Underachievement and the all-or-nothing mindset

There have been a slew of great articles lately on why resolutions fail, and I agree wholeheartedly with them. I've never had much success with resolutions myself — they always fall by the wayside after a few months, and by summer I don't even remember that I'd set resolutions in the first place.

Nevertheless, I set a lot of goals in 2010 that I reached. For example, last year I accomplished the following goals:

  • Learned how to hang out in the pose pictured at right, which gave me a lot of confidence on and off the yoga mat
  • Completed yoga teacher training
  • Quit my job to freelance full-time
  • Started learning to play piano (again, but with some dedication this time)
  • Traveled to New York City at Christmastime
  • Began to explore cooking French cuisine, starting with crème brulée
  • Saved up a decent sum of money to start building our house

These weren't New Year's resolutions. They were goals I'd had for anywhere from six months (headstand) to 10 years (piano). I decided to achieve them and made small changes that would get me closer to reaching them, such as adding a 15-minute appointment to my calendar to practice piano. Sometimes I slacked off and ignored my small-step to-dos, but most of the time I stuck with it.

The difference was that in the past, slacking off a bit usually meant I'd drop the whole thing. If I can't do it perfectly, I won't do it at all. That was my attitude, and it stopped me from getting back on the proverbial horse too many times to count.

All-or-Nothing

If you have perfectionist tendencies, you probably identify with what I've described. The all-or-nothing mindset is one of five characteristics of perfectionists that contribute to underachievement, according to research published Gifted Child Today. (The other four are procrastination, fear of failure, paralyzed perfectionism, and workaholism.)

Sometimes perfectionism is cast in a positive light. After all, being the valedictorian, the Olympic gold medalist, or even the parent who bakes the best chocolate chip cookies feels pretty good. It impresses others, earns us pats on the back, and besides, does anyone even remember the name of the second runner up?

But I think perfectionism is harmful, and it sucks the fun out of life. The all-or-nothing mentality paralyzes you. I quit playing piano a few times because I slacked off on practice and didn't want to go to my lesson unless I had made enough progress. But if I had started playing 10 years ago and kept going to my lessons every week, even when I didn't think I'd practiced enough, imagine how much farther along I'd be right now. My teacher isn't expecting perfection from me, and I'm not looking to become a concert pianist, so the only thing my all-or-nothing mentality has done is hold me back from something I enjoy.

The Shades of Gray

Seeing goals as all-or-nothing is like seeing the world in black and white. But most would agree that's a limiting view. Is the silver medalist a failure because she didn't win gold? Hardly! She's still one of the top athletes in the world, and it's a tremendous accomplishment. Even if she never wins gold, it was still worth the effort.

Another trait of the all-or-nothing mindset is a fixation on the goal. I will be X when I have accomplished Y. That's one reason why perfectionism sucks the fun out of life. What about the moments in between X and Y? Instead of focusing on playing Moonlight Sonata without making a single mistake, why not enjoy the rainy afternoons when I play for longer than I had intended, simply because it's fun? Or the times I'm struggling with a measure of music and have a breakthrough during my lesson?

Perfectionism and Personal Finance

It's the time of year when most people think about goals of some sort (even if they resolve to reject resolutions). If one of your goals is to take control of your finances in 2011, watch out for the all-or-nothing attitude. It was part of the reason it took me so long to get a clear picture of how much I owed on my credit cards. Doing the math meant coming to terms with the fact that when it came to my finances, I was far from perfect. It was easier to pay extra on my cards and not look at the whole picture, like an ostrich with its head in the sand. (I just found out that an ostrich doesn't bury its head in the sand when in danger, it flops to the ground and remains still — which is still an accurate description of how I was handling my finances.)

When I finally got a plan to become debt-free, so many times I wished the slate could be wiped clean — that I could just start over with my new, responsible habits. But of course that's not how it works. I had to do it one payment at a time. Even then, I was so fixated on paying off every debt that I never congratulated myself along the way on how far I'd come. I couldn't be satisfied during the moments in between, knowing that I'd made big changes and I was on the right track. I wasn't going to be good until I was debt-free.

This year, I'm setting goals, but I'm going to loosen my grip even more on the all-or-nothing way of thinking. (I've also decided to stop calling myself a perfectionist. Instead, I'm a person working to overcome perfectionist tendencies. Perfectionism doesn't define me.) No matter what goals you set, either as New Year's resolutions or just because you're ready for a change, don't let the all-or-nothing mentality stop you in your tracks. And if you're like me and struggle with that mindset, try to remember to enjoy the here and now. Being hard on yourself robs you of living in the present.

