An ode to not doing things very good.
Last night my baby woke up at 3am and refused to go back to bed. It’s now 11am and he’s finally asleep, but I’m too caffeinated to do the same.
So, exhausted and nowhere near my A-game, I’ve decided it’s a great time to write this newsletter! Because, while I’ve had the idea lolling around in my head for a while, writing it now will mean it serves as a paradigm on (of?) the subject matter itself…
This week I want to talk about breaking the culture of perfectionism. Of being okay with doing things to a passable standard. Of being mediocre. And mediocrity is what you’re gonna get from me today - this won’t be my best writing, but I’m going to write anyway. Because I want to help show that the myth of ‘doing it all’ is a joke. And that in waiting for the right time to do something, by wanting ourselves or conditions to be perfect, we’re not getting as much done in our lives and, more importantly, we’re not allowing ourselves to truly live within the messy, confusing reality of what it means to be human. So, here goes…
Perfectionism is one of those things that is considered a real badge of honour. “Oh well, I am a bit of a perfectionist!” an interviewee will reply in a job interview, when asked about their negative traits. “I just want everything to be perfect all the time!”
You never hear: “Honestly, I’m a bit lazy. I like to slack off on some tasks. I don’t always give my all”. And if you did, you probably wouldn’t hire that person, right?
But, if you’re looking for a well-rounded and high-functioning employee (and human!), you want someone who slacks off. Someone who doesn’t insist on doing everything to the best of their ability at all times. You want someone who is smart about their time, effort and energy, who knows how to use it appropriately. Who knows when to be mediocre.
Because in our modern lives there are simply too many competing demands for us to do everything we need/want to do to the best of our ability, and not have some sort of breakdown. Life is stressful enough without the added pressure of perfectionism. We can’t be everything to everyone, we can’t do it all. We must accept that in some areas of our lives, or in some instances, we should aim for mediocrity. And that in doing so, our lives will be so much better.
Perfectionism, no surprises here, comes from the ancient part of the brain. It manifests in the pre-frontal cortex (newer part of the brain), but it stems from that primal need to stay at the front/top of the pack - less we get eaten by a tiger if we fall behind. All of us apply it in some form or to some aspect of our lives. And this is fine. This is good.
The problem comes when we apply it to everything we do. In our lives, as in our bodies, flexibility is essential for good health, and perfectionism is rigid to the core. And this inflexibility leads to a couple of really unhelpful, perhaps even life-changing, outcomes. Perfectionist thoughts are great at sending the amygdala (brain’s fear centre) into overload, which fires up the fight-flight-freeze response. When this kicks in our bodies are flooded with cortisol (the ‘stress’ hormone), which is brilliant when we need to get something done or respond quickly to a situation. But, if this happens repeatedly, our amygdala becomes overly sensitive and starts to run constantly, which increases our risk of exhaustion and burnout. (See this study, for the fun link between the two!)
Social media, obviously, makes it really easy to feel like everyone else is perfecting every area of their life. All day long we’re inundated with the highlight reels of other people’s lives. Of the exceptional, extraordinary ‘reality’ of others. The constant message is: do more, do it better, be the best!
But the pressure that comes with trying to do things perfectly, or even just really well, is unrelenting. Perfection is subjective, so, when is something ever really good enough? And what happens when it falls short of the mark, as it/we inevitably will? What happens to our mental health then? What happens to our perspective of our ‘self’? Of who we are and what our place is in the world?
When you think about perfectionism in relation to work – and this is something I highlight during corporate workshops – it makes very little logical sense. More often than not, a perfectionist will waste their effort and resources on perfecting a simple task that would have been fine to complete to a mediocre standard. Someone might spend hours perfecting a presentation, even though it met the criteria long ago. And then that same person might fall behind on more important work, and miss deadlines or start feeling completely overwhelmed, because they wouldn’t stop working on something that was fine already.
Perfectionism creates a lack of prioritisation. It fails to understand that our resources our limited, and we need to be smart about how we distribute them. It fails to see when enough is enough.
In health and wellbeing coaching, perfectionism is actually classified as a ‘Health Inhibiting Thought’, because it can interfere with our capacity to pursue a health goal – e.g. if I can’t quit smoking completely then I’ve failed and I may as well just give up giving up. In coaching, as well as in life, perfectionism creates rigid rules which make it easy for us to fail and let ourselves down. (FYI, studies have also shown that the brains of people with external, judgment-based perfectionism even appear to handle mistakes less successfully. So it’s a bit of a spiral.)
Now this isn’t a call to do everything in your life to a completely mediocre standard. That’s an awful, and depressing, idea. Have high standards. Have motivation. Have discipline. But also acknowledge that in the same way you need to Say No sometimes, you also can’t set high standards for everything all the time. Yes, it’s good to try to do the best we possibly can when we really care about something and it’s really important and, crucially, when we have the resources to do so. If we don’t, it’s okay not to.
And if everything is a priority, then nothing is! By the very definition of ‘best’, we can’t be the best at everything. We’ve gotta let some standards slip, we’ve got to let some things go. We must play to our strengths and weaknesses – anyone who’s been to a workshop with me knows this is something I focus on, because knowing what you’re good at and what you’re not will help stop you pouring energy into areas that are giving out disproportionately low returns. We must learn our limits and understand when it’s actually more helpful to be mediocre instead.
This approach will help shift you away from an outcome-orientated mindset, with its vulnerability to feelings of failure – I’m particularly looking at working mothers here, who as far as I can tell, never feel like they’re doing enough in either their jobs or their parenting – to a process-orientated one, which leaves room for forgiveness, understanding and compassion, both towards others and yourself.
Sometimes, I give my absolute all; I don’t accept anything short of what I feel is the best that I can possibly do. I strive for the opposite of mediocre.
But at others, I don’t. I can be a mediocre parent, wife, daughter, sister, friend, writer, coach et al. (sometimes, I’m even a pretty shit one!) I’ll rush off an email, knowing it could be much better. I’ll exercise for 5 minutes, even though I know I’m meant to get my NHS suggested 150 mins of moderate exercise a week. I’ll edit a podcast and know that I could have done a better job.
But I’ll also know that my time is limited, and that I had to think about where to put my energy. That I had to choose, that I had to prioritise.
What are you putting off for fear it won’t be good enough? What are you really good at being mediocre at?
p.s. Didn’t choose to expand effort working out how to weave this in, but some interesting info here on why striving for mediocrity will help improve your life – based on 2018 paper by two Oxford researchers who developed the idea of “kakonomics” based on the Greek word κακός (‘kakós’) which means “bad.”
p.p.s. First draft of this was pretty dodgy, so I did go over it after a bit more sleep and tidy some bits up :)