The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life

The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life

by Tal Ben-Shahar


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780071608824
Publisher: McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing
Publication date: 03/11/2009
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 525,335
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Tal Ben-
Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D.,
is the New York Times bestselling author of Happier. He taught the most popular course at Harvard University and currently teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel. He consults and lectures around the world to multinational organizations, the general public, and at-risk populations. He obtained his Ph.D. in organizational behavior and his B.A. in philosophy and psychology from Harvard. For more information visit

Read an Excerpt

the Pursuit of PERFECT

How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a RICHER, HAPPIER Life


Copyright © 2009 Tal Ben-Shahar
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-07-160882-4

Chapter One

Accepting Failure

The greatest mistake a man can make is to be afraid of making one.Elbert Hubbard

On the evening of May 31, 1987, I became Israel's youngest-ever national squash champion. I was thrilled to win the championship and felt truly happy. For about three hours. And then I began to think that this accomplishment wasn't actually very significant: squash, after all, was not a major sport in Israel, and there were only a few thousand players. Was it really a big deal to be the best of such a small group? By the next morning I decided that the deep and lasting satisfaction I craved would only come if I won a world championship. I resolved right then to become the best player in the world. A few weeks later I graduated from high school, packed my bags, and left for England, which was considered the center of international squash. From Heathrow Airport, I took the underground train straight to Stripes, the squash club in Ealing Broadway where the world champion, Jansher Khan, trained. And although he did not know it, that was the day I started my apprenticeship with him.

I followed his every move on the court, in the gym, and on the road. Each morning before heading to the club, he ran seven miles; so I did the same. He then spent four hours on court, playing against a few training partners and working out with his coach; so I did the same. In the afternoon he lifted weights for an hour and then stretched for another hour; so I did the same.

The first step in my plan to win the world championship was to improve quickly, so that Jansher would invite me to be one of his regular training partners. I did in fact improve, and within six months of moving to England, I was invited by Jansher to play with him whenever one of his regular partners could not make it. A few months later I became one of the regulars. Jansher and I played and trained together every day, and when he traveled to tournaments I would join him and either warm up with him before his match or, if the match was not taxing for him (and most matches weren't), we would play afterward.

Although I improved by leaps and bounds, there was a price. While Jansher had gradually built up to the intensity of his workout regime, I had taken a shortcut. When I arrived in England, I believed I had only two options before me: either to train like the world champion (and become one myself) or not to train at all (and give up on my dream). All or nothing. The intensity of Jansher's regime far exceeded anything I had ever done before. No matter, I thought: to be a world champion, do as the world champion does.

My body thought differently. I began to get injured with increasing regularity. Initially, the injuries were minor—a pulled hamstring, mild backache, soreness in my knee—nothing that could keep me off the court for more than a couple of days. And I felt confident in my approach, because despite my injuries, I was training the way the world champion trained, and my game continued to improve.

But I was dismayed to find that my performance was much weaker in tournaments than during practice. While I had no problem focusing for hours at a time during practice sessions, intense pre-match jitters kept me awake at night and hurt my performance on the court. Playing the big matches or the big points, I would often choke under the pressure.

A year after moving to London, I reached the final of a major junior tournament. I was expected to win comfortably, having beaten the top ranked players in earlier rounds. My coach was watching, my friends were rooting for me, and a reporter from the local paper was there, ready to let the world know about the bright new star on the squash circuit. I won the first two games easily and was within two points of clinching the match when first my feet, then my leg, and finally my arm cramped. I lost the match.

I had never experienced such cramps during practice, no matter how hard I had trained, and it was clear to me that the physical symptoms were a result of psychological pressure. What held me back on that occasion, and on so many other occasions, was my intense fear of failure. In my quest to become the world champion, failure was not an option. By this I mean that not only did I regard becoming the world champion the only goal worth attaining, but I also believed that only the shortest and most direct route to my goal was acceptable. The road to the top had to be a straight line—there was no time (and, I believed, no reason) for anything else.

But my body, once again, thought otherwise. After two years of doing too much too soon, the injuries gradually became more serious, taking weeks rather than days to heal. Nevertheless, I stuck to my punishing regime. Eventually, at the grand old age of twenty-one, plagued by injuries and strongly advised by medical experts to slow down, I had to give up my dream of becoming the best player in the world. I was devastated, and yet part of me felt relieved: the doctors had provided me with an acceptable excuse for my failure.

