How to Beat Perfectionism, Make Progress, and Find Happiness

Though most people think of philosophy as a system of ethics or an explanation of the purpose of life, they miss its most practical aspects. In fact, ancient philosophy was a way to create mental clarity—to clear the mind of what psychologists today would refer to as cognitive distortions.

Epictetus, the Stoic slave-turned-philosopher, told his students that the place to “begin in philosophy is this: a clear perception of one’s own ruling principle.” He meant that they became philosophers when they began to question to understand what guided their thinking, the second they began to analyze their own thoughts. He wanted to help them break out of exaggerated thinking patterns that have a destructive impact on the life of the thinker. Patterns like negative self-labeling, catastrophizing, disqualifying the positive, emotional reasoning and other cognitive distortions.

Today one of the most common destructive thought patterns is known as all-or-nothing thinking (also referred to as splitting). Examples of this include thoughts like:

  • If you’re not with me, you’re against me.
  • So-and-so is all good/bad.
  • Because this wasn’t a complete success, it is a total failure.

In other words, perfectionism. Though we often hold up perfectionists as models, psychologists know that this sort of extreme thinking is associated with depression and frustration. It’s a miserable, unproductive way to live. How could it not be? Perfectionism rarely begets perfection—only disappointment.

The Stoics understood how pointless—and dangerous to our mental health and progress in life—those thoughts were. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of the three major Stoic philosophers, reminded himself in his private journal (which came to be known as Meditations): “Don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress.” As Epictetus reminds us, “We don’t abandon our pursuits because we despair of ever perfecting them.”

They understood that you’re never going to find that kind of perfection. Instead, the message is clear: to do the best with what we’ve got.

Of course, we want things to go perfectly, so we naturally tell ourselves that we’ll get started once the conditions are right, or once we have our bearings. When, really, it’d be better to focus on making do with how things actually are.

Instead of perfectionism, we need to embrace a philosophy of pragmatism. As Marcus joked in another instance, “That cucumber is bitter, so toss it out! There are thorns on the path, then keep away! Enough said.”

Pragmatism—opposed to perfectionism—has none of its paralyzing hang-ups. It’ll take what it can get. That’s what Epictetus is telling us. We’re never going to be perfect—if there is even such a thing. We’re human, after all. Our pursuits should be aimed at progress, however little that it’s possible for us to make.

Not that pragmatism is inherently at odds with idealism or pushing the ball forward. The first iPhone was revolutionary, but it still shipped without a copy-and-paste feature or a handful of other features Apple would have liked to have included. Steve Jobs, the supposed perfectionist, knew that at some point, you have to compromise. What mattered was that you got it done and it worked.

This is why we need to start thinking like radical pragmatists: still ambitious, aggressive, and rooted in ideals, but also imminently practical and guided by the possible. Not on everything we would like to have, not on changing the world right at this moment, but ambitious enough to get everything we need. Not thinking small, but making the distinction between the critical and the extra.

There is plenty that you could do right now, today, that would make the world a better place. There are plenty of small steps that, were you to take them, would help move things forward. Don’t excuse yourself from doing them because the conditions aren’t right or because a better opportunity might come along soon. Do what you can, now. And when you’ve done it, keep it in perspective and don’t overblow the results.

And remember, it all boils down to this simple idea: Think progress, not perfection.