It’s a dilemma.

Without quality, what’s the point in producing something? But seeking perfection can be counterproductive in the extreme.

Where do you draw the line?

I think the answer, as it is for so many questions like this, is: “It depends.”

Every circumstance has to be evaluated and re-evaluated on an ongoing basis. “4-Hour Workweek” author Tim Ferriss recommends running an 80/20 analysis on your business monthly. Not a bad idea.

Once you accept that perfectionism is something that can’t be eliminated with one killing blow, then what you need are guidelines. Here are two of my all-time favorite guidelines for dealing with perfectionism plus a new one I just discovered that inspired this post.

Guideline #1. “It’s amazing how rich you can get without being perfect.” – Richard Dennis, super successful futures trader.

Becoming rich (or happy, or contented, or successful) has nothing to do with being perfect. Perfection is most definitely not required.

Guideline #2. “Perfection in infinite time is worth zero.”

I wish I could remember who I first heard this from. I Googled it and nothing came up. Maybe I actually coined this phrase and forgot. It wouldn’t be the first time. I know I’ve been using it for many, many years.

This one says it all. Getting the thing done, whatever it is, in time to actually use and enjoy it is what matters the most. Perfection on some far off, undefinable date is absolutely worthless (unless you plan to live forever which, let’s face it, is unlikely.)

I recently discovered a new perfectionism quote which comes from a book called “Beyond Success and Failure” by Willard and Marguerite Beecher.

I learned about this book is a very circuitous way.

Lawrence Bernstein, who’s one of the world’s greatest archivists of classic advertising copy, gifted me with a rare collection of ads by Eugene Schwartz that he painstakingly uncovered through researching back issues of old newspapers.

Schwartz was a grand master of selling books by mail order and the ads he wrote are so good that I felt compelled to track down as many of the books that he advertised as I could. “Beyond Success and Failure” was one of them. (By the way, every book Gene wrote ads for was a winner and well worth buying.)

Anyway, here’s my newest favorite quote about perfectionism. It’s the most stark and it’s one you’re not likely to forget:

Guidline #3: “The perfectionist is doomed to starve in the midst of plenty.”

Wow! No sugar coating there. And they’re right. How many times have we seen people who could have something good, but don’t because they want something GREAT? My advice: Start with the good and work towards the great with the good as your base.

The Beechers, who are psychologists, get into the psychology of perfectionism and they hit the nail right on the head:

“(The perfectionist) will resist and reject What Is – simply because it can never measure up to his imagined goal of what-should-be.”

OK, now that we undestand the disease of perfectionism, what causes it and what it costs, what about the cure?

Here’s a brilliant one, short, sweet and most of all practical:

“Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” – Francis of Assisi

Life can be simple when we let it be.

– Ken McCarthy

P.S. For over 25 years I’ve been sharing the simple but powerful things that matter in business with my clients.

If you’d like direction for your business that will work today, tomorrow and twenty years from now, visit us at the System Club.

Hit Tail Sharon Odom Fling
We live in an age of miracles

31 Responses to Perfectionism

  1. Doug Kelly June 5, 2007 at 12:43 am #

    This is one of the most helpful topics I could read about. And the answers and comments are good. It is a disease that drives me and people I know crazy. I think it’s a obsessive/compulsive characteristic. I know that I obsess over things that don’t require the effort. but on the other hand, I find if I channel it properly, I am always over-delivering to my clients. So it can be forced into a positive thing if one can realize one’s own striving for prefectionism.

  2. SharonM June 5, 2007 at 12:43 am #

    Very true Ken. It took me four months to write my second blog entry for the very reasons you are talking about.
    Thanks for the heads up – now I’m going to get off my butt and drag at least one of my resent draft postings into the light of day, otherwise it will be too late.
    I’m sorry I missed you chatting to Tim, but I am looking forward to reading his book.

  3. Bob Beckman June 5, 2007 at 12:46 am #

    I’ve gone by the maxim of Admiral Gorshkov, father of the modern Russian Navy which is “Better is the enemy of good enough.” Also, Dwight David Eisenhower who never corrected a memo sent to him unless the facts were wrong, but never on style.

    Perfectionists are egotists – whether it be from pride or fear, they cannot let go of their own image and let the world do what it will.

    I had a boss once (a dithering perfectionist) who griped about how I got so much done in a day and left early while he slaved for 12 or more hours. I said I did my best once and moved on without regret. Most of the time it worked! When it didn’t, I reworked the project. He could not grasp the concept as he could not let anything go!!!



  4. Galen June 5, 2007 at 12:46 am #

    Wow, thanks for this post, Ken. Being an analytical entreprenuer, I could relate to the information shared here in a very personal sense. This was good information and a good reminder for me.

