Beyond Perfect

Our biggest enemy is ourselves, and that is especially true for the perfectionist. But sometimes, being better also means being a little less perfect and more “ish”.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Our biggest enemy is ourselves, and that is especially true for the perfectionist. But sometimes, being better also means being a little less perfect and more “ish”.

We dedicate a lot of time to the pursuit of perfection, but a new book says we should instead be embracing the concept of “ish”. So often, the simple question of asking a friend or family member how they are doing is met with the same response: busy.

Living on hyper-drive in an effort to keep everything together has become the new normal, but is it really worth it? Are we just left feeling burnt out? As a “reformed perfectionist” herself, Australian author Lynne Cazaly has been there. Her career experience as a board director and mentoring high-performing executives, as well as going through some personal health scares, all contributed to a stark realisation: Life is simply far too short for perfection.

For the sixth book she has written, ish: The Problem with Our Pursuit for Perfection and the Life-changing Practice of Good Enough, Lynne draws on the work of researchers Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill, who define perfectionism broadly as a combination of excessively high standards and overly critical self-evaluations. In their study of more than 40,000 people from the late 1980s to 2016, Thomas and Andrew looked at the changes across three different dimensions of perfectionism.

The first is “self-oriented perfectionism”, where individuals have unrealistic expectations of themselves, are highly self-critical and attach irrational importance to being perfect. The second is “other-oriented perfectionism”, where you evaluate others critically and hold them to unrealistic standards. The third dimension, “socially prescribed perfectionism”, is where you believe that your social context is excessively demanding, that you are judged harshly, and that you must display perfection for approval. 

Spending Too Much Time On One Thing

While all three dimensions increased over time, the rise of socially prescribed perfectionism was double that of the other two. “This is the one that is the worry,” Lynne says. According to the study, socially prescribed perfectionism is the most debilitating in terms of neurotic and depressive symptoms over time, meaning that it is likely to be the most important in terms of explaining increases in mental health issues.

From her years of working with individuals and businesses, Lynne has seen perfectionism manifest itself in a myriad of ways, even from the very beginning of the day when people are wondering what to wear. “I was talking to someone who worked out that she spends several hours a week on her eyebrows – it’s just about getting them perfect. I said to her, you could run a whole start-up in that time!” Lynne laughs.

The phrase “it’s not good enough yet,” is something she hears time and time again. “If you’re working on a report, or even setting the dining table because some friends are coming over, when you keep on tinkering with something, thinking it’s not yet good enough, that’s a sure red flag that you’re going for perfection. It doesn’t exist and you’ll never be finished,” she says.

Negative Health Effects

The increasingly individualistic, competitive nature of the world means that rising standards and the pressure to achieve have become huge drivers of perfectionism. Although social media can be a tool for inspiration, it can easily become a way to make unrealistic social comparisons. 

There are many areas of life where precision and impeccably high standards are needed, something Lynne is quick to emphasise – having an engineer, surgeon or pilot let their standards slip is the last thing we need, after all. But for most aspects of everyday life, the drive for perfectionism is exhausting and is deeply damaging. Operating from a mindset where nothing is ever good enough waste time, make you tough to work and live with, and create serious health repercussions.

“Physically and emotionally, this extra work creates issues like depression, anxiety, sleeplessness and migraines,” says Lynne. “Being critical and beating yourself up is not a good place to be.”

My Reading Room

Accepting “Ish”

It’s something she knows first-hand. “When I was reading all of this information, I thought, ‘Hang on, this has been me!’” she says, recalling moments of being afraid to publish a website, send a newsletter or share photos. “I wasted a lot of time and energy trying to make things perfect before I shared them with the world.”

What she proposes in her new book is a little less perfection, and a whole lot more “ish”. A word that used to be just a suffix at the end of words has more recently taken on its own meaning. What time should we meet? Six-ish. How are you feeling today? Okay-ish.

Adopting “ish” is about relaxing our standards and being satisfied when things are just enough. It’s about flexibility, sharing our work with the world even if it’s not perfect and putting less effort into things that aren’t meaningful.

Throughout her travels, she was inspired by how other parts of the world see things. “Japanese culture, for example, where we might think everything would be about precision, is actually really good with the idea of imperfection. They love the concept of wabi-sabi, which is about accepting the natural imperfection in everything.”

Care Right, Care Bright

A common misconception is that embracing ‘ish’ means embracing low standards, or something Lynne has termed “the crap-ification of everything.” Rest-assured, that is not the case. It’s simply about caring about the right things. “The fact is, we spend too much time on things that don’t matter. I say we need to care more about less. Focus on things like relationships, friendships and spending time with precious people. That’s important stuff. Maybe less time vacuuming or ironing my underwear.” 

Perfectly Imperfect

Embracing “ish” means recognising the parts of life that don’t need to be perfect, and directing that time and energy into things that bring fulfilment. It’s a practice that can free up time, lower stress, improve relationships and turn down the internal noise of constantly berating yourself.

We often think that in work and in life, the closer we get to being perfect, the more others will approve of us, but as Lynne explains, the opposite holds true. “It’s called the Pratfall effect. If you make an error, you show your authenticity, your vulnerability, and people actually perceive you more highly. That’s been a big one for me. We can all think of people in our lives who we know are imperfect, but we love them, so it’s the same for us.”

Focus Your Energy

To get some perspective on what needs more focus in your life and what needs more “ish”, Lynne suggests a slightly morbid, yet powerful exercise. 

Imagine being on your deathbed and ask yourself, how would you have spent your time differently? Chances are, your answer isn’t going to be spending time tidying or working late in the office.

“Are we making progress? Are we achieving and doing the things that we want to do? The more progress we make on things that matter, the happier it makes us and the more fulfilling life becomes,” Lynne says.

She adds, “I just love this quote by the philosopher Seneca: ‘It’s not that we have too short a time to live, but we squander a great deal of it.’”

9 Tips To Live With A Little More “Ish”

1. Prioritise people over chores. If a friend wants to meet up, the dishes can wait.

2. If you have a creative idea, act on it. Don’t mull it over.

3. Share ideas and projects before they are perfect.

4. Have an experimental mindset of having fun and seeing how it goes.

5. Think about being at the end of your life. What silly things did you spend too much time on?

6. For small tasks or things you tend to waste time on, set yourself a timer. 

7. Let the natural world remind you that imperfection is beautiful.

8. Don’t compare yourself to how perfect things might look on social media.

9. Embrace your imperfections - they are the things that make you unique.

Ish by Lynne Cazaly, $22.95 (AUD $24.95). Available from