The Nirvana Fallacy: How To Overcome Perfectionism And (Finally) Take Action
“If you wait for the perfect conditions, you will never get anything done”
– Ecclesiastes 11:4
In the early 1980’s a researcher, Bob Goldman, started a deep research and study into the psychology of elite athletes.
As part of his research he would interview elite athletes and ask them whether they would be willing to take a drug that would guarantee them a gold medal—this was a straightforward test but with a strange caveat.
This hypothetical drug would kill them within the next 5 years.
Goldman repeated his survey’s bi-annually with different groups of elite athletes. By the end of his research period he accumulated and analysed the feedback.
The results were astonishing.
Goldman found that over 50% of the athletes had agreed to take this drug, win the Olympic gold and die within 5 years. In essence, they were willing to die in their pursuit of perfection. (1)
This human tendency to strive for perfection was well noted by one of the greatest writers of all time, Voltaire.
The Nirvana Fallacy
In his book ‘La Begueule’, the 18th century writer Voltaire wrote “le mieux est l’ennemi du bien” (perfect is the enemy of good).
Voltaire understood that we have a tendency to look for a perfect solution and dismiss alternatives in comparison to this. Unfortunately, this perfect solution does not exist—it’s an illusion that this ‘nirvana’ exists.
This false assumption of a perfect solution is more formally known as —“The Nirvana Fallacy.“
By looking for a perfect solution, we may ignore opportunities for the necessary improvements and failures required to achieve any goal. At its worst, the perfectionist mindset could completely paralyse you from getting started or even finishing a project—A classic example is famous painter and artist, Leonardo Da Vinci who took 15 years to complete the Mona Lisa Painting.
You may have experienced this in your own life. For example, let’s say you decided to launch a successful business. You’ve done your market research, business plan and have the money to launch your venture. You’re finally ready to launch but then after a couple of months you’ve made very little progress.
Instead of launching your business and getting new customers, you’re still tinkering with the website, graphic design and changing details of your 50 page business plan—your pursuit of the perfect product, website and business has completely paralyzed you.
This is the most damaging effect of the nirvana fallacy. It paralyses and prevents you from trying new things, making the necessary mistakes to improve and ultimately achieving success in any endeavour.
Fortunately, there are several practical strategies you can use to overcome the nirvana fallacy, stop procrastinating and begin taking productive steps towards your goals. And then before you know it years have flown by and very little progress has been made.
How To Overcome Perfectionism
#1: Practice Self-Awareness
In a recent study, the interpersonal traits of 72 executives at public and private companies were examined to determine the key to their success. The researchers discovered that the strongest predictor of overall executive success were high levels of self-awareness. (Source)
By paying close attention to the thoughts that cross your mind, you can begin to change your actions.
For example, if you’ve recently been hesitating on a writing project take inventory of the thoughts that arise anytime you sit down to write. As soon as those thoughts flash across your mind make a decision to logically challenge them and take immediate action.
#2: Set A Deadline
The more time you have to complete a task, the more likely you will begin over thinking the details and looking for a perfect solution. Instead, you can simply reduce the time to deadline of the given task.
For example, if you have a writing project to complete in the next 3 months simply cut the deadline in half. This will force you to simply get started and avoid obsessing over the end result. (2)
#3: Build Confidence Slowly (By Taking Small Actions)
The more confidence you have, the less likely you will procrastinate or look for a perfect solution. The best way I have found to build confidence is simply by taking very small but productive steps towards your goal.
For example, if your goal is to start going to the gym and lose weight, you can begin by going 10 minutes a day for the rest of week. Then next week you can then build up to 20 minutes and so on. By building this momentum of ‘mini-wins’ your self-confidence will rise and taking action will be easier.
But there’s a catch 22.
The more you hesitate and procrastinate the lower your self-confidence. This is simply because you did not accomplish what you set out to do.
The lower your self-confidence the less likely you will take action and the more you will look for a perfect solution—it’s a destructive downward spiral and the solution is to simply just take any action no matter how small.
#4. Affirmations and Prayer
Regardless of your religious affiliation or beliefs, there’s something very powerful about spending time daily in prayer, affirmations or even meditation. As a Christian, I find these combined with reading encouraging scriptures in the bible reaffirm my self-worth and remind me that it’s okay to take action, fail and be imperfect.
If you’re not Christian or religious by any means, the general takeaway is practicing daily affirmations or positive self-talk to give yourself that confidence to take action on an imperfect solution—any affirmation will work. (3)
For example, you could repeat to yourself that ‘It’s okay to fail’, ‘Failure is only feedback’ etc. Simply create one relevant to you and read it daily.
#5: Focus on Contribution
This was a massive breakthrough in my personal development journey. (4)
I realised that my pursuit of perfection was deeply rooted in my selfish desires for external approval and validation. By shifting my mind-set away from my selfish needs and towards being of service to and helping others, I have been able to alleviate the anxiety, fears and paralysis behind perfectionism.
You can simply begin by asking yourself the following : ‘How can I impact the lives of others through what I am doing right now?’
By turning my attention away from myself and instead towards helping you, I spend less time thinking about the perfect solution and more time thinking of how I can solve your problems.
Grab a piece of paper. In the middle of the page write down what you’ve been hesitating on and looking to have perfect solution for.
Divide the page into 4 sections and under each section write the following:
- Deadline – Write down a short time frame to complete the goal
- Mini-Win – Write down the smallest action you can take right now
- Affirmation – Write down an encouraging statement you can repeat to yourself daily
- Contribution – Write down how your goal will make someone else better off
Remember, there is no perfect solution—in the end, you can only try your best.
Make it happen today.
- How To Stop Procrastinating: The Power Of The ‘2-Minute Rule’
- Haters: The Most Satisfying Way to Deal with Criticism and People Who Judge You Unfairly
Death in the Locker Room: Steroids & Sports by Bob Goldman. The study was also known as Goldman’s dilemma.
- Shorting the time delay to task completion is another key to overcoming procrastination noted by Dr.Piers Steels’ work on the temporal motivation theory.
- Studies show that self-affirmations may boost self-esteem. See Stinsons’ work here.
- Volunteering has been shown boost happiness and self-control. See here