    Galen Kauffman

  5. Bill Redd June 5, 2007 at 12:56 am #

    Is it possible that you purposely had a typo in this post about perfection?

    “OK, now that we undestand the disease of perfectionism, what causes it and what it costs, what about the cure?”

    You left out an “r” by mistake. Did the post suffer? Not at all. You reinforced your point quite well – intended or not.

    It reminds me of an old Patton quote…”A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”

  6. Mike Long June 5, 2007 at 1:03 am #

    Great advice, Ken – something I need regular reminding about.

    Years ago someone told me something I didn’t realize, but later confirmed. Our Declaration of Independence has several “typos” with words inadvertently left out during the final writing. (They’re easy to locate) But when the signers noticed the mistakes, they simply inserted the missing words by hand and left the original document without re-writing it. I suppose that if releasing an “imperfect” Declaration of Independence was good enough for the framers, then even back then, they knew what you keep emphasizing, Ken.

    Get it out first, then get it better.

  7. PETE LILLO June 5, 2007 at 1:08 am #

    Hi Ken,

    Dan Kennedy and I are both old school when it comes to WORK, we use the 80/20 rule, but we both feel that many today
    don’t really want success, they want to associate with success. It still takes discipline and that nasty four letter word that everybody seems to hate these days,(WORK), many aren’t willing to sacrifice at all to get to the next level! It’s a sign of our easy times!

  8. Sheppard June 5, 2007 at 1:21 am #

    Could not agree more! One thing I’ve tightened up on though…my spelling. Other than that, I’m right with you. Seeking perfectionism is a clear path to inaction.

  9. Christine Jandke June 5, 2007 at 1:46 am #

    Your statement at the System seminar still rings in my ear: “Perfect inaction beats imperfect action every time”. Soo true.

    It took me forever to get started with an idea I had – one year ago! And then two weeks ago I just sat down and looked at what I was afraid of if it wasn’t perfect (I used The Work of Byron Katie to do that). And bam! I had my blog up and running within 4 hours! Nope, not perfect but out there. And now I just do a little bit each day. What a difference!

    Since you first mentioned the book “4 Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferriss, I started reading it. Absolutley great book! Again, if I only take one piece of advice at a time – that is “Start with the good and work towards the great with the good as your base.”

    Thanks for your recommendation.

    Christine Jandke

  10. Christine Jandke June 5, 2007 at 1:49 am #

    Oops, here I was, demonstrating imperfect action by getting my post out there without checking it for perfection: 😉

    I meant to say “Imperfect action beats perfect inaction every time.”


  11. Ken McCarthy June 5, 2007 at 2:01 am #

    If I worried about getting my writing right, I’d never get anything written.

    It’s easier to go back and fix a typo than it is to get in the flow and get something going. After all, it’s kind of hard to proofread a blank page!

    By the way, all my typos are guaranteed genuine.

  12. Lark June 5, 2007 at 2:58 am #

    The subjective here of course is “good” – less than that gets you nowhere fast too.

    A former fine dining chef for 20 years, I’ve often struggled with this real-life dilemma… so your post really hits home where it hurts.

    My problem is with those who willingly except shoddiness and then throw “proof” – such as your post – in my face.

    Same is true with same-o, same-o… me-too thinking… thought to be acceptable in a world that values instant gratification, convenience, and aesthetics – even if those who exalt its usefulness are too inarticulate to put their finger on the reasons why.

    By this I mean everything else but web sales copy and everyday chit-chat – or every other place the spoken word is used to communicate… because imagery, feeling and perception is even more instantaneous.

    People have their B.S. meters on full-time these days… so whether with words or everything else… one seldom gets a second chance to make a favorable first impression.

    Yes, I know… it sucks to be called a perfectionist.

  13. Linda June 5, 2007 at 3:02 am #

    Thank you so much. I didn’t know that perfectionism was egotism.

  14. Lark June 5, 2007 at 3:18 am #

    … even when “except” is used instead of “accept”… most of us wouldn’t care!


    P.S. – Without wanting to sound too contrary… my greatest teachers in life always insisted – and often demanded – only the best. A chef walking the dining room of a crowded restaurant at 9:00 on Friday night always knows if his/her perfectionism paid off or not. If the chef doesn’t particularly care, then more-than-likely, his customers don’t either! It’s these types of observations which inform my actions still – unfortunately or not.

  15. Learn to video at FreeIQ June 5, 2007 at 3:39 am #

    Hi Ken
    You have hit the nail on the head. Being Perfect has always been a problem of mine.
    It goes back to what we were taught growing up. “If you can’t do it right then don’t do it” and of course “right” wasn’t ever good enough. Finally we just stopped trying. How sad for all of us that was taught that.
    Now I try very hard to “just do it” as the ad says. I set a timer and work til the timer goes off. Proof read and correct, then submit. Is it perfect? No, I can proudly say, but it is done.

