Is Perfectionism Good or Bad?

In the year 1714, the British Parliament offered a king's ransom (millions of dollars in today's money) in their Longitude Act for anyone who could come up with a way for ships to determine their longitude with any degree of accuracy.

Longitude is how far east or west you are. Latitude is how far north or south you are. It was no problem for most good sailors to tell what their latitude was by measuring how high the sun or a particular star was above the horizon, or simply by the length of the day.

Longitude was something altogether different, and it was causing big problems at a time when everything called for trading, travel, and exploration by sea. Let's say a ship needed to go west past a peninsula and then head north for home. But it's foggy or it's nighttime, or there are a lot of islands around so you can't really tell if you are past the peninsula or not. If you don't have an accurate way of knowing how far west you've gone, you might misjudge it, think you're past the peninsula, and turn north. Of course, if you haven't passed the peninsula, you'll run straight into land. And that's exactly what was happening all over the world. It was an ongoing tragedy.

On October 22nd, 1707, four British ships did exactly that: All four of them ran aground at the same time and the disaster killed close to two thousand men. That was the proverbial last straw and it pushed the British Parliament over the brink. They created the Longitude Act.

The man who eventually claimed that prize was a clock maker named John Harrison — a man with no formal education, not even an apprenticeship to a watchmaker. He invented a clock that could tell the time accurately on board a ship. It took him forty years.

Here are two of the reasons it was so difficult to do: First, the only accurate timepieces on land were pendulum clocks, but they didn't work at sea because of the motion of the ship. Secondly, if the ship sailed from cold northern England down to the Caribbean Sea, the temperature would obviously change quite a bit, which means the oil used to lubricate the clock would change its viscosity, and the metals used in the springs and gears would change size, and all these changes affected the accuracy of the clock.

But every obstacle yielded to Harrison's relentless resolve. He was competing with the finest minds in the world, and he won. It was a desperate situation and all the European governments were frantic for a solution.

To give you an idea of just how desperate they were, here is one idea that was seriously considered. It was the Wounded Dog Theory. An amazing "powder of sympathy" was discovered, so the story goes, by Sir Kenelm Digby, and this powder could heal at a distance. The way to use it was to put it on a bandage from the ailing person, even if the bandage was in Britain and the person was in France. By putting powder on the bandage, it would make the wound heal a lot faster.

There was one drawback: It hurt. Supposedly, when the bandage (say in England) was dowsed in the powder, the person (say in France) would feel it. And if it was a dog, the dog would yelp in pain, and this is where this amazing powder could be useful.

All you needed to determine your longitude was an accurate time. Now if you had a wounded dog, and took the bandage off and left it in England, and then sailed away with the dog, all you'd have to do is put the powder on the bandage at say, noon, every day. The captain on the ship can simply take note of when the dog yelps, and he'll know it is noon in England. From this information, he will be able to figure his longitude.

When I read about this, I about fell off my chair laughing. History is hilarious. This example, however, gives you an idea of how desperate people were for a solution to the longitude problem.

At the time Harrison created his watch, the very finest quality watches drifted one way or another by about a minute every day, or about a half hour a month. Harrison invented a watch that never erred more than a second in a month.

When you realize that some voyages took two or even three years, you can see that even the finest watches of the day, prior to John Harrison's watch, could be off by quite a bit. Every degree of longitude equals four minutes. And at the equator, one degree of longitude equals 68 miles!

Harrison did the amazing. He did what the finest minds with the best funding and the most education could not do, for there were scientists all over the world working on the problem and trying to win the prize money. They didn't do it. Harrison did.

But Harrison wasn't perfect. According to those who knew him best and admired him most, Harrison was unable to clearly express himself in writing. He had a confusing and wordy style, exemplified by his last published work: The first sentence runs on, almost completely unpunctuated, for twenty-five pages. That's quite a sentence.

His mind was brilliant. He came up with stuff nobody had ever thought of. But he could not write very well at all.

But did it matter? Look what he accomplished. He saved the day. He did the impossible. He won the prize. Does it matter he wasn't perfect? Not one little bit.

And the same goes for you.


Nine thousand managers were studied for ten years in a huge project by Human Synergistics International. One of their findings was that eighteen percent of the managers characterized themselves as perfectionists, and some of them were quite proud of the fact. But another finding was rather grim: The perfectionists had a seventy-five percent higher rate of illness than the non-perfectionists: higher rates of depression, cardiovascular problems, headaches and gastrointestinal troubles.

A psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh has discovered something interesting. His name is Walter Kaye, MD. It was already known that anorexics tend to be perfectionists. But did anorexia come first? Or perfectionism?

New evidence shows that even after an anorexic is cured, perfectionism persists. This indicates that perfectionism isn't a mere side effect but a precondition.

In a study by C. Randall Colvin, PhD, of Northeastern University, 130 people have been tested since nursery school. When they turned 18, Colvin and his colleagues tested their personalities, then had the subjects provide their own personal assessment of themselves, and then had their friends provide assessments of the subjects.

They found that some people thought more of themselves than other people thought of them. They had very high "self-esteem" — higher than they deserved, apparently. This didn't make them happy. They were hostile, lacked social skills, were moody and anxious, and sensitive to criticism. They had a tendency, said Colvin, "To keep people at a distance — perhaps so that they don't get negative feedback that might alter their overly positive view. They are trying to hide their flaws from themselves."

They apparently need to learn that there's no need to be perfect. Trying to be perfect is itself a flaw.


Ludwig van Beethoven wrote beautiful music that people have been enjoying for almost two centuries. He accomplished a lot, but he wasn't perfect. Does it matter? Yes, it matters, because if he was perfect, he probably wouldn't have written as much music. He would have been wasting too much of his time cleaning up after himself. There's an old adage that says A clean house is a sign of a wasted life. The following is a description of Beethoven's workspace by a man, Baron de Tremont, who saw it firsthand:

Picture to yourself the darkest, most disorderly place imaginable...blotches of moisture covered the ceiling; an oldish grand piano, on which the dust disputed the place with various pieces of engraved and manuscript music; under the piano (I do not exaggerate) an unemptied chamber pot; beside it a small walnut table accustomed to the frequent overturning of the secretary placed on it; a quantity of pens encrusted with ink, compared with which the proverbial tavern pens would shine; then more music. The chairs, mostly cane-seated, were covered with plates bearing the remains of last night's supper, and with wearing apparel, etc.


"People assume the social spotlight shines on them more brightly than it really does," says Thomas Gilovich, PhD. How does he know? Because of the experiments he's conducted at Cornell University.

In one experiment, students were asked to go into a room where others were filling out a questionnaire, but before they walked in, they were handed a Barry Manilow T-shirt and asked to wear it.

Afterwards, the students were asked how many of the others did they think had noticed their T-shirt. They figured around half the people filling out the questionnaire were silently laughing at them. In fact, only twenty-three percent had seen what they were wearing.

Gilovich calls this phenomenon the "spotlight effect," meaning that we have the feeling others are noticing us more than they really are.

In a survey of volleyball players, when a player had a bad day on the court, their teammates noticed much less than the players guessed they noticed.

In another experiment, a student was asked to tell a lie to a discussion-group. Then they were to try to guess accurately how many of the people in the group knew they were lying. Their guesses were way over. Not that many people noticed.

At eighty-nine years old, Pablo Casals, a world famous cellist, was asked why, at his age, he practiced four and five hours a day. "Because," he answered, "I think I am making progress."

"I have a 'play the melody' philosophy," said Jackie Gleason, "It means don't over-arrange, don't make life difficult. Just play the melody and do it the simplest way possible."

Trying to be perfect is a mistake.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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