The Pursuit of Perfection

Donald James Larsen was born on August 7, 1929, in Michigan City, Indiana. As a young boy, he quickly showed talent in the area of baseball and basketball, but eventually headed to the diamond for what would become his lifelong passion.  Although he originally signed with the St. Louis Browns (later to become the Baltimore Orioles), he was traded to the New York Yankees at the end of the 1954 season.  In 1956, the Yankees and Dodgers paired off in the World Series after the Dodgers won in seven games the year before.  In Game 2, Larsen lasted only 1 2/3 innings as the Yankees were blitzed 13-8.  Three games later on October 8, 1956, Larsen again found himself on the mound.  But as he later recalled, “I had great control.  I never had that kind of control in my life.”  By the time the game was over, Larsen would pitch the only perfect game in World Series history to this day.  He used only 97 pitches, and only one Dodger batter got to a 3-ball count.   After striking out the final batter, Yogi Berra leapt into his arms in what would create an iconic picture for the ages.  Ironically, with the death of Berra in 2015, Don Larsen remains the only member of either team still alive today.

In our daily lives, perfection is a rare thing, but many of us find ourselves desiring a perfect outcome. Perfectionism itself has been labeled “a double-edged sword” because it can be associated with significant achievement, but also negative psychological and physical outcomes.  Two researchers recently published an article in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences that looked at thirty years of research in the area of perfectionism.

As they noted, perfectionism actually comes in two forms, perfectionistic strivings (PS) and perfectionistic concerns (PC). Although these two dimensions share some overlap, they also possess distinct differences that are important to understand.  PS reveals a drive toward high standards of achievement and lifestyle, a constant striving towards perfection.  Conversely, PC focuses on how someone is negatively evaluated if they make mistakes or don’t attain a perfect outcome.  While PC is often associated with increased anxiety and maladjustment, PS is connected with positive feelings and improved adjustment.  In other words, people who strive to excel, but don’t unnecessarily fear mistakes that might come typically are happier and better adjusted than those who hold to perfectionistic standards because they are afraid of disappointing the expectations of themselves and others.

As the researchers noted (pg. 380), “people can strive for perfection without making their self-worth contingent upon achieving perfection, or without criticizing themselves if they fail to reach perfection.” This is a critical message for us and our kids as so often it seems that people (including myself) go through much of their life afraid of not meeting certain standards (self or other-imposed), but find along the way that the joy of their accomplishments is sapped by the constant fear of failure.  When we are primarily motivated by the fear of failure and not opportunities for success, it can gradually confine us to “safer” and “safer” places that ultimately limit our growth.

I see this on a weekly basis when working with kids. Whether it is a fear of bombing a science test or even getting a few items wrong on an assignment, perfectionism is often accompanied with anxiety.  Kids who are identified as “smart” or “brilliant” often harbor perfectionistic concerns (PC) because it has become part of their identity.  Yet, this is where we as parents again need to reinforce the effort first (performance second) and remind them that if they are giving their personal best, we will not be disappointed.  It also behooves us to teach them that a high degree of anxiety doesn’t have to accompany a desire for perfection.  No doubt success brings its own expectations and challenges.  But striving to be flawless, whether in direct service to others or in athletic endeavors, should remain fun and meaningful even if it doesn’t always feel like it at the time.  Hopefully Don Larsen still feels like that 60 years later even though he lost more games in his career than he won.

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