Demanding Perfection – The Number 1 Barrier to Action

As an engineer, I am careful with numbers. Precision is important in my work. It can make the difference between life and death. So, I have a natural inclination towards precision, reinforced through forty years of professional practice.

Obsession with Perfection

With this background, it pains me to say, folks are often too fixated on perfection. They often demand perfect to put off taking action. They send us back to the drawing board over and over, always demanding more, placing the onus on us to find a perfect solution before they change. Each time, they move the goalposts out just a little more, and we beaver away with no chance of success. 

Demand for Protection and Masks

For example, some folks balk at wearing masks as a COVID-19 measure because masks aren’t 100% effective. They say:
If wearing a mask isn’t perfect, don’t bother wearing one.
They turn a blind eye to the real decrease in infection risks from following this very simple precaution. This is a good example of moving the goalposts to obstruct action. If 99% isn’t good enough, and we do something to get to 99.9%, we are told:

Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it's a shield.

What about the other 0.1%? If you can’t give me a guarantee, I won’t do it.
Now, the truth is, COVID is scary and wearing a mask makes the threat seem somehow more real. Many folks don’t wear masks, because denial is less threatening than the truth.

The Demand for Perfection and Climate Change

The demand for perfection also rears its ugly little head in discussions about climate. The argument goes:
They can’t even predict tomorrow’s weather. What makes you think we can trust their climate models?
Whenever the models improve, folks demand more precision, moving the goalposts out, one little step at a time.
Fear drives this too. By demanding more and more perfection, folks keep putting off the day when they might have to confront their fears, accept climate change is real, and do something.

The Demand for Perfection and Race

Finally, we also see it in race issues. Here, folks refuse to accept pleas for action, because the people that are pushing for it aren’t perfect. For example, a leader may have said something in the past we feel is insensitive and even racist today. Now they are pushing for change. So, folks protest:
We don’t need to listen to them. Their past behaviour proves their motives aren’t pure. So, we don’t need to do anything.
This ignores the genuine changes in cultural norms over the years and our ability to learn and grow.

The Demand for Perfection – A Personal Example

Many years ago, I made some changes in my personal life, when I grew to understand some of my old values were insensitive. I remember the day well. I decided to change and I felt like a weight had lifted off my shoulders.
We had guests in for dinner that evening. In conversation, I shared my moment of enlightenment. But one of our dinner guests lashed out at me for ever having those values the first place. They ignored the growth and used the opportunity to take me to task.
This was over forty years ago, but I still remember my anger and resentment. I felt, why bother, it doesn’t make any difference . But Joan took me aside and reassured me that growth is important, seeing the light is important, and change is important too.

Demanding Perfection – We Can Grow

So it is with all of these issues. Attitudes change for the better over time, and we can all grow. Nothing is perfect. None of us are perfect. We’ve all made mistakes. But as long as we are willing to grow, we can do better.
In all these cases, demanding perfection puts the breaks on progress. Sometimes, we need to see beyond perfect to map the way to a better, safer, and kinder future.

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