The pitfalls of being a perfectionist

perfect - good or bad?

The invention of airplanes can be credited to the moment when man reached unattainable heights, literally and figuratively.

We all know the Wright Brothers were the first ones to fly. Or do we?

There are numerous conflicting theories to this claim, and one of them is Gustav Whitehead.

The Wright Brother’s first flight was on December 17, 1903. But it turns out Gustave Whitehead, a German immigrant to the USA, had been tinkering with airplanes long before that.

In fact according to a 1935 account of a popular aviation magazine, Whitehead had flown a steam powered airplane as early as 1899!

On August 14,1901 Whitehead flew a sleek, birdlike, gasoline powered plane, that achieved several minutes of sustained flight – according to a handful of witnesses.

A reproduction of this airplane, which Whitehead simply called the ‘Number 21’ , was re-built and successfully flight tested in 1997 – making the possibility that he might have flown long before the Wright Brothers very real.

So, why wasn’t he credited with the first flight?

Like all things, there is no simple explanation. There are a few contributing factors like:

  • No photographs exist of his actual flight.
  • There was only a single account of his first flight recorded in the local Connecticut newspaper.
  • The handful of people who witnessed his first flight did not include any highly reputable , authoritative people, who could have swayed public opinion to support Whitehead.
  • He wasn’t able to reproduce any of his earlier flights.

The last point is of significant importance, which made his incredible achievement lost to history. Why wasn’t he able to reproduce any of his flights?

Whitehead supporters explain it’s because he was a perfectionist and was never satisfied with any of his planes.

“He had studied the birds too much to be satisfied with anything less than bird performance.”

In The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead, Randolph writes – “He was an eccentric, unstable man whose habit, often in a fit of rage, was to destroy one design after another by tearing it apart whenever something went wrong, after which he would start all over again from the beginning”. 


Are you a perfectionist?

You are a perfectionist if you –

  • Never settle for anything less than perfect.
  • You are hung up on the end -result and don’t care about the journey.
  • You have a very specific manner in which things need to be done. Any other way is unacceptable.
  • You beat yourself up for every tiny mistake.
  • It is either all or nothing. There is no in-between. You should either be the best at what you try or you will never give it a go.
  • You keep putting off things because it is never the right moment.
  • What you have right now is never enough. There are always new mountains to scale and new heights to achieve.

Is it all bad?

Certainly not.

There is nothing that is all bad or all good. It is just the way things are.

So, what is good?

  • Self-motivated. You keep trying to improve – constantly.
  • Work on things continuously to achieve perfection.
  • Never settling for less means you hold yourself to high standards – job, companies and co-workers will love you.
  • Excel at everything you do – because you will never let go till you excel.

What is bad?

  • Satisfaction is a foreign word.
  • Small achievements are just too small to make a big deal about. And big achievements ? There are no big achievements – just new ones.
  • Trying new things? Will I be absolutely good at it. Otherwise I am not doing it. What if I am not good at it?
  • You can never forgive yourself for the mistakes you make – which spills over to your relationships. You can’t forgive others mistakes either.
  • Peace of mind is a hard goal when you obsess over every little thing that needs to be done – just right.
  • It stops you from being recognized for your amazing work – because your work will never be good enough to let others know. You will keep improving it – but no one will know.

Where do we go from here?

Know when to let go.

Keep trying for perfection – but know that you will have to let go at some point. You will have to show the world your work. It might not be perfect in your eyes. But we are often terrible judges of our work.

We think we have done an amazing job – only no one else thinks it is. Or we might think it’s absolutely the worst – and everyone else thinks the opposite.

So stop judging – let it go – let the world decide – while you keep chasing perfectionism.

Understand perfectionism is a long time goal.

You will be perfect. One day. But not today.

You will be much much better than what you are today. But that will happen sometime in the far future. Not today.

So today, all you need to do is the best you can – and let things go.

There is always tomorrow to improve on today.

Results are important but so is the journey.

Yes. results are important.

Those are what we are all working towards. It is what the world will see.

But the journey is personal. It is what YOU will see. It is what YOU will experience.

And what use are results – if it doesn’t bring you happiness , contentment, boost of confidence and all those yummy side-effects of the long hours of sweat you put in ?

Humans make mistakes.

You might be chasing God- like perfection. But today you are human. You will make mistakes.

You might not like it. But you can accept it.

Accepting your mistakes will make you more empathetic towards the mistakes of other mere mortals.

Accept it – and keep going.

The pursuit of perfection is an appreciable ideal. But right now – this moment – doing is much much more important that being perfect.

After all life happens now – not in the distant future where everything will be perfect.


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