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Don’t Let the Impossibility of Achieving Perfection Hold You Back

Last week an old MarketWatch story went around recommending that people should have two times their salary saved up by the time they are 35 to be on track for a secure retirement. Many of the responses were so incredulous that MarketWatch asked me to write a response story outlining how this is actually possible to do. Which I did, focusing largely on automation, 401(k) matching and ratcheting up your savings as your income goes up. Nothing Earth-shattering there. I used sample numbers that are average incomes for early career ages, to make it accessible to normal earners, not only high earners.

And while plenty of the response to the piece was positive, what struck me was that the folks whose feedback was negative sounded so dejected and powerless in the words they chose.

“I could never do that.”

“I save a little, and then another bad thing happens to me.”

“Easy for you to say, because you made lots of money.”

The same was true in the responses I saw to the original story. Which prompted me to tweet this:

Tanja Hester tweet on MarketWatch story

This post isn’t about that sentiment exactly, that regardless of what obstacles we face or what systemic barriers we’re up against, it’s up to each of us to decide to be active participants in our money and our lives. It’s about the sentiment that is often the next step when making a fatalistic assertion like the ones some made in response to the retirement savings recommendation:

I could never do that, so why bother trying?

And that’s what we’re talking about today: Letting the impossibility of achieving perfection stop us from trying at all, and how to overcome that thinking.

imperfection

There Is No Perfection

Though I try to make each podcast interview I do different, so that it’s not just rehashing the same talking points (let’s be real – that’s boring for me, too, not just for listeners!), one of the things I consistently try to do is point out the mistakes I’ve made along the way with my money. (The recent BiggerPockets Money interview is a good example of this.)

In the grand scheme of things, my money mistakes are fairly tame: spending too much in my early career years, financing a new car 100 percent (though it was a $15,000 Honda Civic, not something fancy), not getting the company 401(k) match or maxing out for several years early in my career, and being a little too willing to take out the credit cards. None of those mistakes put me on the verge of financial ruin or even so much as threatened my credit score – I’ve been 750+ since right after college. But I make a point to talk about them because I want people listening to see that you don’t have to be a financial overachiever to reach big goals. You don’t have to be naturally frugal, a supersaver from birth or a rejecter of all things consumer-oriented to retire early, but for folks who aren’t doing a deep dive into multiple early retirement blogs, that’s not a message you will come across very easily.

Naturally, stories about early retirees to focus on the bigness of the accomplishment, and on the details of how you did it. And how the people being featured did it is always with the good habits they’ve developed. But focusing only on the good habits and not mentioning the mistakes that nearly all of us make renders the whole story less accessible to folks who think, “I could never do that,” or, “I could never do that, so why bother trying?” And if you couple that habit of focusing on the good habits and not mentioning the bad habits with the line that’s so easy to hear slipping out of your mouth – “If I can do it, you can too!” – the impression we can accidentally leave people with is that people who retire early or reach some other massive financial goal are financially perfect, which makes what they did unattainable to normal people, but also, if you can’t do it, too, then you’re not [FILL IN THE BLANK] enough. (Not good enough, not hustling hard enough, you don’t want it bad enough, etc., etc., etc.)

And as it happens, both of those conclusions are entirely false. Because in reality:

People who retire early are not financially perfect. They’ve just found ways to build on their strengths and deal with their weaknesses.

and

There are a million reasons why most people don’t retire early that aren’t remotely about not being good enough. Some of those reasons are things you can easily overcome if you set early retirement as your goal and change your mindset around some key money things, and some of the reasons are much harder to overcome, like the wage gap, family obligations, student loans, generational poverty, and on and on.

If we can remind ourselves of this fact – that there’s no such thing as perfection – when we hear about people who’ve retired early, but truly also with everything we come across that stirs up pangs of envy, it’s much easier to decide to move forward even if we know we can’t ever do what they did in the same way they did.

Embracing Imperfection in Money and Life

I totally get the fatalist mindset that creeps in so invisibly.

“Well, I’ve already had a big dinner and blown the diet today, so I might as well have a big bowl of ice cream.”

“I failed on my New Year’s resolution in January, so I guess it’s dead. I’ll try again next year.”

“This trip already turned expensive, so what’s another cab ride or dinner out?”

All of those quotes are things I’ve said to myself, more than once. If the big goal feels out of reach, the “why try?” thought is never far away.