Finally, I'd like to end with a quote by Anaïs Nin that I read often because it's particularly relevant for people who struggle with perfectionism: “You have a right to experiment with your life. You will make mistakes. And they are right, too.”

More about...Psychology

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LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

Much like yourself, I have had a goal to learn the piano for years, but have not yet done so. My wife and I are still bouncing from location to location, so I am waiting until we are settled. But, once we are, I fully intend to get those piano lessons! As for our debts, we are both perfectionists, but we are beginning to understand that life happens and we may not always meet our goals 100% of the time. Sometimes the car will have an issue and we’ll fall $300 short of our aggressive debt payment. We’ll just have… Read more »

Chett Daniel
Chett Daniel
9 years ago

Good information April. On enacting change, (especially changing from negative behaviors) I recently read that it takes a crisis of sorts to initiate change in most people’s lives. We have to see or vividly sense that our actions will lead to extreme negative consequences before most people are willing to truly change. I’ve watched family members vow to quit smoking year after year, stop for a few months, then pick it up again when the urge becomes too great. The ones that have actually quit did so when we lost three people in a two year time span in our… Read more »

Annette
Annette
9 years ago

You’re right. Perfectionism sucks. I should stop claiming that perfectionism is part of what makes me good at my job, for example, and name it for what it is – a very special form of hell. Good luck with your goals for 2011.

dotCOMreport
dotCOMreport
9 years ago

Great post April, I know what it’s like to struggle with perfectionism (and end up alienating people in the process)… I suppose it is like the great philosopher has said, the journey is not the destination…Life is pretty much like that. It is not a destination but a series of learning experiences.

Thanks for this post.

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
9 years ago

This article was written directly at me! I have been prone to giving up at the first hint of failure before. I am slowly learning though, as I have given myself some wiggle room in my goals to allow for a little lapse here and there. In the last couple years, I am have just started to have some gray in my life, whereas before, everything was very black or white. I see this tendency in 2/3rds of my kids too, and I worry for them. Perfectionism has it’s positives I guess in that it can lead to success, but… Read more »

David Hunter
David Hunter
9 years ago

Goals are all about taking baby steps.

If you just keep doing a little at a time to achieve the big goal, it’ll be easier than if you go all in.

When going after goals, I figure a little is better than nothing, and I try to keep chugging like a choo-choo train. Sometimes you just can’t make it up that hill, but when you look back you’ve gone a lot further than if you never started.

TheMtL
TheMtL
9 years ago

Wow. The universe truly delivers. I have only *just* clued in that I am That Person – the one that must do it absolutely right and right now bingo done, over with…only life isn’t that way. When I saw this post in my feed reader this a.m., I nearly jumped for joy, recognizing myself in your words. I was that valedictorian. I am that competitive woman that must be perfect and put on the face of polish and achievement to the world. Thanks for your insight! May all us perfectionists learn to take it one day at a time and… Read more »

Jessica
Jessica
9 years ago

Love this post! I’ve been battling the same problem for a while now. This year I’ve made a change – I’m tackling things little by little. Each day I have a minimum of two tasks and a max of five (written down). Most of them are small, but I’m already seeing a huge difference in how I get things done. The past few months I’ve seen my spending get out of control and despite efforts to get back on track I fell behind due to some unforseen circumstances. After each of those times I gave up because it wasn’t perfect.… Read more »

Cara
Cara
9 years ago

Hey, get out of my head! This post resonated with me because I know I’m far too hard on myself and I don’t let myself enjoy the glow of achieving a goal, let alone the steps it took to get there. Thank you for the reminder to stop being so hard on myself!

Wayne Mates
Wayne Mates
9 years ago

So true, April.

January 1 is not a magic date to set goals or resolutions. Friends tell me they are going to start doing x, or quit doing y on the first. And, guess what? They keep their old habits and don’t pursue their goals.

I think it is much easier to create your goals any time during the year and break them down into smaller steps to keep you going toward the big goal.

Congrats on achieving all you did in 2010!

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

Another great article this week, April. You’re on fire!

I’ve been reading a lot about perfectionism too… we’re trying to head it off in our preschooler. (Our blog post on “preschool perfectionism” is only partly written though… someday I’ll get around to finishing it…) We’re doing a lot of talking about practicing and having practice goals and not giving up just because something doesn’t come easy. The difficult things are often the most rewarding.