    Thanks for everything

  16. Shular Scudamore June 5, 2007 at 3:58 am #

    Borrowing from project management – we are always striving to balance time, money and quality/scope. It seems to me some of the emphasis on perfection comes from schooling. A perfect paper is 100 percent.

    In business we want our accountants to create balance sheets where assets equal liabilities, but our blog posts, emails and many daily tasks don’t need the same level of quality/perfection. Thanks for your guidelines.

  17. Nina Rai June 5, 2007 at 5:03 am #

    Thank you Tim. The article really hits the nail on the head. For ages I have been suffering from this perfectionist malady. This is truly an eye opener. Have been struggling with my blog and other articles too. Will now start off by being just good in my endeavor as suggested.
    Keep up the good work and do give us more such articles.

  18. Ross June 5, 2007 at 7:57 am #

    Haven’t got time to post a considered reply. Too busy getting my latest project perfect.

  19. Millionairemumma June 5, 2007 at 8:11 am #


    Thank you so much for this. I have been playing with blogs for quite a while as I wait to “perfect” the perfect website. And yes I will be doomed to “starve” if I keep reaching for that elusive place.
    Overload and the next new thing also add to the burden. Google seemed to have sandboxed even my blog (maybe from boredom !)so nothing more to lose. Guess I will just have to have fun with it and go with what I have got…..three years worth of files,notes, PDFs,zips and software.
    Hoping to get to your seminar next year. Thanks for all the great information and have been enjoying the vidoes and MP3,s.
    Very timely information so once again….thanks!

  20. Dianne Caron June 5, 2007 at 10:37 am #

    Thanks for this information. I’ve always considered myself to be a perfectionist and was proud of it! I was taught at an early age, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well” -a positive variation of the earlier post about ,”If you can’t do it right then don’t do it.” Not sure if it’s out of fear or pride??

    In retrospect-this really has caused a wealth of plans and ideas with a relative vacuum of results! Definitely “starving in the midst of plenty”

    Time to reasses-get a new perspective ,to clarify and simplify my starting point.

    I like your advice to ‘Start with the good and work toward the great with the good as your base”
    That one’s going up on the wall where I can see it!

    This one is awesome as well-“Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” – Francis of Assisi

    The challenge seems to be to define the necessary…..

    Here I go..Dianne

  21. Pamela Dodd June 5, 2007 at 10:46 am #

    Perfectionism is also a form of procrastination. That just popped into my head as I was reading all the comments here. I write about time management and I never connected the two before.

    In our efforts to aim for excellence, we overcompensate, shooting past “good enough” to “never good enough.” Seen as chronic procrastinatin, perfectionism leaves us, and often those we live and work with, stressed out – not a bad thing if it happens occasionally but frustrating and dare I say, debilitating, as a way of life.


  22. Lou Swire June 5, 2007 at 10:47 am #

    It is difficult to argue with the sins of perfectionism. A perfect product that has missed the market window is useless. However there is a downside. It is called mediocrity or sloppiness. If you cannot meet the standards, then let’s simply lower the standards! If you don’t have time to do the job right when will you have time to do it over?

    Would a 90% success rate for safe landings by airline pilots be acceptable?

    Its tough being perfect but I try my best to cope…..

  23. Jan Evans June 5, 2007 at 12:21 pm #

    Perfection equals procrastination?

    The truth is there is no such thing as perfection because if we’re striving for excellence, once we master our craft to one level–there’s always something higher to strive for.

    So again, we must get better, achieve more.
    There are those whose strive for mediocrity and it shows in all they do.

    If we strive for excellence, we’ll never get there, but what a great ride!

    The natural horseman, Pat Parelli, has his audiences at his tour stops repeat, “Make your good better, and your better best.”

    We can’t start with our best. We learn; we begin; we progress. And hopefully, the refrain goes on until we die.

    Sometimes we just have to let go, get it out there. Test and tweak.

    Just see what happens.


  24. Tracy June 5, 2007 at 12:36 pm #


    That one really hurt… but SO true! I am a perfectionist, starving in the middle of plenty. I can really relate to the debilitating side effects of the disease called perfectionism.

    I always want to make it “just a little better” and it is never good enough.

    How many times have I said to my children “a job worth doing, is worth doing well (right)!”? I MUST change my thinking and my practice before I ruin my children!!!

    Thanks, Ken for this alert to the “death of my business”. Actually, for the procrastinating perfectonist like me… my business was dead before I even started it.

    Whoa, I have a lot of changing to do… but first I will: “Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” (Francis of Assisi) And I will: “Start with the good and work toward the great with the good as your base”

    That will make me imperfectly rich! What a real eye-opener… soooo good to know my biggest hindrance and know that I CAN change it, simply. Great Stuff!!!


