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Read Part I here.

Health Effects of Perfectionism

Indeed, as a personal quality of high achievers, perfectionism can often be used as a tool to transcend one’s limitations, but its effects can also be debilitating in the extreme. Take the example of the pianist Glenn Gould, who was notoriously perfectionistic in his attempts at creating flawless interpretations of great classical works by composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Johannes Brahms. Gould’s flawless recording of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” turned him into an international celebrity by age 23; by his 30s, however, Gould had retired from public performance due to an increasing inability to exert absolute control over the conditions of his concerts.

When Perfectionism Becomes a Health Hazard

Retired from the concert scene, but attracted to the creative control he could attain via technological advancements in recording equipment, Gould’s ideal of perfection drove him to put in 16-hour days at recording studios putting performances of great classical music works to tape. For the rest of his life, the musician was so obsessive in his search for control over his life that he became a recluse; when he wasn’t in the studio, Gould only emerged from his Toronto apartment complex once a night to eat a meal of scrambled eggs, salad, and coffee at his favorite diner. By age 30, he had given up on all but the barest attempts at socializing with others, and even close friends found that they could only communicate with the pianist via late-night phone calls given solely at Gould’s discretion.

Gould lived life on his own terms, and his prodigious recording output has revolutionized the world of classical music, but many ascribed the artist’s death at age 50 to the physical burnout he experienced due to his perfectionistic personality. His need for absolute control had made him a great artist, it is true, but Gould’s idealistic mindset may have driven him to an early grave. That is a lesson that most of us would do well to consider when weighing the costs and benefits of a need for perfection in our work.