As an alternative to a professional athletic career, I applied to college. My focus shifted from sports to academia. But I brought to the classroom the same behaviors, feelings, and attitudes that had driven me on the court. Once again, I believed that I faced a choice of all or nothing, in terms of how much work I needed to do and what kind of grades I had to earn. And so I applied myself to reading every word that every professor assigned, and I tolerated nothing short of perfect grades on all the papers that I wrote and the exams that I took. Working to achieve this goal kept me up at night, and anxiety that I still might fail kept me up long after all the papers were handed in and the exams were taken. As a result, I spent my first years of college in a state of almost constant stress and unhappiness.


Can you relate to the preceding story? In what ways? Do you know others who have been through, or are going through, similar experiences?

My original plan, when I entered college, was to major in one of the hard sciences. My best grades had always been in science and mathematics. To me, that was reason enough to continue along the same path; it was the most straightforward way to achieve perfect grades. But although I did very well in my courses, my unhappiness and my increasing weariness gradually drew me away from this safe choice, and I began to explore the humanities and social sciences. I was initially uneasy about leaving the hard sciences, with their satisfying, objective truths, and was unsure about the more nuanced—and to me, uncharted—territory of the "softer" disciplines. However, my desire to alleviate the anxiety and unhappiness was stronger than my fear and uneasiness about change, and so at the beginning of my junior year I switched my major from computer science to psychology and philosophy.

It was then that I encountered for the first time the research on perfectionism conducted by David Burns, Randy Frost, Gordon Flett, and Paul Hewitt. I had not realized until then that so many people struggled, to a greater or lesser degree, with the same problems I had. Both the research and the knowledge that I was not alone comforted me somewhat. Initially, I scanned the literature looking for a quick fix to get me from where I was (a maladaptive Perfectionist) to where I wanted to be (an adaptive Perfectionist)—I was still looking for the straight-line solution. But when my attempts failed, I delved deeper into the research, and over time I gained a deeper understanding of the subject, and of myself.

Perfectionism Versus Optimalism

Let's take a look at the essential differences between the Perfectionist, who rejects failure, and the Optimalist, who accepts it. First, though, it is important to understand that perfectionism and optimalism are not distinct qualities that are entirely independent of each other. No person is 100 percent a Perfectionist or 100 percent an Optimalist. Instead, we should think of perfectionism and optimalism as lying on a continuum, and each of us tends to a lesser or greater degree to one end or the other of the continuum.

In addition, we may be Optimalists in some areas of our lives and Perfectionists in others. For example, we may be quite forgiving of mistakes we or others make on the job but be thrown into despair when our expectations are not fully met in our relationships. We may have learned to accept that our home is not immaculate, but when it comes to our children, we accept nothing less than perfectly behaved overachievers. In general, the more a Perfectionist cares about something, the more he is likely to approach it with the Perfectionist's particular mind-set. For example, when squash was the center of my life, I experienced intense fear of failure each time I played in a tournament. When I went to college and shifted the focus of my perfectionism to academia, I brought the same paralyzing fear to my studies. By contrast, when I play backgammon, which is a game I enjoy a lot, I do not experience an incapacitating anxiety—or other perfectionist symptoms, for that matter—as it is a less important activity to me (except when I play against my best friend, and chief backgammon rival, Amir).

Expectation of a Perfect Journey

Perfectionists and Optimalists do not necessarily differ in their aspirations, in the goals they set for themselves. Both can demonstrate the same levels of ambition, the same intense desire to achieve their goals. The difference lies in the ways each approaches the process of achieving goals. For the Perfectionist, failure has no role in the journey toward the peak of the mountain; the ideal path toward her goals is the shortest, most direct path—a straight line. Anything that impedes her progress toward the ultimate goal is viewed as an unwelcome obstacle, a hurdle in her path. For the Optimalist, failure is an inevitable part of the journey, of getting from where she is to where she wants to be. She views the optimal journey not as a straight line but as something more like an irregular upward spiral—while the general direction is toward her objective, she knows that there will be numerous deviations along the way.

The Perfectionist likes to think that his path to success can be, and will be, failure free, a straight line. But this does not correspond to reality. Whether we like it or not—and most of us,

Perfectionists or Optimalists, do not like it—we often stumble, make mistakes, reach dead ends, and need to turn back and start over again. The Perfectionist, with his expectation of a flawless progression along the path to his goals, is unreasonable in his expectations of himself and of his life. He is engaged in wishful thinking and is detached from reality. The Optimalist is grounded in reality: he accepts that the journey will not always be a smooth straight line, that he will inevitably encounter obstacles and detours along the way. He relies on facts and on reason and is in touch with reality.

