Battling Perfectionism, Or: How I’m Learning to Stop Worrying and Love Failure

Overwatch 08.19.2017 - 21.50.02.03

The screenshot above is a frustratingly common sight in my experience with the online multiplayer game Overwatch, which I’ve recently started playing more frequently. To be honest, I have no idea exactly how common this sight is — the game doesn’t seem to visibly track your total losses, and far be it from me to count them myself — but it’s frustrating every time I see it. There it is, in bold red lettering. Defeat. You lost. You failed.

I don’t like losing. I have always been very competitive, and I have a long track record as a perfectionist. It seems childish to admit, but I sometimes get frustrated after a loss — frustrated with myself, my teammates, the game, the world in general — to a degree that I feel I really shouldn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t explode into a storm of profanity or throw my game controllers or anything (though I used to, when I was younger). But sometimes I let the loss get to me, and sometimes it overflows into other areas of my life, causing me to be terse and irritable long after the game is over.

This pattern can and does extend beyond video games and similar forms of competition. As I discussed in a recent post, I’ve been working to acquire and develop a number of skills, such as creative writing, guitar, coding, and others. My abilities vary in each of these domains, but suffice it so say that I am not an expert at most (or any) of them, and I sometimes get frustrated and discouraged while practicing these skills if I make a mistake or if I’m unsatisfied with with the end result.

This is a problem for multiple reasons. First, I let it affect my mood, my other pursuits, and my behaviour toward people I care about. Secondly, it diminishes my enjoyment of the activities that result in such frustration; Overwatch, for one, is a game, something that is explicitly intended as a leisure activity. Finally, it could discourage me from continuing these activities or at least decrease the amount of time I spend on them and my determination to improve myself.

After all, if pushing myself to take on new challenges — say, by trying a new song on guitar or a new poetic form in my writing — only results in a negative, unfulfilling experience, why would I do so? My competitive drive does make me want to get better, but my perfectionism makes it tempting to cast aside anything at which I don’t immediately excel.

This is especially true for more visible activities, like Overwatch games (which are always multiplayer) or creative writing, at least since I’ve started posting more of my work online. The possibility of failing or making a mistake in a way that is visible to others feels embarrassing or shameful, and that embarrassment and shame can turn to frustration. I feel like I should be better at these things than I am, to the point that I shouldn’t make mistakes, shouldn’t lose any games, shouldn’t write any bad poems, and that my failures reflect poorly on me as a person. Yet, at a certain level, I know that I’ll always have room for improvement, that there’s always the potential to build on what I’ve accomplished.

mindset

This sort of internal ideological conflict lies at the heart of Mindset, a recent book by psychologist Carol Dweck. In the book, Dweck outlines her theory that there are two distinct mindsets that one can take when approaching a new task, challenge, or skill. The first, known as the “fixed mindset,” believes that talent and ability are innate and unchangeable, while the second, known as the “growth mindset,” believe that success is based on practice and persistence.

The book obviously explores these concepts in far more detail, including the discussion of research studies on the subject, and I highly recommend reading the full thing. For my purposes, though, the practical upshot is that the growth mindset tends to see a stronger correlation with success and psychological health.

I read Mindset in its entirety last fall. I’ve tried to internalize and encourage the growth mindset, and I think I’ve made a lot of progress toward that goal, even in the past eight months. But I still have a long way to go.

So what’s the answer?

Almost tautologically, I have to keep practicing my mindset. I have to keep facing challenges, putting myself into situations where I’m going to make mistakes or fail, and I have to teach myself that that is okay.

There’s a YouTube channel by the name of Extra Credits that’s primarily devoted to analyzing video games, but has put out a number of videos that are incredibly relevant far beyond that scope. One such video, which you can watch below, is entitled “Fail Faster.” The basic thesis is that we learn and grow the most from our failures, not our successes, so we should always be ready — even eager — to fail.

This is easier said than done, but I’m trying my best. I’m going to keep playing Overwatch, keep practicing guitar, keep writing, keep doing all of the things that I want to improve upon, and I’m going to let myself fail. When that happens, I might get frustrated. I’m going to do my best to sublimate that frustration in an effective and conscientious way without it impacting my behaviour. Ideally, I’m going to try to turn the frustration into the drive to learn something from my failure and the enthusiasm to try again.

It’s going to take both time and effort, but I know that this is a battle that I can win in the long run. I just can’t let myself be so afraid to fail that I don’t even bother to try in the first place.

Author: Mitchell

I'm 22 and currently pursuing my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto.

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