Brandon
Brandon
9 years ago

While I know you mean good, I don’t agree with this article. You SHOULD be hard on yourself for not doing what you set out to do. IMHO, you come up with something you want to do, you set out a realistic and detailed game plan for how you go about doing it, and you follow that plan to a T. you don’t get milk and cookies for not following through, and on a subconscious level know you aren’t doing what you set out to do. I’m 27 years old, and I am what you would describe not a perfectionist,… Read more »

Shari
Shari
9 years ago

This is me too. I am an artist, and when I was in school I always felt like I needed to compete with everyone. If my painting/drawing/whatever wasn’t the “best” (which is impossible to judge with art anyway, since everyone’s opinion is different) I would not be happy at all. For a long time I let it stop me from doing any more art. When I quit competing I was able to enjoy it so much more. I do see this in my kids too. If they aren’t perfect at something, they want to stop doing it. I have to… Read more »

Jonathan
Jonathan
9 years ago

I set my first list of goals this year. Rather than diving in head first and giving myself an unimaginable amount to accomplish, I have two categories with 3 goals in each. Each goal has a specific date associated with it as well.

What will really keep me focused though is that I have them in plain view on the top of my site. Seeing the link reminds me to stay focused on what I’m ultimately trying to accomplish 🙂

Suzie Bee
Suzie Bee
9 years ago

I’ve made two New Year’s resolutions this year (http://suziebee.blogspot.com/2011/01/my-new-years-resolutions.html) and really had to whittle it down to things I knew I’d be able to carry on even when I fell off the wagon. Of course I want to speak Italian perfectly, and it’s frustrating that I can’t, but I just have to practice every day and think where I could be in six months time if I do.

Erika
Erika
9 years ago

April – I haven’t made any resolutions, yet, but can really take this one to heart. Perfectionism & fear of failure is totally paralyzing and th main source of my procrastination. I am going back to work N-O-W!

Susie
Susie
9 years ago

I have been an avid reader of Get Rich Slowly for about 2 years, but have not been consistent for the past few months for reasons too numerous to mention here. Suffice it to say, they are primarily due to exactly what you address in this post.
Thank you for putting into words what I really needed to read today!

First Gen American
First Gen American
9 years ago

I’m more of an 80/20 gal myself. I’m thankful that I learned during my career that it’s better to try and fail than not try at all. Sales and Inventing Stuff require a lot of failure and trial and error. Some ideas are utterly idiotic, but then there are moments of brilliance too. If you operate in the ‘safe’ zone all the time, you will just continue to be ordinary. Sometimes it’s hard to know if an idea is idiotic or genius, but letting go of the fear of failure is more than 1/2 the battle. I think writing and… Read more »

imelda
imelda
9 years ago

Thanks for this encouraging article, April. I have to remind myself constantly — and will continue to do so in 2011 — that things don’t need to be perfect. It’s amazing how much more I accomplish when I remember this!

MutantSuperModel
MutantSuperModel
9 years ago

Thanks for this one. I need this sort of reminder right now as I deal with major frustration about where I stand vs where I want to be.I should copy and paste the paragraph that begins “When I finally got a plan to become debt-free, so many times I wished the slate could be wiped clean…” print it and put it where I can see it.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

This post completely conflates perfectionism with something else entirely. It uses the word “perfectionism” about a dozen times, but none of the concepts described are actually perfectionism. Take the silver medalist example — I guarantee she’s a perfectionist, just like the gold medalist, the bronze medalist, and everyone else who even made it to the olympics. The only way anyone can get to that high of a level in any endeavor is by being a perfectionist. They spend all day, every day trying to improve their performance. When they make mistakes, they analyze them, they dwell on them all night,… Read more »

Jason
Jason
9 years ago

First time commenter long time reader…I must say, fantastic post and great timing April! I was just struggling with this concept. Half of me was thinking about not contributing to an IRA because I can’t make it work to get to $5,000 – the other half is telling me that it would be silly not to contribute everything I had even though it is not the “perfect” contribution. Dare I say, perfect timing!

