November 25, 2011 9:57 pm

Are high standards healthy?

The more we cling to the demand that we must succeed, the less likely we are to do so

The Shrink

I’m sure the reader who wrote to us with this query is not alone in the dilemma he faces: “Behind the question is my natural pursuit of the highest standards. Regular failure to meet these standards often produces long-term unhappiness. Should I really give up the fight and resign myself to mediocrity for the sake of happiness?”

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It is not uncommon to fear that if we let go of our pursuit of perfection we’ll sink into a sloppy carelessness, just doing the least we can get away with. At the same time it doesn’t seem worth sacrificing our sanity on the altar of high standards. But does it really have to be one or the other? Perhaps it is our dichotomous thinking that is the problem: perfection or mediocrity, either we always achieve the highest standards or we’re a failure.

Albert Ellis, founder of Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy, wrote persuasively about the dogmatic and absolute musts with which we torment ourselves. The belief that in order to be a worthwhile person we must have 100 per cent success, for instance, is neither rational nor helpful.

Perfection is not something a human being can achieve. And the more we cling to the demand that we must succeed, the less likely we are to do so. It can be paralysing to think too much about end results.

As so often, the Stoics have bequeathed us some useful advice: if we take archery as a metaphor, the idea is that while we should do our best to shoot as skilfully as we can, we can never guarantee we will hit the bull’s eye. The aim of shooting well is in our power; but once the arrow has left the bow it is outside our control. We wrongly imagine that we should be able to control outcomes when all we can control is our effort.

So we should concentrate on doing the best job we can while fully appreciating the inevitability of imperfection. In this, as in many other cases, the direction of travel matters more than the finishing line.

The Sage

If you thought reaching agreement in the eurozone was tortuously difficult, you should try philosophy. Nevertheless, there are a few philosophical principles that almost everyone embraces, among them the idea, attributed to Kant, that “ought implies can”. In other words, it makes no sense to say that you should do something unless you are able to do so. You can’t tell a pauper that he ought to give a million pounds to charity.

It sounds obvious, which is why I was struck when the philosopher Simon Critchley once told me that he thought that in ethics, ought implies cannot. We should submit ourselves to a standard higher than we can ever achieve, because the moment that we become satisfied with our actions, we are lost. Something of this spirit is expressed in Jesus’s injunction to love our neighbours as ourselves. The point is not that we can succeed. Rather, it is precisely because we can never claim to have raised ourselves high enough that we continue to strive to raise ourselves yet higher.

It is important to recognise that this is not the same as typical perfectionism. Unattainable aspirations only make sense when there is still value in the increments on the way to them. If you want to be at a certain place at a certain time, for example, it’s not half as good to only get halfway there, it’s useless. If, on the other hand, you strive to be the best and you end up merely very good indeed, that might be worth the effort. The perfectionist’s problem is that second best usually won’t do, in which case she should either challenge this all-or-nothing assumption or make sure that her self-imposed ought is accompanied by a realistic can.

Second, striving for the impossible will drive you mad unless you remember that it is indeed impossible. Kid yourself you can really do it and you are condemning yourself to a life of dissatisfaction. The problem with most perfectionists is not that they strive to be perfect, it’s that they believe they can be.

If you have a question you would like answered, please email shrinkandsage@ft.com

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