Perfectionism is a serious problem. It is not the cute kind of problem that we grudgingly cotton to in interviews when asked some version of the question:
Interviewer: What’s your worst quality?
Interviewee: Oh me—I care too much! I am perfectionistic and refuse to submit work that does not have the most finally grained attention to detail.
Perfectionism causes personal and professional problems for perfectionists themselves and those around them. And, in a bitter twist of irony, it turns out to be an inefficient and ineffective way of producing good work with any consistency. Perfectionism is not segregated in any single population, but it is one of the most common difficulties experienced by people with
adhd. As is my usual practice, I will focus on that population, which includes myself.
In Part I, I will explore the ways and the reasons that the quest for perfection must fail. Part I will focus on what I have called in its title, the “problem of the product.” Part II will focus on the possibility of the person. That is a lot of alliteration to keep straight!
The concept “perfect” can be traced back to the Greek telos. Telos offers some clues as to the meaning of perfection and perfectionism and the impossibility of their productive attainment. The Greek telos means a conclusion or an ending or a terminus point. Readers might be familiar with the word “teleology,” which is the philosophical study of endings or ultimate causes. So, to attain perfection means to achieve a comprehensive and total conclusion. To use this post as an example, if I were to achieve perfection, it would signify that I would literally have the last word on this topic: there would be no more to say about perfectionism, because this essay would contain everything that could be written—maybe even everything that could be thought—about the topic. It would be absolute in its completeness. It would be an end to the discussion.
Perfection up to this point has only been described in terms of the product of one’s labour. Apart from the most technical and circumscribed situations, I have, I hope, demonstrated that perfection is not possible. But I have only described perfection in terms of the products of our labour. The products of our labour are conclusions in themselves. Again, to take this current essay and example: these words you are reading stand as a conclusion to many years of thinking and discussing and talking. Not only will they not stand as a conclusion to the topic “perfectionism” or
adhd or any topic you might find herein—they will not even stand as a conclusion to my own thinking when I revisit it in a week! I know for a certainty that I will look at this essay and think that some aspect was presented inelegantly; some aspect could use more or less attention, etc. Once our thinking is concretized into text or a drawing or any other final and conclusive form, it demonstrates its own inconclusiveness, its own openness, its own imperfection. This is as it should be. And even if you disagree that this is not how it should be; this is how it is.
At the moment of production, the quest for perfection is defeated. Or, in other terms, the quest for conclusiveness becomes manifestly unachievable. There is an irony in that, because perfection is about achieving perfect endings, and it seems strange that in producing a conclusive aspect of your own creativity… you bring to the fore its own inconclusiveness or incompleteness.
Let me linger over this point for a moment, because I think it speaks to the circumstances in which perfectionism becomes its fantastical possibility. Perfection only becomes a possibility—an illusory possibility, but an illusory possibility still feels like an actual possibility to the fantastical thinker—in the separateness between a producer and their product. A producer is a person and the product can be anything that can be brought into existence by a producer. A product can be real or imaginary. It can be a material thing, such as a sculpture or a skateboard. It can be a non-material thing, such as a melody. The important thing about a product is that it gains an existence outside of the existence of its producer.
The moment of production is the birth of separation: the separation of the product from its producer. And though the product is of the producer, in its moment of production it becomes a concretized artifact of that moment and remains crystallized in that moment of its production forever. To put it in a more dramatic way: the product becomes a trace of its producer that is forever captured, like a prehistoric mosquito captured in amber, unchanged for tens of millions of years. The product remains static while the producer continues to change the nanosecond the production has concluded. And it is that nanosecond that the separation between producer and product becomes apparent. It is that nanosecond that the producer diverges from their product.
But this is all getting awfully abstract. Let me bring it back to the world of the living. One thing that I hear from so many of my
adhd clients is the sense of terrible dissatisfaction they feel looking at the products of their creative work. Here is the dynamic from where I think that dissatisfaction emanates: the brain of a person with adhd is extremely active. I wrote in an earlier post that adhd is, at least in part, a condition of differing levels of excitation and inhibition compared to a neurotypical population. This level of mental activity that I am describing is an aspect of the diminished capacity of an adhd brain to inhibit thought. Let me be clear that I am not claiming any sort of “superpower” here for those of us with adhd. This does not mean that people with adhd are smarter or more creative than a neurotypical population (though I have many extremely bright and creative adhd clients). But I can say that after spending these many thousands of hours with adhd clients, one way I often describe those of us this condition is as having “lively minds.” Lively minds is the positive attribution; “wildly chaotic minds” is the other side of the coin.
What do lively/chaotic minds have to do with perfectionism? I think the connection is between the, relatively speaking, less inhibited
adhd brain and its products. Because the adhd brain is less inhibited in its organic “brainly” processes, it is less inhibited in its striving for connectivity. The adhd brain is less boundaried in quest for connection. But again… let me step away from abstraction. It is not “the adhd brain” that is less boundaried, it is the person with adhd, who is less boundaried in their quest for connection. And it is in this endeavour for a satisfactory sense of internal connectivity that sets up those of us with adhd for disappointment.
What I am trying to represent here is the gulf between the lively/chaotic and relatively speaking uninhibited bodily processes of a person with
adhd that constantly seeks maximal internal connectivity with the creative products of those bodily processes. In the quest to represent in the world the dynamic nature of these lively/chaotic minds that strive for maximal internal connectivity… the products of those minds often appear thin and shallow to those minds that produce them. The quest for perfection necessarily ends in disappointment and the feeling of failure. This is the very common experience of people with adhd.
In the end, the quest for perfection in production is bound to end in disappointment. This is particularly so for those of with
The following is an email written to a client to summarize a discussion we had some time ago. I wanted to include it here as an addendum, because I think it acts as a nice bridge between Parts I and II of this exploration of perfectionism, particularly in the questions it asks in the final paragraph:
About the problem of concretized thought, for me in words, for him in images. The problem is that when in process, the whole of oneself in all it’s mad connectedness is in order. But as soon as thought is concretized into some external, it loses all of it richness, its connectedness. It goes from a feeling of fullness in the being of the creator to thinness in the being of itself: as one moves away from the moment in time when the concretized object is created, the richness fades… almost immediately.
K used the metaphor of hyperlinks: in process the interconnectedness of thinking and feeling and bodily sensations are intact, functioning. But as soon as the thought in its singularity is brought to the page, all the internal and external links are lost… forever. And thus the concrete object not only appears thin or empty in itself, but we also might feel that it mocks us, because it says to us: “I was created out of the fullness of being… in fact, I am the product of literally everything that makes you who you are… but because I am singular and you are multiple… you can no longer see yourself in me… and that’s why you are dissatisfied with me… why you crumple me up… why you hate me.”
How is it, then, that we might be able to experience our work product as something other than a thin or empty expression of ourselves? Can we ever overcome the thinness? Can we add layers of context? If we were able in the moment to somehow capture the whole of our experience of creation, would it matter? Can there be a representation of temporality in the atemporality of a concretized object? It feels to me like the only thing that would suffice would be such a massive amount of information, that one would spend a few hours composing the object and the rest of one’s life adding the context of those few hours.