It was that thinking that let me stay in credit card debt longer than I should have, because I let the thought, “I can’t pay it all off, so I might as well just pay the minimum and not make myself suffer,” dictate my spending habits.

I let the fact that I couldn’t ever be perfect stop me from even trying to be better.

Which probably seems like the antithesis of my gold star-seeking tendencies. But I think they’re one and the same: If you’re a person who believes it’s perfection or nothing, it’s easy to put your effort into the stuff where perfection seems possible, and get all nihilistic about the rest. At least that has often been my tendency.

But whether you’re a perfectionist or not, it’s easy to fall into that trap of, “That big goal doesn’t feel accessible to me, so I won’t even let myself work toward the smaller version of that goal.”

To reach big goals in any area of life – and to allow ourselves to dream big and set those goals in the first place – we must accept that perfection is not a real thing. If we can do that, and embrace imperfection, we can stop letting this mythical notion of perfection mess with us and interfere with our intentions.

Moving Forward Toward An Imperfect Goal

It was only when I embraced my imperfections that my financial life started to improve meaningfully. By recognizing that I was never going to be naturally frugal, I forgave myself for being so susceptible to shopping temptation and stopped wasting time and energy beating myself up for the debt situation I’d gotten myself into. Instead, I focused on creating systems for managing my natural tendencies (mostly ways to avoid temptation), while finding more ways to use my strengths to my advantage. That’s what ultimately led me to start tracking everything, because I’m naturally competitive, and it turns out that competing against myself to pay down debt and to save was a perfect motivator.

That motivation will look different for each of us, but I never would have figured out mine if I hadn’t decided to stop letting the inaccessibility of perfection hold me back.

So if you’re stuck in that place of either letting perfection hold you back or of thinking that a goal is so inaccessible that it’s not even worth trying, what can you do? Here are some ways you can get out of that mindset and let yourself move forward toward big goals:

Accept your circumstances, but don’t let them define you – Plenty of folks are born into hardship or come into it later, and the “Anyone can do this!” pronouncements can easily make someone in a tough spot feel invalidated. So validate that stuff. Acknowledge everything that feels like it’s holding you back, whether it’s low pay, high debt, disability, living in a place with bad job prospects, lacking the skills or education that would let you earn more, or whatever else it might be. All of those things are real, and don’t ever let anyone tell you that they’re not. But they’re also not the full story. Decide to write your own story in which those hardships are chapters or side plots but not the main narrative.

Forgive yourself – We are so good at beating ourselves up, often for years after doing something that feels like a mistake. But don’t let the disappointment you feel in yourself dictate your future. Know that you’re an imperfect person, just like everyone else is, who was doing the best you could under the circumstances, and forgive yourself. Then, pledge to do better.

Remember that delays and derailments are different – If you’re on a train that gets delayed, no one assumes you’ll never get to your destination. It takes a derailment to do that, and that’s both a huge freaking deal and exceedingly rare. You know that train will move forward again, just with a later arrival time, but you adjust your plans and don’t give it too much thought. Treat setbacks that way. You spent too much today? Don’t derail the whole budget for the month, just accept the delay and stick as close to your plan as you can after that. Remind yourself as many times as you have to that delays only become derailments if you let them.

Figure out the next best option – Let’s say you hear of someone who’s retired at the age you are, and you have very little saved. Obviously achieving the same thing is straight up impossible. You’re never going to reach that particularly definition of perfection. That shouldn’t stop you from trying for a big goal, it just shouldn’t be that big goal. But what is the next best thing you can aim for, that works in your circumstances? Aim for that instead.

Don’t take everything on at once – Whether you’re a perfection seeker or not, many of us have the tendency to jump straight into the deep end and get over our heads quickly – or to let the thought of getting in over our heads stop us from jumping into the pool at all. Instead, go stick a toe in the kiddy pool. Get wet up to your ankles, or your even up to your chest. Figure out what steps you can take that don’t feel overwhelming or push you into that “I can’t do all of it so why try to do any of it?” thinking, and take those. It’s fine if you’re not doing everything you know you need to do to reach your goal – start by building good habits or dealing with challenges you’re facing one at a time, and add more steps as you build up confidence and strengthen your position.

Your Turn!

Do you ever let yourself fall into that trap of seeing perfect as the enemy of the good? Do you get overwhelmed by the size of big goals and not even try to reach them? What has worked for you to shut down that thinking and get you moving forward? Share your stories and your tips – so many readers don’t comment, and what folks share here is helpful to those folks in a big way! (I’m still a bit slow on comment responses while finishing the book, but will be back to responding to every comment within a day or two as soon as I’ve submitted the manuscript next month!)

