3 min read

#7: Perfectionism, Competitive Advantage, and Remedy

"The Perfectionism Trap" by psychoanalyst Josh Cohen explores why, as a society, we've become so dissatisfied with being ordinary.
#7: Perfectionism, Competitive Advantage, and Remedy

Today, I came across an article in the Economist titled "The Perfectionism Trap" by psychoanalyst Josh Cohen exploring why, as a society, we've become so dissatisfied with being ordinary.

The article examines several key drivers of the rise of perfectionism, which refers to a personality style characterized by a person's concern for striving for flawlessness and is accompanied by a tendency towards critical self-evaluation.

There was a line of thought in the article I found quite interesting. Essentially, Cohen argues that over-crowded labour markets, especially markets for coveted professional jobs, as well as unaffordable housing, are driving young people and their parents to greater lengths to secure competitive advantage.

The above ideas, especially competitive advantage resonated with me because I've witnessed this theory play out amongst friends and family members, from time to time.

In economics, achieving a competitive advantage ensures greater value for a firm and its shareholders because of certain strengths the firm possesses. The more sustainable the competitive advantage, the more difficult it is for competitors to neutralize the advantage. Some financial analysts refer to competitive advantage as a "moat" and the wider a firm's moat, the greater its profits (typically) and ability to ward off new and existing competitors.

The article made me think about our society as a bunch of individuals all working to create little moats around themselves to ensure their survival in the marketplace. I've certainly experienced both internal and external pressure to continuously improve and perfect my skills to ensure I, at least, maintain my position in the social and economic hierarchy.

And while I like the idea of continuous improvement, we can take it too far. After reading the article, I thought about my parents and grandparents and I cannot recall them obsessing about personal development, continuous improvement, and competitive advantage like many of us do today. Maybe there wasn't a need to – houses were cheaper and a cup of coffee didn't cost $4.00.

Now that I'm a parent, I've noticed that there is a class of parents hell-bent on ensuring their children will be able to effectively compete in the school system, public or private. Indeed, some parents place a tremendous amount of emphasis on getting ahead of the pack early, and the research suggests that:

Children haven’t changed, but our expectations of their behavior have. In just one generation, children are going to school at younger and younger ages, and are spending more time in school than ever before. They are increasingly required to learn academic content at an early age that may be well above their developmental capability.

I suppose those parents have always existed, but I digress.

An obsession with developing and perfecting yourself to obtain a competitive advantage must be largely based in fear, and in my opinion, will lead to unhappiness because we're more than just cogs in the economic machine. We ought to be developing our interests, hobbies, or just plain old doing nothing sometimes (you know, getting some rest). Instead, there's the hustle, the side hustle, the new venture, the get rich quick scheme, etc.

Recently, I read a book by Danish philosopher Sven Brinkmann who identifies many of the same issues as Cohen does in his article, but he goes a step further and prescribes a solution to perfectionism and continuous improvement: stand firm. That is, flat-out resist the forces that push you to become better at your profession and improve yourself.

How do you do this?

Brinkmann has several suggestions including:

  • Cutting out "navel-gazing"
  • Focusing on the negative in life
  • Putting on the No hat
  • Suppressing your feelings
  • Sacking your life coach
  • Reading a novel (not a self-help book)
  • Dwelling on the past

Many of Brinkmann's suggestions are rooted in stoic philosophy and many people have found them helpful, according to several online reviews of his book. I too found his position and advice helpful, but as any perfectionist knows, cutting out critical self-evaluation and improvement is challenging in practice.

While Brinkmann's advice is both practical and topical, I think perfectionism and the drive towards obtaining competitive advantage can only be dealt with through some serious reflection about the psychological drivers behind it. However, taking some kind of action is a great first step.

Getting back into writing, just to write, has been a challenge for me and it's one way I'm pushing back on the doctrine of perfectionism. I could be doing something more productive with my time to improve my competitive advantage, but I've opted to muse and write about whatever comes to mind because some personal satisfaction can be gained from it.