Perfectionism is All Lies and Oversimplifications, Part One Million

This tweet has it all, from a perfectionist standpoint:

It:

  • Sets an impossibly high standard for success. (You should be as successful as Apple’s Steve Jobs, etc.)
  • Is shaming. (“What’s your excuse?”)
  • Makes specious comparisons. (Between you and these ultra-successful outliers, most of whom also achieved their success decades ago, in a very different society and economy.)
  • Offers zero guidance on how to actually achieve the level of super success it’s promoting.

AND IT’S WRONG. Perfectionist narratives, including the “rags to riches” and “bootstrap” ones so beloved by the business press and conservatives in general, are inevitably oversimplified and dramatic. As you can read in Historic.ly’s brilliant takedown of the tweet, the founders of the companies mentioned were overwhelmingly rich and well-connected. And, with one exception, Mattel’s Ruth Handler, they were/are all white men, so the tweet’s implied claim that, “anyone can do this” is, on its face, bogus.

The perfectionist tweet also omits ethics. Balzac famously said, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” but the tweet ignores, for instance, Jeff Bezos’s (Amazon’s) rapacious monopolism, Steve Jobs’s (Apple’s) massive tax evasions, and Handler’s modeling of the first Barbie dolls after a soft-porny Nazi doll. (Not to mention, her later fraud conviction.)

And as for “Uncle Walt” Disney, let’s just say that, despite his carefully cultivated public image, he was the equal of any of his film villains when dealing with his employees:

And of course the perfectionist tweet omits any mention of the hundreds (or thousands?) of equally smart, talented, and dedicated entrepreneurs who, through some combination of bad luck, societal bias / discrimination, and an unwillingness to play dirty (or as dirty), fell short of the examples’ stratospheric success.

The Historic.ly thread doesn’t just demythologize the founders mentioned in the original tweet, it goes on to do the same for dozens of other celebrated entrepreneurs, listing the advantages they started out with and the morally-dubious actions that gave them a boost. (French fashion designer Coco Chanel was a probable Nazi collaborator!)

So, this is reminder one million to never fall for any kind of perfectionist narrative.

None of this, by the way, is to say you shouldn’t shoot for the moon in your own business, creative, activist, or other endeavors. You absolutely should, if that’s your thing! But don’t fall for the myths of easy success: instead study actual cases relevant to your time, field, and situation. Also, do your planning, and find your mentors.

And please, when you make it, be honest about what it took.

Comments

  1. Rodrigo says:

    I am not a native English speaker, so I ask you some tolerance with my spelling, vocabulary and grammar mistakes. I don’t disagree with most of the most important points in your criticism of the perfectionist narrative, because, having been a failed perfectionist (which is a redundance, since the perfectionist’s standards are so impossibly high that she is condemned to fail) for most of my life, I know from my own personal experience that you are mostly right.
    But, having read Angela Duckworth’s Grit, Carol Dweck’s Mindset, Seligman’s Flourish and Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, and having also thought very hard about some people’s personal stories of which I know a good deal, I disagree with some points or, at least, with some implicit conclusions.
    Yes, Duckworth’s Grit doesn’t take into account many interveining factors such as social class, race, gender, etc. And that could be presented as victim-blaming, although I don’t think it were Duckworth’s intention. But I can’t avoid thinking that, considering how difficult it was, it is and it is going to ever be to make deep social and economic changes within one’s formative/productive life span, any victim will have a slightly better chance at stop being a victim if she struggles as hard as she can to succeed as much as she can in overcoming her original social and economic constraints.
    As you see, nothing in what I’ve said assumes that victims are to be blamed for their victimhood or that they must be left to their own devices; I’ve just said that any victim would be better off (or would have a better chance at being at least a little less worst off) if she acknowledges from the very beginning of her life that her road out of poverty will be tremendously difficult, and although it is very unjust that it be a lot easier to the better-off to get even better, it is just the way it is and just the way it’s probably going to be at least for the whole of her life span.
    At this point, don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that things have to be the way they have been since ever or that they will always be the way they have always been regardless of not having to be that way, but simply that one shouldn’t reallistically wait for deep social and economic changes within one’s own formative/productive years. If this is reasonable to assume, then is reasonable to say: yes, the impact of one’s poverty on one’s prospects is unjust, we should all work as hard as we can to alter as much as we can this sad reality, but it’s still reality, and one’s individual chances at improving one’s life within the existing constraints is to struggle as hard as one can. If one fails, there is obviously no shame in it, failing was by far the most probable result under the circumstances; if one succeeds, it doesn’t matter how little, it’s a huge success, considering the improbability of success under the same circumstances.
    I’m thinking about the leftist populists at my home country, Brazil, who deal with victims not in an empowering way, but in an instrumental way, to divide voters in electoral niches in which they can prevail for superficial identitary reasons that have nothing or very little to do with the main reasons for which these victims are worst-off. They instill in victims the feeling they will never get better off unless there is the redemptive revolution they always promise but never deliver.

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