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28 replies »

  1. This is one of the biggest things that sets most people back, it’s the mindset! If you feel like you’ve already lost, and that’s all you keep thinking and believing, then that’s you will get.

    There’s a big reason Napoleon Hill’s classic is called “Think and Grow Rich”. Because it’s about mindset first, and then you implement actions to help you achieve the goal of being financially free. Thought ALWAYS precedes action.

    Great post. If i can fix my mindset, i can fix my reality. I don’t have to be perfect!

  2. That was a fantastic spot you produced for them. I agree that it’s less about perfection than diligence, priorities, and resilience. Oh yeah, a solid work ethic too?

    More than anything though, these commenters are less held back by perfectionism, than by victim-mentality.

  3. “Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t.”

    It’s a common quote, but one that most folks brush off as cliche. Leadership books write about this in the “locus of control” mindset. Winners are proactive and do things to control their situation. Others are reactive and feel that everything happens to them and they have no control.

    Great post and I read your MarketWatch piece and followed the comments. I was actually surprised they weren’t worse, you had a lot of supporters in there too.

  4. I am a recovering perfectionist and fear of failure can definitely still hold me back. For me I think it’s more in the fear of trying new things, like starting a blog, or pitching freelance articles, or selling on eBay I don’t get too let down by breaking a streak when trying to form a habit. But failure in new (or old) things has also been very freeing. I’ve learned from it, realized life goes on, and been less afraid to try in the future. That’s great you overcame this mindset and it led to FIRE!

  5. I hate to admit it but I get overwhelmed very easily by big goals and then go into shutdown mode. That’s definitely something I know I need to work on, but old habits like that are hard to rewire. Your brain’s path to least resistance is often the path you take (for better or worse). But, if you know your patterns, that’s step one to changing them!

    • Me too! Savings for me was impossible until a bank manager had a chat with me about how to balance my cheque book. (In those days it was an actual book you wrote in). He suggested an automatic transfer of $5 a month to start. He advised me to set it aside and forget it. I was amazed that it actually worked. After a few months we changed that to $25 a month. That worked even better. I started regarding my savings plan as just like the income tax I had to pay. It came off first. I spent after that. I got wiped out to zero when I went through a divorce a few years later but the habit stayed with me and even though I am retired now I still do it. I still tuck away more than I spend, but I do use some of the savings to occasionally clear an unexpected bill like a vehicle repair, or a dental bill, or to upgrade in my life with something special like a new medicine cabinet or a fancy drill for the repair work I do. It all started at age 19 with a mere $5/month. I am absolutely a small steps person.

  6. Congratulations on the book! I also wanted to mention that I very much appreciate your podcast. All of my early financial inspiration came from women (Jean Chatzky, Suze Orman) so I think you’re onto something with the idea that women speak about money differently, but also importantly. Thank you for confronting gender bias in the financial sector head-on and fearlessly!

    On the topic of this post–anytime someone is interviewed about something amazing they’ve done, it always looks easier once it’s done. Whether that’s winning an Olympic gold medal, retiring early, paying off huge student loans, earning a college degree, or birthing a child. The truth is that all of these things happen incrementally–one day, one practice session, one dollar, at a time. Being able to stay focused on what’s manageable today is my personal touchstone. When I was studying for the bar exam, sometimes I would be overwhelmed by the volume of information I needed to absorb. Somewhere along the way, I heard a statistic that a student who completed x multiple choice test questions and y essay questions during their preparation was significantly more likely to pass. This strategy can be applied to early retirement, too. MMM’s $10/day post is a great example. The idea is break the big goal into manageable short term tasks. Once that task is done, you’re successful.

    • Not only does any task look easier when completed, we all tend to ignore survivorship bias. The Olympic gold medalist had a lot of equally hard-working people competing against them, but the media doesn’t highlight the ones who didn’t make it to the medal stand or didn’t make it past the qualifying rounds. These are still very successful people, but they didn’t get the gold medal, so they aren’t “interesting” (ugh, unless there was a personal tragedy). For every person who paid off huge student loans in 5 years, there are thousands still slogging. There are no media stories of the person who has paid off half their student loan debt on a tiny salary… but is still in debt. That’s a success story, just not the kind for headlines. It can make people think that they have no chance, since they don’t match the profile of the hero in the story.