Carolyn Placko
Carolyn Placko
9 years ago

I love this article, it really put in my head what I need to think about today. It also seems that when perfectionism has a hold on me I get really critical of others, especially familly members who generally exhibit traits that reflect parts of myself I’d rather not admit to. @Brandon, I like your comments, too. There are times I can push myself hard and work towards a goal (like getting straight A’s in grad school) and other places where perfection paralysis sets in. I guess it’s all about knowing ourselves and what we need to do to move… Read more »

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

April, nice post on your view on life and progression. I am also taking things one step at a time now and don’t pay much attention to how long it takes. I guess I’m taking the “slowly” part to heart. 🙂

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago

@Tyler (#22) You are wrong. I’ve done a lot of reading on this subject, and I’ve lived it too. Perfectionists do give up on things — all the time. I have a long, ongoing discussion with another perfectionist friend about “fear of failure” vs. “fear of success”. We’ve decided they’re the same thing, and it all stems from perfectionism. I haven’t read April’s article yet (I trust her writing so much that sometimes I don’t even look at her posts before letting them through!), but I’ve read your comment. And your comment flies in the face of all the research… Read more »

Jackie
Jackie
9 years ago

Nice quote 🙂

Have you ever tried purposefully making a mistake to help overcome perfectionism? I know I hate making mistakes, but that’s one of the things that helped me to become more comfortable with it.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

@22, 25 Tyler, JD

One of the gifted books I recently read actually separated perfectionism into what Tyler is talking about and what April is talking about. Perfectionism can be used as a force for good or a force for freezing and never starting or never finishing anything. Obsession is just a part of the umbrella of perfectionism. A perfectionist can achieve or never start.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

If I’m wrong, then so is Wikipedia. Sure, that’s possible, but it leaves me skeptical. It seems just as likely that J.D. and April are wrong.

No offense J.D., but “rest assured, you are wrong” is probably the world’s least-convincing argument.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

@28 Tyler K:

Wikipedia under the psychology of perfectionism (not the philosophy) says:
“Perfectionism, in psychology, is a belief that perfection can and should be attained. In its pathological form, perfectionism is a belief that work or output that is anything less than perfect is unacceptable. At such levels, this is considered an unhealthy belief, and psychologists typically refer to such individuals as maladaptive perfectionists.”

April is talking about the unhealthy version: maladaptive, pathological perfectionism.

So, no, I don’t think JD, April, or Wikipedia are wrong. They’re saying the same thing. April’s just focusing on the bad kind.

Kevin M
Kevin M
9 years ago

I agree with JD & April, Tyler, you are wrong. (Wikipedia has also been known to be wrong.) In your example of gymnastics, it’s not necessarily the gymnastics that would be in question as the “perfected activity”. It is more when a perfectionist tries something new (or related) that the traits are displayed. I can really identify with this article and the all-or-nothing mentality. I’m a CPA, which requires a bit of perfectionism, but when I set out to do something new (even within my main specialty of taxation) I sometimes feel those 5 characteristics come over me – especially… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

Nicole, that’s orthogonal. The fact that it’s viewed as unhealthy has no bearing on whether it implies “obsesses too much” versus “gives up too soon”. Either could be viewed as unhealthy, and that particular excerpt from the article makes no argument for either interpretation. If you look at the “definition” section of the article, it talks mostly about how perfectionism is associated with doing a lot of work, rather then less. There is a section on “negative aspects” that lists procrastination as a problem with perfectionists, and yeah, that could apply to some of the stuff in the article, but… Read more »

Kaytee
Kaytee
9 years ago

This cuts a little to close to the bone for comfort here. I definitely find myself exemplifying the five traits listed. It is nice to see it laid out and related to PF. It’s nice to be reminded failure is ok.

Jason
Jason
9 years ago

One of the things I realized towards the end of last year is that it’s possible to take on too much at once. Breaking things down into smaller chunks and working in smaller bits made it much easier to accomplish some of the things I wanted to do last year. This post talks about the other thing I realized: I’m not perfect, and I won’t be perfect. I’m starting to let go of the “all or nothing” attitude as well, and I must say…I really dig it! It’s also less stressful AND makes it more enjoyable to do more things… Read more »

L
L
9 years ago

Recovering perfectionist is the term I’ve used for myself a few years now.

