Most of you have probably never heard of Lord Acton, but I bet you have heard the phrase, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” attributed to him.
John Dalberg-Acton—or Lord Acton—was a 19th century historian. His story is really quite tragic, and I believe it holds a critical life lesson for all of us.
Acton was widely regarded as a great thinker of his time and wrote numerous lectures and essays, but never published his seminal book, even though he lived to be almost 70 years old.
Historian’s have called his book “the greatest book never written.”
According to historian Daniel Boorstin, Acton was tortured by the idea that his book was imperfect, and he constantly postponed the completion of his book for the “promise of new facts and new ideas still to come.”
Some say he “knew too much to write.”
In 1911, Encyclopedia Britannica editors said that Lord Acton might have ranked among the world’s great historians but left too little in terms of completed original works.
No one benefits from ideas that only exist in your head
Upon hearing this story, I realized something—at some point in life I was going to have to stop consuming information and start creating.
We must give to the world what no other person can give because it lives only inside of us.
In many ways, we are designed to create. It is part of our purpose. When we don’t express that creativity in some way, something inside us goes dormant, or dies.
Acton’s story was the primary spark for starting my blog several years ago.
For years I wanted to start writing, but my harsh inner critic would arise and tell me that my writing wasn’t good enough yet, and no one would read it anyway! Interestingly, not even the completion of my doctorate or my rigorous board-certification process made any difference in my confidence level.
That was when I realized that no amount of credentials would help me feel like I was ready. I simply had to risk that people wouldn’t like it and that I’d make mistakes, or I might die never knowing if I could have written anything.
In his fantastic book Quitter, John Acuff says something that I also find profoundly helpful.
When he talks about his journey in writing his blog and his book he says, “Perfect and stuck in your head doesn’t help anybody” but “90% good enough and put out into the world can impact a lot of people.” When he realized that, his life completely changed.
In many ways—if no one sees what you have to offer—it doesn’t exist.
It is important to note that Acuff has since written several best-selling books.
Perfect doesn’t exist
Here is an idea that changed my life—Perfect doesn’t actually exist. Your idea of perfect will almost never match anyone else’s, so your very best work might not resonate with another person at all.
Trying to chase perfect is like sailing to reach the setting sun. You might feel that you can reach it one day, but it is always just beyond the horizon. Even the strongest wind in your sail would never cause you to reach it.
Here is a great method for moving forward in your life—aim for 90%, then do whatever you have to do to finish and take the next step. Otherwise it can be far too easy to postpone our dreams indefinitely.
As a recovering perfectionist myself, I find it comforting to know that many of the world’s most successful people are not perfectionists. They are typically people who are much more comfortable with learning from experimentation and the mistakes they have made.
Thomas Watson, the CEO of IBM once famously said, “The formula for success is simple—double your rate of failure.”
At the time Watson died, he was one of the wealthiest men on the planet and dubbed the world’s greatest salesman.
A good indicator that you are a perfectionist might be that Watson’s statement makes you feel like you are going to throw up!
Giving up perfectionism is hard. It’s like quitting an addiction—because it is one. After all, the world rewards perfectionists and people pleasers. In general, we are not rewarded for saying No or aiming for “good enough.” But after a while, trying to do everything well means you eventually don’t do anything well.
Perfectionism may have gotten you a moderate level of success, but it might also be the very thing that is preventing you from going to the next level.
Where is perfectionism stealing your dreams?
What are you putting off because you are waiting for ideal circumstances or less risk?
Turn information into action
- Start before you are ready. Perfectionists often postpone big things in an attempt to avoid mistakes or embarrassment, but this strategy can often be very detrimental. Maybe it’s time to jump into that thing you’ve been putting off that you really want to do.
- What is your uncompleted masterpiece? Maybe it’s a book, maybe it’s a song. I don’t know what masterpiece is inside of you, but I’d bet you have not fully let it out yet. What would you deeply regret not doing if you knew you were only living another year?
- Done is always better than perfect. Finish something this week or month that you have been working on too long. There is nothing that takes up mental bandwidth, and causes distress, like an unfinished project you keep working on. Give yourself the gift of completion!
*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.
- John Acuff—Quitter
- Wild Goose Chase—Mark Batterson (story about Lord Acton page 164)
- Lord Acton https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dalberg-Acton,_1st_Baron_Acton