Learn why you should strive for progress not perfection if you want to “succeed” in life and 5 tried and true tactics to help you stay the course when perfectionism threatens to throw you off track.
I’ve never really thought of myself as a perfectionist.
Sure, I’ve always held myself to high standards and wanted to excel in life and I have.
From a young age, I always excelled in school. I earned straight A’s and took part in a gifted and talented program when I was in elementary school. I went on to graduate Magna Cum Laude from a top university and later excelled in my career, earning promotions and salary increases regularly.
Now, I’m not telling you this to brag about myself. Not at all. You see, there’s been a secret to much of my “excellence” in life.
The secret is that up until recently, I’ve been successful in mostly everything I’ve done because I’ve always played it safe.
For the most part, I didn’t do things if I felt unsure of my success. I didn’t take on the challenges that made me question my abilities. I didn’t put in the effort to learn something new if I wasn’t pretty certain I’d be good at it.
If I didn’t feel convinced that I could do something perfectly, most of the time, I wouldn’t even attempt it. And on the rare occasions that I did, I usually gave up pretty easily once it got difficult and the self-doubt kicked in, telling myself that it just “wasn’t my thing”.
Why? Was I lazy? Did I not like having to work hard at something? Maybe at times….but that wasn’t the reason at its core.
After all, I did hold myself to high standards and had a strong work ethic. When in college, I studied into the wee hours of the morning for my exams and once I had a career, I often stayed late at the office to perfect a project before leaving for the day.
My high standards and work ethic certainly contributed to my success, but in all my endeavors, I had always felt confident in my abilities to excel or else I would not have taken it on in the first place.
I never connected my “playing it safe” to perfectionism until recently when I had a bit of a “midlife awakening” and made the bold choice to completely change course from my prior career that I had never found fulfilling and start my own online business.
Never before had I felt so scared to do something, so unsure of my ability to succeed, but still challenged myself to do it anyway.
This is the first time in my life that I took the plunge and started something without first knowing all of the exact steps to execute it perfectly and been ok with letting it evolve over time.
I had always been too scared.
Scared to make a mistake. Scared to fail. Scared to be judged by others. Scared that I didn’t have what it takes.
Scared of one simple fact that might be true –
That I wasn’t good enough.
This fear had been holding me back my whole life. I had always been a victim to perfectionism without even realizing it, as perfectionism is rooted in fear.
Why is striving for perfection not good?
Most of us have goals and dreams we’d like to achieve in our lives, right? But all too often, we hesitate to get started or don’t get very far once we do because we become so caught up in getting it right.
We think that if we mess up or don’t do something perfectly, then we’re no good at it or we might as well give up. Holding yourself to the standard of perfection will most certainly keep you stuck and set you up for failure.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started a new diet and then “messed up” by eating a “forbidden” food like cookies after dinner, which resulted in me completely giving up because I had convinced myself that I’d ruined my diet by not perfectly sticking to the plan.
Not only does striving for perfection set you up for failure, it’s also a destructive way of thinking about yourself. When you make a mistake, you don’t just feel disappointed in your misstep, but in who you are.
It’s so easy to compare yourself to others who appear to be perfect and to then feel discouraged and bad about yourself. Someone else is always going to be better and more successful than you (by your perception); this can bring anyone down – and fast.
But the reality is that achieving perfection is not attainable for anyone and it’s exhausting to constantly be aiming for something you can not ever reach.
That’s why you should always strive for progress, not perfection. Progress is something you can measure and the good news is that unlike perfection, progress is attainable!
And let me tell you, adopting the mindset of progress over perfection is a game-changer.
Why is progress better than perfection?
The mindset of focusing on progress over perfection allows you the space (and grace) to be a beginner – to learn, grow, evolve, and iterate over time.
You’re never going to knock it out of the ballpark your first time up at bat. Thus, striving for progress not perfection is the only way to bridge the gap between your ability and your ambition.
For me, this is evident when I look back over some of my earliest blog posts. My writing was never bad, but now that I’ve learned more about what it takes to formulate and structure a good blog post, I can easily identify how to improve my early efforts. I could only have learned this by starting with imperfect action and iterating as my experience and knowledge grew.
