Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"The perfect is the enemy of the good."

Or if you prefer French: "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien." -- Voltaire

Someone close to me has suffered very serious health problems in the last two years, mostly complications from diabetes. Recently he has been able to start playing golf again. I saw him after a bad match, and he was talking about how hard it is to go back to being a beginner again after being so good at something. "If every day was like today, I'd quit."

I was upset, because golf is the first thing that's gotten him active again, and with his condition, inactivity is only going to make things worse. I could easily see how counterproductive this attitude was, in someone else.

But how often have I done it myself? With diet, with just about everything. In fact, the only reason I was able to finally finish my PhD was that I was able to finally stop myself from being a perfectionist. When I was doing assignments for class, sometimes I had to tell myself, "Done is good enough," instead of endlessly researching and tweaking my paper. "A good dissertation is a done dissertation," has been the slogan of many of my classmates. And often those "done" papers were really, really good, they just weren't the Platonic ideal of a paper.

The truth is, perfectionism is a cop-out.

People who are perfectionists like to think that they are just refusing to compromise their high standards. What they are actually doing is giving themselves the easy out.

Our, I should say, what we are doing is giving ourselves the easy out. It's impossible to be perfect at anything and we know that (except for me, I mean, I should be perfect even if other people can't be, whispers the ugly voice in our heads). So because we can't be perfect, we have given ourselves the perfect (ha ha) excuse for quitting when things are hard and we don't like them.

How do you counteract it? Not letting yourself take the bait. Screw up and keep going. Keep going every time you screw up. Don't start in the first place. Don't let yourself be the person who will only write in your food diary with one pen so that it all looks pretty, because as soon as you can't find that pen, ta-da, you can stop journaling. (Who does this? Not me. A friend of mine... you wouldn't know her, she lives in Canada.)

Three years ago, I decided I would train for a marathon (the perfect running distance, right?). I started a training plan that called for running four days a week, even though I knew from experience that it was better for me if I only ran every other day (but the training plan is in a book, so it must be smarter than me). Sure enough, I gave myself severe tendonitis in my right foot. I couldn't even walk, let alone run. Want to talk about frustration?

I swore that if I could run again, I'd be happy with it, no matter how slow. So that's the reason that I don't pace myself during training runs and I try desperately to beat down the impulse to consider my place in a field of runners. I have to keep reminding myself that I am running in a field of one, and as long as I don't quit, I'm winning. That isn't to say I sandbag. I just realize that my best on any particular day is exactly what I'm shooting for.

One revelation that has occured to me through this long process (three years later, I'm still working on it) of coming back from the dead as a recreational athlete is that no one besides me really cares what my time is. Sure, there are people in the race who might feel better that they passed me, but their opinion is none of my business. You don't win a race on race day, you win it in every day you spend training for it.

My goal is to be able to keep doing this for as long as I can, because my life would be poorer without it. If I'm going to do that, I have to face the reality that I probably won't be as good in fifteen years as I am now.

One thing to be grateful for is that I don't really have glory days in the past -- I have times when I ran faster, but mostly I felt pretty crummy then because I was working myself to try to reach some standard I could never meet. I honestly can say that since I gave up that attitude, I've been having the best time of my running career.

So I need to catch up my (already messed up) Weight Watcher journal and then get out there and run, even though yesterday was my planned running day and I couldn't go because of my allergies. This has definitely not been a perfect training week, but it's a gorgeous day and I don't want to miss another one.


  1. Just found your blog. Loved this all rang true for me.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Perhaps you should read this post once a week to keep reminding yourself. These are some very wise words you've written!

  3. Excellent post! I'm in the same place as you in so many ways.

  4. One of the best posts I've ever read. Bookmarkin' it.

  5. Love love LOVE this post. I'm also a perfectionist, but it never occurred to me before to think of it as taking an easy way out. (Of course, the perfectionist in me HATES the idea of taking the cop out, so is now determined we will never do that again ... ;) ) Anwyay, I'm going to remember this idea for a long time, I think. Thanks for the great insight!

  6. I love your attitude on running. It makes me feel so upset when people are discouraged from running because of how "slow" they are. The fact that they are out there RUNNING AT ALL is amazing! I keep saying it, over and over... :)

  7. Hi. I'm new to your blog and I wanted to write and say how much I enjoyed reading your post and how much I can relate to this. I am a perfectionist to a fault and I suffer greatly from everything in my world having to be just right, ALL THE TIME. My house, my yard, my children, my relationships. The wounds from this obsession with being in control run deep and are keeping me stagnant in my goals toward fitness and health. In my latest attempt to carve out more joy in my life and more peace with my body, I am trying to focus on smaller feats rather than my usual all or nothing attitude. The "one day at a time" approach from many a 12 step program is providing me with great strength, as I am learning to see my life in moments rather than months and years and end results. All I have to do is to make it through until bedtime, having treated myself with kindness and acceptance, and put consciousness into my eating and movement and relationships. If I can overlook the flaws, either out of willpower or physically removing myself from the places where I find fault, I find that I have greater power in "good enough". Thanks for the inspiration.


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07