Sloth vs Perfectionism

I had an interesting little twitter conversation on laziness and perfectionism this morning.  Twitter is a challenge for long-winded people like me, but the essence of the conversation is that a friend had said that the Sloth in her wouldn’t start the day’s projects because she couldn’t figure out where best to start.  To me that screams Perfectionist, not Sloth, though most of us who can identify with her distress have likely been called lazy ourselves, and may even believe we are.

Consider an extreme example and see how well his story fits yours: I know a kid who should have graduated from high school this spring, but did not, because he didn’t have enough of his homework done.  So he took summer classes to make up for it, but he’s literally spent all summer trying to make the homework projects absolutely amazing.  He still is not done, and he does not have his diploma.

Mind you, this kid is ridiculously smart.  I can’t remember how many AP classes he took but I know he took several and scored 5 on all but one of his tests. He got a 4 on that last one.

Society has a special word for a person who is that smart but doesn’t get things done:   Lazy.  I would propose that he is in fact a perfectionist, but that over the years, he’s accepted, internalized, and sometimes even acted out the lazy label.

Think about it.  Picture a child carefully coloring her art project, and not finishing it in time.  And carefully, neatly writing her spelling words… but not getting that done either before she has to move on to the next task.  She wants to do her best (everyone says she should) but her best takes a little more time.  Soon her desk is full of unfinished work.   She can see for herself that most of her classmates get to go to recess or play with blocks or read books while she tries to finish these projects she now resents.  A part of her feels slow and inferior, but she can see her work looks better than most of the other students’ projects. So she attempts to convince herself of her worth by doing things even more perfectly. Only perfection isn’t reality, so she feels an even greater sense of failure, despite the oohs and ahhs her work receives.

In steps the well-meaning  parent/teacher/principal/neighbor/friend/older sibling who whips out their cattle-brand to stamp her forehead with a big fat L for Lazy.  “You could be really successful if you weren’t so lazy.”  Of course she feels the implications of L for Loser as well, and discouragement becomes a serious impediment.

My suggestion for parents or teachers or anyone whose job it is to help discipline children, is to teach these children a new term:  Good Enough.  I’m not encouraging slop, but just to do their best within the limits that have been imposed on them, even when their personal internal limits would allow so much more.  By acknowledging and giving some credence to outside limitations, such as time constraints, or budget constraints, or scientific law as the case may be, these kids will find ways to reduce and maybe even eliminate the effect outside limitations have on them.  The Wright Brothers never may have never taken flight had they not first acknowledged the rules that had kept them grounded.

My suggestion for anyone who is discouraged with their own so-called laziness: if you wouldn’t treat a child like that, don’t treat yourself badly either.   Acknowledge whatever limitations you’ve got, and then get to work in getting past them.  And don’t forget to give yourself credit for your accomplishments, big and small.


  1. Steve

    Being a perfectionist is a problem but like any problem it has a solution. You can always improve your attitude towards things and people by accepting the fact that nothing in this world is fully right or fully wrong. Each person, thing or event has both a postive and negative aspect. What we need to do is focus on the positive aspect and accept the negative aspect the way it is. Definately we need to work on imroving the negative aspect but only as much as it is in our capacity. Rest we can leave as destiny.


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