How To Be An Imperfectionist by Stephen Guise: Book Review

How to Be an Imperfectionist. The title alone catches the eye.

Many people, myself included, struggle with being a perfectionist. But we don’t struggle hard enough to get over it. I’ve read a lot of self-improvement books over the years, and sometimes they’ll mention how perfectionism is the enemy of success and so on, but NO book has addressed how to overcome it as thoroughly or as practically as Stephen Guise‘s latest.

Guise’s books are, above all, practical. How to Be an Imperfectionist gives the reader a lot of information; in the first section, Guise outlines what perfectionism really is, including the various studies over the years on how it affects us. In the second section, Guise goes over how to be an imperfectionist in the five areas people are usually a perfectionist in. The final chapter is the application guide, where he revisits every technique and tip in an easy to access manner. One chapter to sum everything up. It’s great because it means you don’t have to keep going back to each section to pick out the tips.

The reason I loved this book so much was how practical it was. I’m going to keep saying this. A lot of books are feel-good, motivating type books that do get me to jump up and start working, but those books rarely have any sticking power. They don’t keep me thinking long after my initial jump of joy has come back down to earth. This book has sticking power.

Are You a Perfectionist?

“Life is not a one-way, single-lane road. It’s a sprawling, free-for-all field. […] The assumption of the perfectionist is that there is a golden path and that no other way will suffice.”

I can’t work out now, I’m tired. I don’t have my gym clothes. People will laugh. I can’t publish a book. I’ve never done it before. It’s not even that good. It’s too similar to that other book. No one will read it. I don’t know how to market. I don’t want to travel for book signings.

Sound familiar? We always assume we don’t do something we want to do because the circumstances aren’t right, or whatever other fear is present. We assume there’s a right (perfect) way for us to do something, and we often won’t even try anything else. But like Guise says above, it’s a free-for-all. No one is you. No one has lived your life. And there is no perfect path. There’s just the field, and the flag at the other end. How you get there, and how long you take, doesn’t matter.

Perils of Inaction

“Unequivocally, the worst choice is inaction. Perfectionists often choose inaction because, with an infinite number of possible paths, finding the perfect one is difficult to figure out.”

This sounds a lot like choice paralysis (analysis paralysis), the inability to decide when faced with too many options. There are great studies out there about flavors of chips and jams and brands of toothpaste, but I’m sure you’ve felt this at some point. Maybe it was when picking a major, or your first job, or an internship, or even something like what book to read first, what TV show to watch first. We assume that gathering more information to make a more informed choice makes us more logical and successful, and up to a point that’s true. You shouldn’t buy a car without some research. But too much deliberation means you will never take the action, and for the fledgling novelist or gym-hopeful, inaction just means time you aren’t working on your dream.

Choice paralysis is often caused by our perception of opportunity cost, meaning the cost of following one particular course of action over all others. As in, if I make the choice to buy this car, I am making the choice NOT to buy all the other cars, and often that can feel heavy. Guilt-ridden. Especially when the cars are very nearly identical in so many ways.

Or when choosing a major, meaning you are NOT choosing all the other majors (unless you double or triple up, which can lead to burnout and all kinds of other problems). Or when choosing to work out, you are choosing NOT to spend time with family, or writing your screenplay, or hanging out with friends, or playing video games, or literally anything else. The more options we have in our mind when making a choice, the more expensive the opportunity cost, and the more paralyzed we might feel.

It’s tough. I know it well. It can be damn near impossible to live that way.

The Solutions

Many of the solutions to perfectionism are a shift in mindset, Guise notes. I agree. More has been helped in my life by changing my outlook on life – pessimism to optimism, fixed to growth, controlled to controller, mindless to mindful – than by anything else. No class will make you smarter unless you believe you can get smarter. No doctor will heal you unless you believe you can be healed.

One of the main takeaways for me from the book was to “change what you care about,” as in, “don’t care about the results, care about the process,” and the tip I mentioned in another post, “don’t care so much about your anxious thoughts and feelings (let them be and don’t fight them).”

Other tips include; changing your expectations to generally high and specifically low. Meaning, overall you’re optimistic about your life and interactions but aren’t too chuffed about the outcome of a specific project, paper, or conversation.

One I love – what he calls lowering the bar – ties into his previous book, Mini-Habits. If you lower your bar for what you consider a success, you will have more success, which causes a positivity loop in the brain, leading you to more success, and so on.  A great cycle to be in.

Another solution is understanding chance and failure action; this took me by surprise, honestly. I’ve read probably hundreds of self-help books by now, and none of them have mentioned something like this. It’s so simple too, it almost makes me angry so many people are stumped by it. Chance vs failure means to reflect on something that went wrong and decide whether it was really up to you or not to determine the success. Got an F on a paper even though you worked your ass off? The grade was up to the teacher, not you. Wrote a book that flopped? The writing was up to you (congrats on getting it published, yay!), but the response was up to the public. Didn’t get the raise you wanted? It’s up to your boss.

Care about the process, not the results, especially when you aren’t in charge of them. Failure actions are actions that you do directly influence. Didn’t chat up the cute person at the cafe? Your fault. Misspelled a word? Your fault. Try another strategy next time. When you fail, you learn. Fail better next time. And the next. And keep failing forward.

Other tips deal with the need for approval, ruminating over the past, changing self-talk, and more. Seriously, this book covers all bases.

(There’s one particular tip that I’m going to go into in another post because I want to explore it fully and in relation to anxiety; the binary mindset. Wait for it!)

But I’ll say for now that changing how your mind works, including how you see failures and successes, makes a huge difference in what you do and produce. And that’s what most of us want, right?

We want to write that book, make that product, get fit, sell that idea, act in that thing…and perfectionism, in one of its many forms, stops us.

This book will help you overcome it. If you follow the advice. You can’t just read it and not do what it says. Medicine is for taking, not for looking at.

Please buy this book and read it, cover to cover and over again. I know too many people who need this book and its advice. I did. I still do. I read it only two weeks ago and I already need to reread it.

I hope you will read it. Honestly. If I could send this book to every person on the planet to read, I would.

If you do read it, let me know what you think!


*Quotes from How to Be an Imperfectionist by Stephen Guise. Stephen, if you ever read this, thank you for this book. You’ve quite likely saved my life.

See Also:

The Paradox of Choice

Diminishing Returns

The Pareto Principle


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