      A big change for me has been practicing gratitude. It really does make a difference to say to yourself, “I am so lucky for all I have,” even if you don’t have as much as whomever you’re feeling envious of. Or as someone on the MMM forums called it: finding your pony in the huge pile of shit. :-)

  7. This post rings true for my household, as it reminds me of the attitude of my partner, who used to say “I’m just not a saver”.

    I suggested that she start putting $25 per paycheck into an online savings account. Automate the transfers to come out on payday, and and never withdraw the money for any reason. I asked her to just do that for 6 months, and then we could talk about it.

    This simple strategy is based on three ideas: 1) The amount of money needs to be so small that you don’t think twice about whether you can afford to continue doing it. 2) Establishing the habit is more important than how much money accumulates. 3) By doing this for 6 months, you prove to yourself, in a fairly painless way, that you can be a saver.

    Less than two years later, my partner’s mindset has totally changed. She’s continued putting money into that online savings account. More importantly, she’s increased her retirement contributions from 1% to 8%, and is working on her budget to figure out how she can max out her retirement contributions at $18,500 per year. She has become a saver.

    So, my point is that you can create a saving mindset by starting very small and building on tiny successes.

  8. I feel like you were staring into my soul with this one—if I’m not going to get a gold star for doing something perfectly, why even bother trying?

    I try to keep in mind that small steps and building habits are what will get me where I want to be, so I focus on those. Tracking is also key. It’s impossible to know if you’re making any progress if you’re not tracking anything. And without tracking it’s also impossible to look back and see how far you’ve come so you can celebrate (gold stars everywhere!). If nothing else, I’m writing about my progress and failures in a public place. Which makes me feel like running away and hiding instead of writing sometimes, but at least makes it way easier for me to avoid falling into the “if I can do it, so can you” trap. Especially because I’m nowhere near FI yet haha.

  9. All the the above suggestions are very useful and apt. Perhaps one that particularly applies well for us would be “Figure out the next best option.” I’m sure my husband and I aren’t the only ones who were surprised that there are frugal savers at ages 40, 35, 30 (and even younger!) who “retired” after reaching their FI figure. Well, clearly the rest of us will have to “figure out the next best option,” right?

    I do wonder though whether the media pursuit of ever more extraordinary story (let’s say, perhaps someone who retired at age 23 after one year of working, despite having had to pay off six-figure student loans, with no help from parents, and overcoming a tragedy, etc. etc.) ends up sidelining more FIRE aspirants than inspiring them. Those stories certainly grab headlines, but it could be the FI narrative equivalent of someone winning the Powerball lottery instead of something that seems absolutely do-able for them…

  10. Hmmm… a pretty interesting article in the sense that I’ve never thought about things this way. I suppose that some of these points are contributing factors to why I’ve struggled to really ever get a side-hustle off the ground, I just never thought of it this way. Thanks for the article.

  11. for me the mindset changed with 2 things: a couple of positive things happened with one being a job paying a lot more than i was previously making and hope was born. i thought, what the hell am i going to do with all this extra money? better save some. it wasn’t some huge paying gig in management or anything, i had just botched up my career before that long enough to be underpaid. the other one was motivation not to have to work this same higher paying job with the overnights and weekends included and some less than stellar direct managers whom i didn’t respect or like. if your day is already ruined by having to work like this you can’t ruin it any more by accepting this lucrative overtime. just like you can’t get more pregnant. i paid debt and saved almost every dollar of that blood money knowing it wouldn’t have to be forever.

  12. I’m currently paying off about 40k in debt. It’s daunting, and tough. But that sum is much less than what many folks have. And that keeps me motivated. Also, even if I can only put a dollar extra towards the minimum, I do it. Slow progress IS progress.

  13. I love the framing here, Tonya. As the saying goes, it’s about progress, not perfection.

    Our focus on the latter can only hurt us in the long run, as it’s a myth. There ain’t no perfect thing.

    But by framing goals in terms of just getting better, doing better, being better…then every day is another shot to do just that. Even when I fail today, it’s only setting the bar at an easier level for tomorrow.

    On the other hand, I did choose a really crappy name for my blog, if that’s the ethos I want to believe in. I should have gone with “ImprovementByFortyOr,YouKnow,Whenever.com”

  14. I do think it’s easy to get discouraged when you see a story about how someone was successful so quickly, and it can be tough to change your mindset. This journey takes patience, which is not easy, and not something that everyone can pick up. Patience and focusing on setting attainable goals to keep you motivated along the way are key to challenging yourself and enjoying the journey!