  25. Ken McCarthy June 5, 2007 at 12:37 pm #

    Let’s say that “perfectionism” is a problem, not a virtue, when it leads to:

    1. Doing nothing
    2. Delays that are so excessive that it is practically the equivalent to doing nothing
    3. Severe loss of morale when things don’t go “perfectly”
    4. Inability to ever delegate (and thus grow to execute on a vision) because no one else ever does it “good enough.”

    By this standard, the chef who insists that every dish leave the kitchen with a sky-high standard is a “perfectionist” only if nothing ever leaves the kitchen or doesn’t get out until the next day!

    Maybe we should differentiate between positive perfectionism and negative perfectionism.

    Positive: It inspires you, gets you going, and ultimately gives you a sense of achievement by producting excellence.

    Negative: It stops you and makes you ineffectual and miserable.

  26. Sean Collins June 5, 2007 at 2:40 pm #

    Lloyd Irvin told me a story at a System networking thing in 2005, and it’s my favorite story about anti-perfectionism.

    (Maybe he repeated this at the last System now that he’s faculty. If so, it’s a story that bears repeating anyway.)

    He told me that he was so eager to implement System tactics on his site, that he immediately started sending emails to his list according to what he learned from Ken.

    But his spelling and grammar were not the best, he told me, and he got a bunch of emails sent back with insults and corrections to his spelling and grammar.

    (Quick, what would you feel if you got insulting emails and corrections to your writing? Be honest.)

    Lloyd’s reaction?

    This is great, he said, I have people editing my emails for free!

    So he incorporated the changes they sent, and refined his email broadcasts.

    Oh yeah, and sold a bunch of product.

    (Thanks again, Lloyd, for that great example.)


  27. Barbara June 5, 2007 at 2:51 pm #

    I can’t say that I agree in all cases.Maybe it works in the Web business. What if you posted an article on a new medical procedure that wasn’t correct, medical professionals relied on it, and people were hurt. You have a responsibility for the content that you have posted – whether it is medicine or product description over the Web. Perfectionism is required in my field – medicine. What would you think if you or a familiy member were treated, but had imperfect care? What if it were surgery for cancer, and the margins were missed. Be careful when you say that perfectionism is overated.

  28. Learn to video at FreeIQ June 5, 2007 at 3:16 pm #

    That’s a good point Barbara.
    Medicine is a different thing all together.
    But alas it’s not even perfect. Did you read the Readers Digest this month?
    There was an article in it about Mistakes in the medical field, sometimes even fatal mistakes.
    Thing is because a mistake is made, the Doctors and nurses don’t quit, most of the time.
    In my case a lot of the time when I make major mistake , I commonly quit. Now I say “I made a mistake, how can I fix it, fix it and go on to the next mistake”
    I really think that is what life is about, learning and we can’t learn if we don’t try.

  29. Jim Zaccaria June 5, 2007 at 4:04 pm #

    Thanks for the reminder, Ken. I too used to suffer from Perfectionism and still wrestle with that illusion from time to time. The message that really hit home for me and ‘woke me up’ from my trance and belief that prfektionism was necessary came to me through Mike Litman who shared this quote from one of his mentors “You don’t have to get it right – You just have to get it GOing” WOW! I felt SO relieved…it was as if a switch had flipped in my head…Fail Forward Fast and Fix it on the Fly (if and as required) have also been valuable insights for me. Interestingly, I understood the meaning of Christine’s post BEFORE she posted the corerection! Thanks again Ken for keeping it REAL….(I, for one, appreciate your typos).


  30. Bob Manard June 11, 2007 at 11:41 pm #

    I absolutely agree. Perhaps, perfectionism is the ideal we were taught in school, yet it truly hampers us in life.

    If I needed bypass surgery, I would want my surgeon to be “as perfect as possible”, yet in business, as I continue to drop the perfectionist mentality, I am more successful.

  31. Doug D'Anna June 21, 2007 at 11:34 pm #

    Wow it’s looks like everyone has covered this subject quite nicely. However, I would like to add my own two cents.

    When I started out writing copy with Phillips, KCI, and other major mailers in the early 1990s, I really had a perfection complex that would put me in a fetal position.

    After all, I was competing the best of the best copywriters on the planet.

    That’s when this VP at one company told me that nobody’s copy comes in perfect all of the time–never.

    As I have come to learn over the years, there are factors outside of the copywriters effort at work that demand changes including including a change of direction from the publisher.

    Another thing you should know, especially if you are called to launch products, is that your work helps them best visualize the product they are trying to sell.

    As a result, the picture you paint–even if it’s what they said they wanted in the beginning–may change because once they see it they know that it’s not what they wanted.

    That said, I never pays to get hung up on perfection. Relax and be good because there will nearly always be changes of one sort or another.