Fear of Failure

The central and defining characteristic of perfectionism is the fear of failure. The Perfectionist is driven by this fear; her primary concern is to avoid falling down, deviating, stumbling, erring. She tries in vain to force reality (where some failure is unavoidable) to fit into her straight-line vision of life (where no failure is acceptable)—which is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. When faced with the impossibility of this endeavor, she begins to shrink from challenges, to run away from activities where there is some risk of failure. And when she actually fails—when she sooner or later comes face-to-face with her imperfections, with her humanity—she is devastated, which only serves to intensify her fear of failing in the future.

The Optimalist does not like to fail either—nobody does—but she understands that there is no other way to learn and ultimately succeed. In the words of psychologists Shelley Carson and Ellen Langer, the Optimalist understands that "going off course is not always a negative thing, and it can present choices and lessons that may not otherwise have been recognized." To the Optimalist, failure is an opportunity for receiving feedback. Because she isn't intensely afraid of failure, she can learn from it—when she fails at something, she takes her time, "digests" her failure, and learns what set her back. She then tries again, and tries harder. By focusing on growth and improvement, and by rebounding from setbacks, she accepts a more circuitous route to her destination than the Perfectionist who insists on a straight line to her goal. But because the Optimalist neither gives up nor becomes paralyzed by the fear of failure, as the Perfectionist so often does, she has a much better chance of actually reaching her goals.

For the Perfectionist the best possible life—in fact, the only life she is prepared to accept—is one devoid of failure. By contrast, the Optimalist knows that the only life possible is one in which failure is inevitable, and, given that constraint, the best possible life is one in which she accepts failure and learns from it.

Focus on the Destination

For the Perfectionist, achieving his goal is the only thing that matters. The process of getting there—the journey—is meaningless to him. He views the journey as simply a series of obstacles that have to be negotiated in order to get to wherever it is that he wants to be. In this sense, the Perfectionist's life is a rat race. He is unable to enjoy the here and now because he is completely engrossed in his obsession with the next promotion, the next prize, the next milestone—which he believes will make him happy. The Perfectionist is aware that he cannot entirely do away with the journey, so he treats it as a bothersome but necessary step in getting to where he wants to be, and he tries to make it as short and as painless as possible.

In the movie Click, the hero, Michael Newman, is a consummate Perfectionist. He receives a remote control device that enables him to fast-forward his life. Michael's primary focus is getting promoted at work, which he believes will finally make him happy, so he uses the remote to skip everything he needs to experience on the road to his promotion. He fast-forwards through hard work and hard times but also through all the daily pleasures of life—such as making love to his wife—since they slow down his progress toward his ultimate goal. He considers everything that is not directly related to his end goal an unwelcome detour along the way.

To those around him, Michael seems fully awake, but the effect of using the remote control is that Michael is sedated—not for a few hours to avoid the pain of an operation, but for most of his life—so that he can avoid experiencing the journey, which he perceives as an impediment to his happiness. Michael essentially sleeps through life. Of course, this being a Hollywood movie, Michael realizes the error of his ways and gets a second chance, and this time around he does not make the same mistake: he chooses to experience his life rather than fast-forward through it, and he is a much happier and better person as a result. In real life, Perfectionists who miss everything that matters because they are only focused on their ultimate goal get no second chance.

The Optimalist may have the exact same aspirations as the Perfectionist, but he also values the journey that takes him to his destination. He understands that along the way there will be detours—some pleasant and desirable, some not. Unlike the Perfectionist, he is not so obsessively focused on his goal that the rest of life ceases to matter. He understands that life is mostly about what you do on your way to your destination, and he wants to be fully awake as his own life unfolds.

The All-or-Nothing Approach

The Perfectionist's universe is ostensibly simple—things are right or wrong, good or bad, the best or the worst, a success or a failure. While there is, of course, value in distinguishing between right and wrong, success and failure—be it in morality or in sports—the problem with the Perfectionist's approach is that, as far as he is concerned, these are the only categories that exist. There are no gray areas, no nuances or complexities. As psychologist Asher Pacht notes, "For Perfectionists, only the extremes of the continuum exist—they are unable to recognize that there is a middle ground." The Perfectionist takes the existence of extremes to the extreme.


