followers in a week to the magic one million followers just a few months later?

What ensued was this: A little freaking out, a lot of stage fright and performance anxiety. I felt the need to tweet often even though I had just weaned myself from about 100 tweets a day to 15. Then I worried what I should tweet about. Do I just continue tweeting toilet humor? Do I just tweet a couple of pithy remarks during the day and leave it at that? Do I have to watch what I say? I’d never before in my life had been popular. I was that kid, the one picked last for sports teams, the one at the far end of the lunch table picking at her sandwich while she sat alone. Here I was with a million people listening to me, waiting to see what I would say next. I was overwhelmed with this sudden thrust into the internet limelight….

Now I had a million strangers watching every word I tweeted. What should have been a “Wow, this is exciting!” moment for me became a moment of sudden terror instead. I felt like I suddenly moved into a glass house and all my neighbors were armed with rocks.

The author, Michele Catalano
, reports that she went through a period of being “riddled with self-doubt” before finally deciding to return to her pre-fame Twitter roots:

So I went back to twitter with a renewed sense of how I was going to use it. I was going to go back to the way I was before I was put on that list. After all, wasn’t that kind of engagement and banter what got me put on the list in the first place? I would go back to using twitter as a place to hang out with friends and acquaintances. And I would recognize that while I had 920,000 followers, about 800,000 of them were bots, marketers and SEO specialists who followed ten thousand people and would never read a word I tweeted.

The pressure was off and the fun was back on.”

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Comments

  1. I think my awareness of risks to human civilization, such as climate change, has triggered situational perfectionism in me. It seems to imply that humanity has very little room for error if we’re to avoid going back to the Stone Age or even extinct! I’m also a graduate student in computing heading for an R&D career, and I’m a Singularitarian, so I believe I have a bigger role to play than most people in saving the world. Any advice on dealing with this?

    • Hi Chris, Thanks for your note, and thank you also for your activist commitment. You raise big topics, and my biggest piece of advice is to find mentors who care about the same topics you care about, but are not overwhelmed by their scope and seriousness. (It IS a bit of a balancing act.) I would also focus on investing rather than spending time, and devoting as much time as possible to my high value activities (in mission, leverage strengths, create impact or change). If you do that you will be maximally productive and effective, and perhaps more productive and effective than you might think possible. Finally I would be careful not to elevate your singularitarianism into a kind of holy mission or obligation because that will just freeze you. (You did leave this comment on my piece on “situational perfectionism” :-)) I hope these tips are helpful; please also see Chapter 2 in 7 Secrets of the Prolific.

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