Chasing Perfection


We’re taught at an early age that chasing perfection is what a person needs to do to be considered “good”, that chasing perfection is the road to becoming the best version of “us” possible. 

Unfortunately, it’s one of the most destructive lessons we learn.

This belief leads us to spend money on things that don’t really matter. We stop investing in the fundamentals because we feel we desperately need to look the part. External displays displace internal truths.

Immediate Rewards

Why do we buy the designer home and associated furnishings? The new car? The new, trendy clothes? The makeup and hair products, spending precious time primping in the morning? The memberships? The beauty treatments? 

Why do we chase rewards points? Why do we get that dent in our car door or scratch on our bumpers fixed right away? Why do we pay for lawn care? Why do we wash our cars multiple times a week?

Why do we spend on a level of perfection that goes well beyond what it means to lead a good life? 

Status. Maintaining and/or elevating our status is the reward we get when others approve of what we have, how we look and what we do. We’re addicted to the immediate rewards associated with putting on a show versus the long investment it takes to build a reputation based on character.

If we cannot stop envying, it seems especially poignant that we should be constrained to spend so much of our lives envying the wrong things.
— p. 197, Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

We do these things for show because we don’t feel that just being who we are is enough and we worry it never will. Having the right look and the right stuff is what we need to feel like we fit in. It’s what we need to feel we have the right to matter to others; that we have the right to be loved. 

Here’s the problem with the behaviour:

Chasing perfection is expensive and it leaves us empty. 

Moreover, chasing perfection is getting increasingly expensive as our society keeps raising the bar on what constitute the basic necessities, let alone what it takes to lead a “perfect life”.

The Perfection Premium

What kind of dining set defines me as a person?
— Unnamed Narrator, Fight Club

When I was working in my white collar job, the perfection premium I was paying was about 25% of my pre-tax salary and, unfortunately, that's likely a conservative estimate (here's what I spent on work alone). This included not only the right look, but making the right entertainment choices, the right gifts, the right vacations, the right…everything.  And I was headed for more “right”-eousness, as I considered our current home as a “starter home” and our overall state at the time to be rather imperfect

We spent a lot of money and we were never satisfied. It was never enough because there was always something to tend to, something to fix, something to make right. Even maintaining our belongings took extra time and effort, never mind the costs of the inevitable upgrades!*

And the premium snowballs as the quality and quantity of your stuff increases. New/expensive status-barking stuff requires:

  • Paying a premium price to buy new/exclusive/luxury items and associated accessories.
  • Obsessive cleaning to show the item in its perfect state.
  • Maintenance & repair to retain the prestine look and flawless operation the belonging requires.
  • Storage and insurance to protect the “investment”.
  • Membership fees in order to use the expensive stuff where the desired people will notice it.
  • …and, thanks to the Diderot effect, other new/expensive status-barking stuff to go along with it.

Purchasing premium wares is like embarking on an infinity loop. We may think we’re moving along, getting ever closer to our ultimate destination, but the seeking and acquiring never ends because we're chasing a moving target.

The only way to make it STOP is to put an end to aspirational or status-reinforcing purchases. And the way to do it isn’t to stop buying things altogether, but to change how we evaluate what we buy and why we buy it. 

We need to ask ourselves whether we’d still buy or maintain something if there were no one there to see it or if no one cared.

Would you still:

To get her money’s worth in terms of status, the middle-class purchaser needed to make sure that others knew what she had bought—hence, the visible logo.
— p. 46, Overspent American by Juliet B. Schor
  • Bother having a showy luxury car if you lived miles away from everyone else? Yes? Then go for it.
  • Have a 4,000+ square foot home if you lived in an isolated area and never hosted visitors? Really? To each his own.
  • Wear expensive jewelry and designer clothes if you never went anywhere? You have to be kidding...but ok.
  • Have the latest and greatest electronic gadgets if there's no one to show it to or no one "gets" why you bought it? Ok. I realize there are nerds among us.

When we stop paying attention to trying to make everything perfect, we can actually enjoy what we have, as is. We can live with the dented bumper. We can be ok with tidy and not sparkling clean. We can keep appreciating the classic as opposed to the trendy. We can keep using our electronics until they die their natural death. We can buy the store brand. We can buy and sell used and be happy someone else paid the "new" premium. We can even start noticing people and not their stuff.

And, we can spend more on what truly matter in the end: time doing things we enjoy with the people we love.

Perfection? Now, as a somewhat-reformed perfectionist, I’m much more likely to invest that level of effort and focus in the emotional and creative sides of life that I’m sure to cherish to the end of my days. 

How about you? Are you chasing perfection?

*Luckily, we were savers and feared credit like the plague. I can’t imagine the type of hole I would have been able to dig with my expensive tastes. It would have been a nightmare!

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