Excerpted from the Pursuit of PERFECT by TAL BEN-SHAHAR Copyright © 2009 by Tal Ben-Shahar. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Perfect Trap

Chapter 1: Benevolent Jealousy

Chapter 2: The Upside of Anxiety

Chapter 3: Ordinary Expectations

Chapter 4: Don’t Just Get Over It

Chapter 5: Understanding the Unknowable

Chapter 6: Succeeding at Failing

Chapter 7: Permission to Feel

Chapter 8: The Law of Identity

Chapter 9: The Platinum Rule


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Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
presto on LibraryThing 11 months ago
While the advice contained in this book is helpful, I have to ask myself did I need to read so much of this to get the message? The answer quite simply is ¿no¿. Having make the point that striving for perfection essentially leads only to low self esteem when we inevitably fail, there is not really a lot more that can be said, yet Ben-Sharah manages to take over 250 pages proving it.Yes, it contains proof, and exercises to help the afflicted, but it all come down to that first simple statement. But I very soon became impatient with what I was reading, not to mention extremely irritated at the constant interchange between ¿he¿ and ¿she¿ in the examples; pointless political correctness that simple gets in the way. I don't think I really needed to plough through all that tautologous writing to get the point. I could go on, but then the same accusation could be levelled at me!
tcrutch on LibraryThing 11 months ago
Whether we enjoy books or not really depends on where we are in our lives. At this moment in time I really needed to read this book. As an over-educated, unemployed perfectionist, seeking a job in this dismal economy - I needed a wake-up call! Thank you for helping me realize that I can be a little imperfect and that's OK!
albanyhill on LibraryThing 11 months ago
I appreciate receiving a review copy of this audiobook from HighBridge audio. I don't listen to many audiobooks - I prefer the print version because it is easier to move back and forth, pause, or go back a little if my attention wanders; also there is the ability to look at notes & references. With an audiobook or lecture if my mind wanders I've just missed something & it's harder to go back and pick up on the missing material.I thought the reader was OK, very even in reading, but I would have enjoyed hearing the author read the book, especially because he shared so much personal information. Also he is a top lecturer at Harvard."Do you work at generating light or avoiding darkness?" probably not an exact quote (another disadvantage of the audio format) but that phrase stuck out for me as a take-home message, which turned out to have much to do with accepting suffering and imperfection as a normal part of life.
ricksbooks on LibraryThing 11 months ago
I was expecting this book to be a rather bland take on a typical self-help theme, something along the lines of being providing excuses for those who are willing to put in the necessary hard work needed for excellence.Wow. That was incorrect. Ben-Shahar starts by debunking the perfection as a goal (and perfectionism as a attitude), replacing it with the concept of "optimalism", optimizing outcomes against the constraints of reality. He does this fully and from many angles. And thus finding happiness outside of perfectionAnd then he takes the concept further linking it to deeper philosophical, emotional, and psychological concepts.I had thought that the notion of abandoning the drive for perfection would be contradictory to my overall approach to life. Instead, I learned that the converse is true. And that has made this the most eye-opening book I've read in years.(I should elaborate by adding that I found the audio book a little tough to digest, so I bought the 'real' book... that worked much better.)
getdowmab on LibraryThing 11 months ago
In 'the Pursuit of Perfect' Ben-Shahar expands on many of the ideas outlines in his prior book 'Happiness'. Delving into the details of how to get over our perfectionist mentality to achieve a happy life of satisfaction. While this book is essentially a self-help book, it reads like an interesting compendium of the scientific research into what differentiates happy people from unhappy people, specifically as this happiness relates to our pursuit of achievement and self fulfillment. In his recommendations Ben-Shahar takes into account a variety of human tendencies and how the status quo has led us to misunderstand why it is that we pursue certain goals. This book is extremely practical and enlightening for anyone who finds their ambitions to sometimes feel overwhelming, a poor fit for their true interests, and an impediment to their overall contentedness with life. Since our modern culture(s) offer so many distractions and diversions from what is truly important to each of us, this book offers a reminder what we should be focusing on and how to pursue that focus in a healthy manner. One criticism that has been levied at Ben-Shahar specifically, and happiness psychology generally, is that while this might be practical for people who are educated, working in professional positions, or who are independently wealthy, it seems to have little application to people who for one reason or another are downtrodden and struggling to have their most basic needs met. This criticism might be somewhat unfair, since Ben-Shahar himself recognizes that in order to pursue the type of happiness he is discussing, one's basic needs must not be in question. While I agree with this limitation of happiness psychology, that does not negate the suggestions for people who do have their most basic needs met, yet the recommendations in this book may facilitate greater enjoyment of those basic needs, if one can learn to recognize how.
rivkat on LibraryThing 11 months ago
