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.


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.”

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