I don’t think I’ll ever be completely over it, but I try to tell my self “good enough” as I go about life.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

I’ll concede that that perfectionism could manifest as a paralyzing fear of failure (as J.D., April, and Kevin suggest), but it could also manifest as an obsessive desire to continually do better (as suggested by myself, wikipedia, and Nicole’s first comment), which most commenters seem to disagree with. There’s no indication as to which of the two is the more common manifestation — it may be that my initial reaction was largely right, and that perfectionism is more often than not manifested as obsessiveness rather than fear. It’s also not clear if maybe there are other causes for procrastination or… Read more »

Erin Whitworth
Erin Whitworth
9 years ago

Great article! I definitely relate, and one of my resolutions this year is to enjoy the moment more and not stress myself out (somehow I am good at making resolutions that I enjoy following through on, but push myself to stress on a daily basis with other goals… maybe because I’m more mindful with my resolutions).

It’s awesome to see an article on this, and one this fun to read! Thanks 🙂

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

“obsesses too much” is a process “gives up too soon” is an outcome They’re not substitutes for each other. You can have both. People who obsess too much can be paralyzed and give up too soon too. Or they can give up too soon for other reasons. And I also disagree that the wikipedia article’s definition section is only talking about doing a lot of work instead of less… some of them use that definition, others use different definitions. Article is right here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfectionism_%28psychology%29 I have been reading a lot of psychology research books on giftedness recently, and they ALL… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

Man, after all that and you came around to my way of thinking anyway. Bah.

Yes, it is true that perfectionism can be a force for good too. It’s important to not let it be a force for bad.

Kathryn Fenner
Kathryn Fenner
9 years ago

Great post, but the perfectionist in me wants you to fix the spelling: “Achievement.”

Moneymonk
Moneymonk
9 years ago

I have pretty much obtained all the things I ever wanted to do. This year it’s more of learning a new language and to visit Panama

IU learned not to obsess over goals but just achieve close to it month by month

MeganW
MeganW
9 years ago

After shooting down a lot of goals to start the year with because of a feeling of inevitable failure, I think I found one:

Defeat perfectionism.

Becca
Becca
9 years ago

@37: I wondered how many comments before that was mentioned…

LC
LC
9 years ago

JD – I’m a big fan of GRS, but I don’t think it’s productive to say things like “you are wrong” regardless of who is actually right, even if you were an authority on the subject, which I can’t tell that you are. You should lay out your views and knowledge and explain your perspective and how it diverges from that person’s. Perhaps someone else will learn from what you know or even contribute information that alters and redefines your own understanding. Prefacing with such statements only turns people off to your point of view and sounds childish. Besides, there… Read more »

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago

@LC (#42) You are right. 🙂 Seriously, you are right. Tyler’s comment got my dander up is all, and I was in a hurry. So, I dashed that comment off without taking time to mitigate my self-righteousness. But I figured Tyler could take it, too, because he often adopts a similar attitude. Tyler, for a great survey of the research into perfectionism, see Tal Ben-Shahar’s book The Pursuit of Perfect, from which I’ve pulled this quote: The central and defining characteristic of perfectionism is the fear of failure. The Perfectionist is driven by this fear; her primary concern is to… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

@JD

They have VERY good sound editors at Marketplace radio. So even if you’re a nervous wreck (which you won’t be), you totally won’t be able to tell once you’re on air. They’ll edit out the parts in which you’re not perfect.

Very exciting!

Renee in BC
Renee in BC
9 years ago

Great article. I homeschool a bright child, and this is a subject we discuss a lot. She’s nine and used to quit things quite quickly if she didn’t immediately get the results she wanted. But for the past year I’ve been praising her for persistence and effort, rather than clever results, and it’s worked wonders. She’s much more patient with herself now and much more realistic when assessing her own progress. I’m so proud of her. Like many of the other readers of this blog, I’ve struggled with the all-or-nothing mindset myself, and it’s no fun. At least I can… Read more »

Jessica
Jessica
9 years ago

What a great article…thanks for the important reminder of what is, well, important.

Julie
Julie
9 years ago

I just came across this quote which is now taped to my desk: The yoga is in the process of trying. That makes everything yoga and yoga on the mat practice for everything in life.

I love the top photo! Reminds me of a mediocre half moon pose I did on a glacier a couple years ago (not perfect, but I tried and now I can say I did yoga on a glacier!)

Heather
Heather
9 years ago

I’ll have to dig into some of these resources I see mentioned here and try to understand my own brain. I have no academic expertise, just my own experience. I usually set goals waaaay too high, then maybe achieve 50% to 75%, (which would be respectable under normal circumstances), but beat myself up for not getting to 100%. It’s intentional (but not always conscious) sabotage. Fun stuff.

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