What did Steve Jobs, Michael Jackson, and Leonardo Da Vinci have in common? Talent aside, they were perfectionists. The same can probably be said about Madonna, Serena Williams, and Gordon Ramsay. Whether it’s in the arts, science, or business, exceptional achievers rarely rely on their talent alone. They also devote themselves fully–and even obsessively–to quality. As Charles Bukowski once said, “Find what you love, and let it kill you.”
Psychologists have studied perfectionism for decades, detailing its role in amazing creative feats as well as its destructive qualities. In fact, few other personality traits illustrate the thin line between normality and abnormality better than perfectionism.
Although definitions vary, its central characteristic is an outsized concern about making mistakes. As a result, perfectionists are driven by their fear of failure, and it’s this drive that motivates them to achieve what others can’t. It’s what psychologists term an adaptive manifestation of the impostor syndrome: Because you think you aren’t as good as you actually are, you invest a great deal of energy and time into getting better.
Alfred Adler and Friedrich Nietzsche both referred to this disposition as the “inferiority complex” of greatness. Behind every extraordinary achievement, they reasoned, we can find painful insecurities and self-doubt. Success is just the temporary antidote to those unpleasant emotions.
Perfectionism doesn’t always result in tremendous artistic and intellectual achievements, though. When it isn’t coupled with great ability, resilience, or work ethic, it can lead to procrastination and other self-defeating behaviors, including eating disorders. But that makes perfectionism like most personality traits: too much or too little can be harmful, but the just the right amount can be a huge advantage.
One factor that contributes to the outcome of that tricky balancing act is neuroticism, or “stress propensity.” In one study involving medical students who are generally more perfectionistic, researchers found that perfectionists tend to perform better when they aren’t plagued by stress and anxiety–even if they still aren’t satisfied with their achievements afterwards. Conversely, neurotic perfectionists don’t perform that well, and still wind up dissatisfied with the outcome of their efforts.
But there’s perhaps an even better predictor of whether someone’s perfectionism will be the “good kind” or the “bad kind”: how much they focus on themselves rather than on others.
In fact, reviews of scientific evidence suggest that when perfectionists are primarily concerned about not disappointing others, they tend to perform worse. But when they’re fixated on merely getting better–beating their personal bests and working to improve–their performance and well-being are generally positive.
In other words, perfectionists are better off when they’re their own worst critics. This self-oriented form of perfectionism keeps them focused on the task, preventing social anxieties and other distractions from creeping in. If your attention shifts away from the work at hand towards other people, the more mental resources perfectionists surrender.
Finally, it’s important to remember that perfectionism also affects other people in good and bad ways. Friends, partners, and family members can suffer from perfectionists’ devotion to their work and careers. On the other hand, when perfectionists deliver greatness, they create value for the wider society, inspire others to raise their own standards, and contribute to innovation in their fields.
In an age where so much expert advice is focused on helping people combat work-related stress and burnout, it’s useful to remember that pretty much all exceptional achievers are workaholics–and that some of the most significant progress is thanks to them, rather than those with great time-management skills and a healthy work-life balance.
So while it may sound selfish, humanity would probably lose a great deal by finding the cure to perfectionism.