Strive for progress not perfection and bit by bit, piece by piece, you will eventually close the gap and your ability and ambition will finally meet.
How to Strive for Progress Not Perfection
The following are tactics I’ve found helpful to stay the course in the pursuit of progress over perfection.
Start small (and ugly)
Everyone has to start somewhere right? It’s better to start small, even ugly, than to let perfectionism hold you back from ever starting at all.
Sometimes we get caught up thinking we have to do it ALL right from the start or we might as well do NOTHING. But, with this mindset comes the pressure of coming up with big impactful actions to get us everything we want right away and the weight of this pressure usually only keeps us stuck right where we are.
Instead, focus on taking the next right step in the direction of your goal, even if it’s only a small step. Over time, you will see your confidence build and gain needed clarity and knowledge as you continue to move forward.
Whenever you’re pushed outside of your comfort zone, it’s natural to start questioning your judgment and doubting yourself.
Feelings of self-doubt are to be expected, and embraced, because it means you are growing. This is a signal that you’re doing what you need to be doing and you should continue forging ahead.
If your self-doubt ever feels like too much, just take a beat and remind yourself that all you have to do is take the next right step. Action begets confidence and the more and more action you take in the direction of what you want, the easier it becomes.
Treat “failures” as successes
Have you ever heard that there is no such thing as failure, only learning experiences?
This is a lesson we’ve been teaching our boys lately, as they can both be really hard on themselves when they mess up. My 11 year old, who plays on a competitive soccer club team, gets very upset when he doesn’t do well or his team loses a soccer game, viewing it as a failure.
We’re teaching him that everyone must fail at times in order to learn and grow from what they might view as “mistakes”. Something you regard as a failure is simply an opportunity to learn what you need to improve upon.
It’s important to adopt a growth mindset, in which you believe that your most basic abilities – like talent, intelligence, or a skill set – can be improved through your own directed efforts and experiences. It’s necessary to “fail” at times in order to understand where to direct those efforts.
Thus, there truly is no such thing as failure if you look at it as a learning opportunity for growth. Furthermore, every failure can be viewed as a success because it propels you closer to where you want to go. This is success in the direction of your goal.
Be ready for the long game
There is no shortcut, hack, or magic formula that is suddenly going to make your biggest dreams come to fruition.
All great things take time. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but anything worth pursuing in life is usually not going to be quick and easy to achieve. You have to steadily work at it and be ready for the long game.
Also, keep in mind that progress is never a straight line upward. You must anticipate and plan for problems and setbacks along the way as they are bound to happen.
Slow and imperfect progress is still progress when it comes to achieving something in your life that is truly important to you. It’s imperative to have patience and accept that it’s going to take as long as it’s going to take. You just have to keep showing up.
However, there’s one caveat to this notion that I discuss in the next section.
Know when to quit
In the pursuit of any endeavor, there may come a time when you realize that you’ve gone as far as you possibly can. You’re confident that you’ve given it your all and now it’s become clear to you that this pursuit is not one you wish to continue.
Sometimes it’s a gut feeling or you realize that you no longer want it in the same way. Perhaps it’s having detrimental effects on other areas of your life and it doesn’t feel worth it or aligned with your values any more.
If you find yourself in this position, the bravest and wisest decision may just be to cut your losses and move on. Realize that there is no shame in moving on from something that no longer serves you.
You should always strive for progress not perfection in order to succeed.
Let go of the urge to pursue perfection and instead settle into the knowledge that focusing on progress is the key to moving forward in life and is how you will succeed.
Strive for progress not perfection and do the best you can with what you have today. Over time, you will see that you’re continuously learning, evolving and growing as a person –
Always becoming the next truer version of yourself. From my perspective, this is most definitely success in life. 💕
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Carly is a wife, mom, and former NYC fashion industry executive turned writer and life coach. Through her writings on littlevoicebigmatter.com, she shares practical advice, heartfelt insights, and actionable resources to inspire and support women in motherhood, relationships, wellness, and life. Carly also helps women create better balance in their lives and live with more joy, purpose, and connection every day through her coaching.