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The backside of perfectionism

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.

For some people, completing a certain task is not enough, it has to be done perfectly. Intuitively, I count myself to this perfectionist group, but intellectually, I’ve gradually come to realise that this a double-edged sword and that there are times (quite often, actually) when aiming for perfection is simply stupid. If you’re not a perfectionist yourself, the likelihood is that you will find this article fairly pointless, but for those of you who at least partly share this personality trait with me, I hope it will be more worthwhile.

I think it goes without saying that if you want to attain very high levels of ability for any given activity, perfectionism is a must (you don’t get to the top if you’re happy with anything but the best). However, I’m sure that this attitude can be inhibiting and slow progress in some cases, especially at more basic levels, and discussing this topic here might help to draw attention to this idea.

So, when is aiming for perfection a bad idea? I’m prepared to say it’s bad at any time, except for the situation described above, when ability already is lost in the clouds, but it’s especially true for skills where you have to add a lot (like learning languages, chemistry or something). There are exceptions, such as sports where a solid foundation is everything (gymnastics, diving). But why is perfectionism so bad sometimes? Because it is inefficient. Spending too much time on something might mean that you spend less time on widening your horizons and learning more, which would in the end lead to even higher ability. Let me take an example from language learning, in this case Chinese because it happens to be what I’m currently doing. If I had a fairly big test next week, covering several chapters and many hundreds of new words, I’m tempted to aim for 100%. I did that all the time for the first year of Chinese, and indeed it payed off, but I think that the price I paid was too high and today I’m much more careful.

The alternative would be to be satisfied with something like 85-95%, which indeed isn’t bad. In my experience, reaching this level might require lots of work, but increasing the score further takes a lot more time per percentage point. To be sure to nail an exam, you really need review a lot and you will end up reviewing lots of things you really don’t need to review, just to make sure you know every single part. Making sure you have good grasp of the material and then being a bit more relaxed and accepting the fact that you might forget minor parts on the exam takes significantly less time and energy, but the outcome is almost equivalent.

I think those of you who frequent this website know that I’m not doing this because I’m lazy. The point here is that if the idea is to get really good at something (like Chinese) as fast as possible, focusing on perfecting basic or intermediate stages will be a waste of time. That time could be spent talking with people, broadening vocabulary or reinforcing grammar. I’m sure this gives a lot more in return for the time invested. I don’t mean to say that a solid foundation isn’t important (nothing could be farther from the truth), but I’m saying that you won’t get very high if you spend years just laying the foundations. Again using language learning as a an example, I’d much rather learn 100 words and remember 80%, than learn 50 words in the same time and remember every single one. I guessed at the numbers here, of course, but it’s an educated guess.

Looking closer at it, I think there are only two major differences between having 95% and 100% on a test. Firstly, there is a sense of achievement if the score is really high, and second, the time required is, as stated above, significantly longer. The lacking 5% won’t really affect anything real, only the grade and the students sense of achievement. Is this trade worth it? I don’t think so, especially when considering that it might be more healthy not to focus too much on exams and grades, but that’s really another topic altogether.

I realise that I’m in a quite unique position here in Taiwan and that people who study usually do so because they need the grades for something (I’m only here because I want to learn the language). In some cases, the difference between 95% and 100% might be extremely important. However, I’m convinced perfectionism is usually bad anyway if long-term learning is the goal. Furthermore, this principle is applicable to any hobby project or anything you do for your own good or because of your interests.

So, to all you perfectionists out there, do as I’ve done recently, try to relax a bit and understand that there is a rational argument, not for being lazy, but for not being too narrow-minded about exams and grades. Look at what you need to learn and learn it, but don’t be obsessive about it. We will always forget some of the things we learn, but the idea is to learn more than we forget!

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  1. Chris’s avatar

    Hey Olle!

    Chris from Wenzao here. Agree wholeheartedly about trying to avoid perfectionism. I would not consider myself a perfectionist however when it comes to Chinese I did go through a stage where I just tried to learn and absorb EVERYTHING. Needless to say I burned out and ended up with a cold for a few days. Ultimately delaying my studies.

    These days I am trying to enjoy the language more, often instead of sitting with a textbook for two hours I will just watch a movie in Chinese instead (trying not to pause too often to note down new words :). I still enjoy drilling out the characters and doing flashcards and so on, but you gotta keep it varied, and you gotta inject some fun into it as well. That is how kids do it, right?

    Check this out as well – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle

    I really think it applies to language learning, if not all learning.


    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      I think I must have focused this article somewhat badly, because you’re not the only one who interpret this as a call to focus less on exams. I do indeed say that (and mean it), but it’s not the important bit! It’s perfectly possible to strive for perfection when watching movies, speaking Chinese with friends or whatever, exams was just a convenient way because it’s so obvious and probably a lot more common.

      That being said, I still agree with you! Variation is a goal in itself when it comes to language learning, something I should heed more, I think. I’ll make sure to make an effort next semester!

      The Pareto principle was interesting, although it should be somewhat obvious in language learning, because the 20 percent you get the 80 percent out of is the most common words/characters/whatever and you can look that up in a list. :) Or did you have a more indirect way of applying it to studying Chinese?


    2. Chris’s avatar

      I think, at the end of the day, it’s about balance. Like when I mentioned watching a film, but stopping to note down new vocab. If you pause too much then you loose the fun factor and ultimately, you will burn out or get bored.

      In regards to tests, the same applies. What is the purpose of doing the test? It depends of course. If you need to get a specific score to get into a school, fair enough, aim for that 100%. However, most of the time a test is simple an evaluation of how well grasped the recent material. It is a tool for you, and it’s purpose is rendered useless if specifically gear your studies towards it. Studying hardcore day and night 100% is not just inefficient, it’s downright stupid. The ultimate goal is to become fluent in the language, not get 100% a test. To get fluent, in my opinion, you need to keep it fun and interesting, and you need to mix things up sometimes. Every time I meet a foreigner who is awesome at Chinese I always ask them how they did it and the answer is always “sure I studied hard, but I also did this..” this being something fun.

      What yThe Pareto principle


      1. Olle Linge’s avatar

        “Studying hardcore day and night 100% is not just inefficient, it’s downright stupid.”

        I think this is what I tried to say in the article, although I didn’t limit it to tests. I agree with what you say and this is what I’ve told every Taiwanese who wants to learn English. If you want to learn the language, you need quantity and in order to get quantity, it has to be fun.

        Look at my Literature page. Did I read all those books in English only to learn the language? No, I did it because I enjoy it. This is the only way, but it’s subject of another, much bigger article about general language learning stategies. I know what i want to write, it’s just that it’s so much I don’t know where to start!

        Anyway, we seem to have similar ideas for most of this, which is interesting. I look forward to more discussions in the future!