Good Perfectionism. Bad Perfectionism.

June 7, 2019

We all know perfectionism to be a bad thing.

 

It spawns from a high need for certainty. And when we crave certainty, it’s because we’re fearful. And when we're fearful, our monkey brains take over. We avoid risk and pain. We focus on the wrong things. We become insular, and less likely to seek feedback. We learn less. We get in our own way. We miss opportunities. We become more likely to fail.

 

This kind of perfectionism is all about me, me, me. We focus only on ourselves and our needs. We entrench deeper and deeper into ourselves. And we shrink as a result.

 

But perfectionism doesn’t always have to be a bad thing.

 

I don’t think many of us would trust our lives to a “go with the flow” brain surgeon. We want that doctor to be a perfectionist. Same with our air traffic controllers. And the sushi chef preparing our Fugu. And thankfully, the good kind of perfectionism doesn’t only have to be about life and death situations.

 

At 11 Madison Park, a restaurant in New York that is currently ranked 4th best in the world, perfectionism is encouraged from the moment a diner walks in the door until the moment they leave. And often, that perfection is found in the smallest of things. For example, plates are placed in such a way that if a curious diner wants to know which brand the china is, they can simply flip it over and the logo will be facing them, right-side-up. How many diners do that? Very few I would venture. But the ones who do are probably quite pleasantly pleased with the seamlessness of the experience.

 

Craig Mazin, showrunner for the HBO drama Chernobyl, has an obsession with the authenticity of the look of the show, from the clothing and shoes the characters wear, to the kitchen utensils in their apartments, to the little buckets Soviet citizens used to use to take out their garbage. Mazin didn’t have to seek that level of perfection, but he did. And audiences, particularly those who were in the USSR in the mid-eighties, appreciate it greatly.

 

As Russian sports writer Slava Malamud put it at the end of a long Twitter thread, “…yes, the nit-picky Russian viewer in me was utterly satisfied. The initial ‘Wait a minute, why are kids going to school on a Saturday?’ response quickly gave way to ‘Shit, that’s right! We didn’t switch to the 5-day week until 1989!’ Pure delight, I tell ya…”

 

Pure delight. How perfect.

 

Chernobyl’s Craig Mazin and the team at 11 Madison Park are exhibiting a special kind of perfectionism. It comes from a different place. It comes from a place of we, we, we. It’s all about positive impact on others. It’s about striving to be better. It’s about reaching beyond ourselves. And we grow as a result.

 

In other words, it’s perfection with purpose. And purpose makes all the difference.

 

Purposeful perfectionism creates exceptional results.

 

The people who designed, navigated and landed the Mars rover probably had a strong perfectionist streak. Same with the people who built the Golden Gate Bridge. Dancers, be they prima ballerinas, Latin ballroom bombshells, poppers, crumpers or Rockettes aim to create a moment of perfect transcendence for their audiences. Same goes for singers. Coco Chanel sewed a small weighted chain into the hem of her suit jackets so they would hang perfectly on the ladies who wore them. A master carpenter can make a dovetail joint fit together so perfectly, it doesn’t require glue or a nail to hold it in place for centuries.

 

Sometimes, perfection is beautiful.

 

So the next time you feel a twinge of perfectionism coming on, ask yourself: Is this about me, or is it about we? Am I shrinking? Or am I growing? Is there purpose in my perfection?

 

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