The Perfectionist’s Guide to Failing

Sometimes you just need to do a bad job. Here’s how.


Rae Nudson

just get it done, in all its iterations — just write 500 words, just run for 20 minutes, just send the email — usually seems like sound advice. And it can be when you’re procrastinating because you don’t want to do whatever it is. But sometimes the point when you actually sit down to do something is precisely when the problem starts: When the only way you know how to do something is perfectly, it can feel too overwhelming to begin.

For self-proclaimed perfectionists, in particular, the desire to get something right on the first try can be so powerful that nothing ends up getting done at all. When you know you can’t execute the way you want to, procrastinating becomes a coping mechanism. And these unrealistically high standards, in turn, can lead to depressionanxiety, and, perhaps worst of all for a perfectionist, a missed deadline.

But you can overcome that mental block and really, truly just get it done, even if you’re bad at whatever it is you’re doing. Here’s how to accept the fact that taking a clumsy, poorly done first stab at something can be the only path toward actually accomplishing it — and how to let yourself fail when everything in you is fighting against it.

Break It Down to Smaller Steps

Getting into a state of flow — where everything else fades away and you’re totally focused on the task at hand — typically only happens when your skill level is well matched to what you’re doing, says psychologist Keith Sawyer, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina. If the challenge is too big, he explains, the task gets frustrating; if it’s too small, it gets boring.

If you find yourself hitting a wall, sometimes the answer isn’t to push through, but to make things easier on yourself. This can mean breaking down a big project into several smaller projects, or learning to draw a stick figure before you attempt to paint the Sistine Chapel. “Whenever anybody starts learning something for the first time, they’re going to be really bad at it,” Sawyer says. But “if you can reduce the challenges to match your skill level, you can still be in flow even when your skill level is low.”

And don’t beat yourself up if this still doesn’t yield the result you were hoping for: All those moments where you’re failing or deciding your next steps are moments that bring you closer to getting it right. “Creativity isn’t about having a huge, big idea at the beginning and then spending three months building your idea. That’s not the way it works,” Sawyer says. “The three months you’re working, you are having lots of tiny creative ideas the entire time.”

Try to Think Realistically

Optimism has its place, but a more effective strategy for getting over your mental block may be thinking realistically about what you’re trying to do and what may happen if it’s not perfect. One way to approach this is by borrowing techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy

Patricia DiBartolo, a psychology professor at Smith College, says that when she’s working with someone using CBT, she may ask what they’re afraid of, how likely they think that outcome is, and how terrible it would actually be if it happened. The point of the exercise is to work through the consequences of what would happen if your fear materializes, see how realistic that fear is, and understand that you can likely withstand the result. If you’re writing a work presentation, say, and worrying about mispronouncing a word or stumbling through a slide, consider that the mishap likely won’t lead to you losing your job or anything worse than being temporarily embarrassed — uncomfortable, but survivable.

Educate Yourself on What Really Goes into Your Task

Paralysis can sometimes come from the misconception that all experts sit down and create the perfect product on the first try. To combat this, it helps to understand how other people, including the pros, actually do what it is you’re trying to accomplish. DiBartolo uses writing as an example: “Writing’s really hard, and I think there’s sometimes this perception — or misperception — that people who are quote-unquote good at writing sit down and it comes easily,” she says. “I often explain to my students how messy the writing process is for people in general.”

“They’re not doing things that ultimately they may really love because they weren’t great at them out of the gate.”

Talking about your struggles can also help you internalize the idea that you aren’t the only one who’s sweating. Perfectionists often try to hide their mistakes from people, DiBartolo says, which can keep you from commiserating with others who are making similar mistakes. And missing out on this connection, she says, can often drive a perfectionist away from the activity in question: “They’re not doing things that ultimately they may really love because they weren’t great at them out of the gate.”

Make Mistakes on Purpose

To get over the fear of making mistakes, fail on purpose, just a little, and see what happens: “Does anyone notice you? Do you get in trouble?” DiBartolo says. By messing up in a small, controlled situation, you expose yourself to your fear in a way that feels safe.

This kind of failure happens all the time in sports, explains Andrew Hill, a professor of sport psychology at York St. John University who has studied perfectionism in athletes. He says that when a runner performs poorly, for example, they might ask themselves: “You didn’t win this race and the world hasn’t ended, so how do you feel?” By repeating the process and sticking with an activity where losing or making mistakes is part of the process, you can build up resiliency to bounce back from imperfections.

Understand That You Don’t Need to Totally Change Yourself

Perfectionists often attribute their successes in life to perfectionism, emphasizing the positive elements of the trait and minimizing the stress or relationship struggles that come with it. “So they are reluctant to change that mindset,” Hill says. The good news is that you don’t have to — at least, not entirely. “You don’t have to lower your standards,” he says. “What you have to do is learn to live better with yourself when you don’t meet your standards.”

This can be especially true when starting on a new task or learning a new skill. It’s easy to say that beginners need to practice to get better or that the creative process is messy; it’s harder to actually live with the discomfort that can cause. But by breaking something into smaller steps, surviving the mistakes you make, and knowing that a lot of people are having just as much trouble, you might be able to just do it — even if you do it terribly.