  15. I’m guilty of this (no not negativity bashing your article!) but I am a perfectionist to the extreme that I find I would rather not try than fail. Its crackers and I didnt know it was even a thing till one of my old bosses did a “stress risk assessment” on me and this is what came out.

    I really need to work on it since life would be so boring if we didn’t try!

  16. I seriously cannot stand the fatalistic attitude that many of my peers carry around. I am 37, and recently finished paying off $200,000 in student loans. I’ve never earned a six-figure income. I’m a court appointed public defender who didn’t qualify for loan forgiveness. I sacrificed. I made deliberate and intentional decisions. It can be done. My net worth is barely $25K at the moment. But I’m putting away $3-4K per month, and it 10-15 years I will reach FI. I’ve made a lot of hard decisions along the way. No kids (but lots of animals), staying in a low cost of living area even though I could probably earn more somewhere else, having only one semi-expensive hobby (riding horses), sticking close to home and not being a big traveler, etc. Everything in life is a choice, people don’t want to give anything up, and then they wonder why they have no money? I’m really tired of it. I’m not a blogger, but I did write this, which pretty much encapsulates my feelings on this issue.

    https://medium.com/@taraganguly/i-finally-crushed-my-six-figure-student-loan-debt-and-along-with-it-my-lifelong-financial-shame-2ddf406b2e2b

  17. Learning to let go of perfectionism has yielded dividends in many areas of my life. I never got great at learning languages until I learned that looking “stupid” and just making sentences based on my limited grasp was much better than waiting until I could conjugate perfectly. Same with my business. If I waited until I was well-versed enough to “not fail,” I would never have opened shop at all.

  18. Thank goodness perfection isn’t our goal… We’d have given up a long time ago. The last year of debt repayment has reminded me that everyone is on a different path. While I can gain inspiration from those who have had financial success, I don’t need to feel bad that my journey looks different.

  19. I’ve fallen into those same “perfection” traps more times than I can count too. As a planner / future focused person (aren’t we all here?) the “Figure out the next best option” one hits close to home. I feel like there are times when this is most obvious to do (end of the month, end of the year), but trying to get into the habit of just doing it whenever can seriously help.

  20. Hello Tanja,

    Your story is such an inspiring one. How you did it have continued to it is an interesting one.

    After reading your interview on Making Sense of Cent, I have decided to review my saving skills.

    Thanks.

    Enenike

  21. I struggle with this almost on the daily lately…I think we aren’t saving enough, we’re spending too much, we need to pull back, how can we be better at this, WHY AREN’T WE FURTHER AHEAD?! etc. etc. etc. the problem being that we ARE saving a decent amount, our investments are decent and we don’t live super large…we could probably spend a lot less on groceries but I have dietary requirements, we also like to eat and we like to eat things we like so that’s more a case of value spending for us, there aren’t a great deal of ways that we can cut back now without seriously affecting our lifestyle…my anxiety just gets in on the conversation too often. I totally admit that we are very lucky, we are two full time employees with mutual goals, no consumer debt (anymore) and no kids and while I doubt we will actually get to retire early or if we even really want to at this point (we found this concept in our early 30’s), we will be financially independent at some stage, hopefully in the next 10-15 years on pretty average Australian incomes. TBH though I doubt I would have been able to save or even known how to cut my expenses when I was younger and earned a much lower wage so I can understand where some of these people are coming from but it really is a case of taking charge of your budget, knowing where your money goes and learning how to make decisions about your money rather than making decisions based on your money.

  22. This is an important topic and you addressed it well, Tanja.

    I am very late to the game at 45. I just got out of debt on 12/29/17 and am now just starting to ramp up on the wealth building side of the equation. When I learned about FI in spring of 2017, I was extremely drawn to it and knew it was the next leg of my journey. However, when I started to hear stories of millennial’s crushing it, I was a little discouraged. I knew I couldn’t achieve what they had. Instead of dwelling on that I decided to just start.

    My thing is that – giving hope to those who thought it too late.

    Thanks for writing this.

  23. Great article and response Tanja. Mindset is absolutely crucial. If you believe you can’t, you won’t.

    As for the responses, I came across a quote a few years ago that I absolutely love:

    “Cynics don’t contribute
    Skeptics don’t create
    Doubters don’t achieve”
    -Gordon Hinckly

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