A self-help book! I think I would have liked Happier better; this book is directed at giving readers strategies to guide themselves in the direction of ¿optimalism¿ rather than perfectionism, accepting disappointment and long, hard roads to success. I was really struck by the ways in which the advice was removed from social context and individualized: other people showed up, basically, as potential sources of desired goods like love, but it was all about changing yourself. I guess I shouldn¿t be surprised that the baseline for a self-help book was a highly independent self with a lot of social capital, such that success (or failure) at standard material/social goals was possible, but it was just so unlike what I usually read. Ben-Shahar argues that human nature is fixed (though he gives very little content to that fixity in this book, except to say that communism must fail and capitalism must succeed; he quotes Ayn Rand as a good guide to love!) but human behavior isn¿t, and once he made that move, with no attempt to discuss power and how things get slotted into nature v. behavior and by whom, I kind of stopped paying attention. On the other hand, I did find earlier parts of the book useful: he makes a good case that modern Western culture too readily encourages people to suppress bad feelings instead of acknowledging them, which makes it harder to experience good feelings in the long run.
davesmind on LibraryThing 11 months ago
"Positive Psychology" has recently moved to the main stream and is now taught at top universities and is the subject of several recent books. The science behind this approach is solid and interesting. I had hoped that this book would present the science. Tal Ben-Shahar teaches a course on the subject at Harvard so I had high expectations. Unfortunately, this book does not really teach much of the science. The book is squarely in the "self-help" category and is full of personal anecdotes and spends a good deal of time asking you to think about your own personal experiences. If you are looking for a self-help book that focuses on personal anecdotes and avoids discussions of the academic studies on the topic, this might be for you. However, if you are more interested in the science behind this fascinating new field I recommend ¿The Happiness Hypothesis¿ by Jonathan Haidt or ¿Stumbling on Happiness¿ by Daniel Gilbert. Both are very accessible.
Lila_Gustavus on LibraryThing 11 months ago
The main thought throughout the book is how trying to live a perfect life, to have perfect looks and perfect careers is actually ruining our lives. Shortly said, perfectionism is bad. On the other hand, we, the people obsessed with the perfect, should instead try to attain a state of optimalism, a term Mr. Ben-Shahar came up with. Tal Ben-Shahar is a perfectionist and he noticed long time ago that trying to have it all and avoiding failure, negative emotions and get the goals no matter what was making his life miserable. He had done a lot of research to find a way out of his misery and the outcome is The Pursuit of Perfect, in which we are presented with a solution: a middle ground and acceptance of our human nature. The book offers some simple, yet great exercises which do not require a lot of time or effort, and most importantly leave some space for error, since they need not be done perfectly. At the core of the whole book is that our society shuns pain, sorrow, unhappiness and requires us all to be always at our best behavior, always smiling, always being nice to customers and fellow employers and if there is a shadow of anger or sadness lurking about, we run to doctor¿s for pills and therapies, because these emotions are absolutely unwelcome. Ben-Shahar argues that as humans we are equipped with tools within ourselves to deal with negative emotions and one of these tools is ¿going with it¿, instead of burying a specific feeling we have and we don¿t want to have, be it fear, jealousy, anger and so forth. The more we deny ourselves these emotions the more persistent they will be and sooner or later they will resurface making us miserable.I have to say that despite my doubts about a self-help book ever working for me, The Pursuit of Perfect appealed to me a lot. First of all, even if perfectionism was never one of my many vices, I realized that I was too among the hordes of people trying to live up to societal expectations of the perfect. From the first pages I could tell that this book had a potential of opening my eyes and also giving me permission to just act according to my human nature, to be simply `good enough¿ and not necessarily `better than¿. Mr. Ben-Shahar¿s writing is very accessible and quite persuasive. To give you an example, I have always been a person who would suddenly feel envy towards somebody else and then immediately I would scorn myself for feeling this horrible emotion, put it aside and in the end beating myself for the rest of the day about how I must be a bad human being for feeling envy towards somebody that most likely doesn¿t deserve it. A few days ago, I was sitting in a public place, waiting my turn to be serviced and reading the part of the book which talks about not suppressing our negative feelings but instead accepting them. And wouldn¿t you know, there comes a drop-dead girl, wearing sexy clothes and attracting stares of every male specimen in the room. I immediately start being jealous and think of all the reasons why she really is looking ridiculous and completely overdressed and how she truly is screaming for attention. But instead of suppressing these emotions of jealousy and low self-confidence, I decided to just stay with them and take a closer look at the girl. I allowed myself to feel the negativity, I accepted the fact that I indeed was being jealous and went back to reading my book. Hours later, when I left the building, I all of a sudden realized that I completely forgot about that girl, didn¿t beat myself up for being jealous and I had a fairly good, relaxing time as opposed to being literally devoured by envy. So there you have it. It worked and I have a strong feeling that if this one worked, others might too.
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