The Perfection Trap

From The Wall Street Journal:

There comes a moment in every job interview when the applicant will be asked to name his or her greatest weakness. “Well, I’d have to say it’s my perfectionism” is the smart answer, a humblebrag that is pretty short on humility. These days—as Thomas Curran writes in “The Perfection Trap: Embracing the Power of Good Enough”—this “weakness” is a strength. It assures a prospective employer of your commitment to the highest standards, “counted in hours of relentless striving, untold personal sacrifices, and heaps of self-imposed pressure.”

Perfectionism was not always held in such high regard; it was once the stuff of horror. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1843 cautionary tale “The Birth-Mark” tells of a scientist who becomes fixated with his beautiful wife’s single blemish—a birthmark. She internalizes his revulsion and wants to remove the defect “at whatever risk.” The scientist at last concocts a remedy and his wife gulps it down. Fine, except it kills her. The lesson? Perfection is a form of madness, one best avoided.

Mr. Curran, an associate professor of psychology at the London School of Economics, writes that perfectionism “seems to be the defining characteristic of our time.” Our rise-and-grind work lives are animated by the notion that “if you’re slacking, slowing down or, worse, taking a moment to simply think about what all the relentless grinding is even for, then you’re going to be left behind.”

I expected “The Perfection Trap” to attack the self-defeating behavior of perfectionists—the author counts himself as one—with a predictable hodgepodge of mindfulness, leavened with a little cognitive behavioral therapy and maybe a phone app thrown in for good measure. Instead, Mr. Curran has produced a manifesto damning our economic system for creating and maintaining a warped set of values that drive perfectionism, values we have internalized without examination. There’s no easy fix, he warns. The task calls for the kind of deep introspection that is both hard and unpopular; we must confront “our most basic assumptions about what’s ‘great’ and ‘good’ in modern society.”

The case of Lance Armstrong exemplifies the dynamic. The cyclist admitted to doping his way to seven Tour de France victories, but wasn’t sorry for it—it was simply, in his mind, leveling the playing field. “The culture was what it was,” he told Oprah Winfrey. “We were all grown men, we all made our choices.” But step back for a moment, Mr.Curran tells us, and see how Mr. Armstrong is attempting to normalize irrational and shocking behavior. The arms race that he willingly took part in risked every cyclist’s health but didn’t make any single rider more likely to succeed. It paid off for Mr. Armstrong, but not everyone was so lucky, costing some cyclists their health, others their lives.

“The same destructive arms race is playing out in wider culture right now,” Mr. Curran writes. We subjugate our own well-being to that of the economy, which “needs to grow far more than we need to feel content. Perfectionism is just the collateral damage.” Mr. Curran is explicit. To him, healthy perfectionism—a hedge used by those of us seeking to exclude ourselves from his critique—is an oxymoron.

. . . .

The lifeblood of social media and advertising is unhappiness. Every day, some two billion of us—a quarter of the earth’s population—log in to Facebook or Instagram and measure the ways our lives are lacking compared to the photoshopped images of impossibly well-turned-out people living their fabulous lives. “Isn’t this what Instagram is mostly about?” an Instagram employee asked rhetorically in a leaked memo. “The (very photogenic) life of the top 0.1%?” It is. And children pay an especially high price when they feel like they’re falling short. “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” according to a slide from a leaked Facebook presentation.

Even more disturbing was a leaked chart indicating that 6% of teens in the U.S. and 13% of teens in Britain said “spending time on Instagram was one reason why they felt like they wanted to kill themselves.” The company has no incentive to remedy this. “Facebook (now Meta),” which owns Instagram, “has increased its advertising revenues exponentially since 2009, to almost $115 billion today,” Mr. Curran reminds us. It didn’t do that by telling us we’re fine the way we are. “Their algorithms can even pinpoint moments when young people ‘need a confidence boost.’ ”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal