The Pursuit of Perfect

The Pursuit of Perfect

Summary of The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar: In this book, the author presents the latest scientific work on the subject of imperfection, inspired by his personal journey. You can read the book like a handbook, including exercises, in an action/reflection approach. Through this book, the author wants to show the ways to overcome perfectionism to live a happier life.

By Tal Ben-Shahar, 2009, 280 pages  

Chronicle and summary of The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar


A doctor in psychology and philosophy, the author, Tal Ben-Shahar is also the founder of the Happiness Studies Academy. He travels around the world giving talks on the topic of happiness.

Why this book?

Tal Ben-Shahar defines himself as a “professor of happiness”. He works in the field of positive psychology, which he distinguishes from traditional psychology.

Positive psychology focuses on the conditions necessary for individuals, as well as communities to thrive. Tal Ben-Shahar could never have imagined how successful his classes on happiness would turn out to be. He realised that the people who followed his classes had the shared desire to be happy, and they also faced the “same major obstacles to becoming happier”.

In talking with his students, he noticed that they thought happy people were immune from feelings of sadness, fear or anxiety. They had a perfectionist vision of happiness.

In this book the author tackles the true nature of perfectionism. He shows the ways to overcome it and live a happier life. This book is designed to be a practical guide, with exercises at the end of each chapter. The exercises in the book can be carried out alone, in pairs or as a group.

Learn to fail or fail to learn

Tal Ben-Shahar continues the introduction to his book The Pursuit of Perfect by looking back to his youth, his student days. He recalls a day when he was not the recipient of a top grade for his work for the first time. This failure led to paralysing fear in him, the kind of fear that puts the mental well-being of a person in danger. He goes on to explain that failure is an inevitable part of life, and it is in fact an essential part of a successful life: “We either learn to fail or we fail to learn.”

Happiness is not just about experiencing positive emotions

The author continues his story with an anecdote taken from ten years later. A student expected him to be brimming with happiness all the time because he taught happiness. The author notices that this is a common belief, that “a happy life is composed of an endless stream of positive emotions”. If a human being is disappointed, sad, anxious or scared, then he or she is not truly happy. But the author reminds us that feeling these emotions is perfectly normal. The opposite would be a form of psychopathy. He points out that forbidding oneself from feeling painful emotions is to limit one’s capacity for happiness.

Feeling grateful

In today’s society, it is common to set increasingly high goals on the pathway to personal and social success. However, the author tells us that by feeding big hopes, we can indeed achieve great rewards. But if we want to live a life that offers true satisfaction, we need to set realistic goals and be able to enjoy the feelings once we achieve them, to feel a sense of gratitude.

The three negative manifestations of perfectionism

The author ends the introduction with the 3 negative manifestations of perfectionism. They are the rejection of:

Finally, he adds that “perfectionists reject everything that deviates from their flawless, faultless ideal vision, and as a result they suffer whenever they do not meet their own unrealistic standards.”  The author uses two different terms to talk about perfectionism: the term perfectionism to talk about negative perfectionism and the term “optimalist” to talk about positive perfectionism.

This table presents the characteristics of the perfectionist and the optimalist according to the author. This is the basis from which he introduces the different chapters of the book

The perfectionistThe optimalist
rejects failureaccepts failure
refuses painful emotionsaccepts painful emotions
refuses successaccepts success
refuses realityaccepts reality

Part 1: The theory

In the first 4 chapters of The Pursuit of Perfect, the author introduces the 4 theoretical aspects that help you to get from being a perfectionist to being an optimalist.

Chapter 1 – Accepting failure

The author starts this part with a personal anecdote. He talks about how he used to play high level squash and was very good during training, but whenever he took part in a competition, he would get cramps and other pains, and find it very hard to play. He relates these difficulties to the “stage fright” he would get before competitions. In his story, the fear of failure prevented him from playing as well as he could.

Accepting failure The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar

Perfectionism versus Optimalism

This is about examining the key points that oppose perfectionists who reject failure and optimalists who accept it. The author explains that these are not two independent characters. Nobody is 100% one way or the other.

The first difference between the two characters is that the perfect pathway towards a goal for the perfectionist is a straight line. Failure plays no part in the journey. On the other hand, the optimalist considers failure to be an integral part of the journey. The path that leads to their goal is a sort of winding, upward spiral. The general direction is clear, but they accept that there will be many twists and turns along the way. In wanting to advance without hindrance straight towards the goal, perfectionists maintain unrealistic expectations about themselves and the life they lead: they mistake their desires for reality. Optimalists accept the idea that they journey will be inevitably be scattered with obstacles.

Another major difference between the two characters is their reaction when faced with the fear of failure. The primary concern of perfectionism is to not fail. The perfectionist therefore avoids failure as much as possible and runs away from any difficulty. The author specifies that the optimalist is no fan of failure either. But their strength lies in the knowledge that deviating from the path is not necessarily a bad thing and it can be a lesson to learn. For an optimalist, failure is a way to learn.

The following table summarises the character traits of the perfectionist versus those of the optimalist.
straight line journeywinding upward spiral journey
fear of failureLearn from failure
focussed on the destinationfocussed on the journey and the destination
defensive attitudeopen to outside opinions
hesitant attitudeseek eventual benefits
hard, rigidindulgent
static attitudeadaptable, dynamic attitude

The consequences

Here are some of the consequences of a perfectionist character mentioned by the author:

  • Degraded self-image: the perfectionist does not take the time to savour success, but broods over failures. It becomes hard to have good self-esteem when you spend your time thinking about your failures or brooding on the constant threat of the next failure.
  • Eating disorders: perfectionists are more inclined to find defects in their personal appearance, and this can lead to strict management of their food intake.
  • Sexual dysfunction: impotence or frigidity can be the consequences of too much pressure when it comes to sexual performance
  • Depression: it is often rooted in rigorous behaviour or an obsession with results, and not the path being taken. Finding fault with every detail along the way is unhealthy for the mind in the long term.
  • Anxiety disorders: mainly generated by the fear of failure. Anxiety can also be caused by the rigid or inflexible reasoning of the perfectionist. But in the modern world, change is around every corner. That is why it is important to work on your optimalism: to face the unexpected and for change to no longer represent a threat, but a challenge.

For the author, many perfectionists “are reluctant to change because they believe that while perfectionism may not make you happy, it does make you successful”.

The end of this chapter about failure is that “an Optimalist is more likely to be successful”, for the following reasons:
  • Draw lessons from failure: History shows us that the most accomplished individuals are often those who have experienced frequent failures in their attempts: “While failure does not guarantee success, the absence of failure will almost always guarantee the absence of success”. In the end, because optimalists are more comfortable with failure, they are more inclined to draw lessons from the risks they take.
  • Peak performance: based on studies, the author presents the fact that the quality of the results obtained declines if the degree of excitement about the topic is too low or too high. For optimal results, you have to be able to find the middle ground between effort and acceptance of failure.
  • Enjoy the journey: an optimalist personality does not just focus of the result, but on the process, with the goal of making the journey as enjoyable as possible.
  • Efficient use of your time: the search for perfection often leads to procrastination, because of the fear of not doing something right. It is not necessary to complete every task to perfection. The author advises setting up a maximum number of areas of life using the 80/20 law (20% of efforts lead to 80% of results).

End of chapter exercises:

  • “Take action”: for this exercise, the author invites the readers to “begin to change […] through our behaviour”. He advises choosing something you would like to do, but don’t because of the fear of failure. Adopt an optimalist attitude, even if it does not come naturally at first.
  • “Keep a journal about failures”: Here, Tal Ben-Shahar invites the reader to write about one or more situations of failure, before taking a step back to discover the beneficial effects of that failure.

Chapter 2– Accepting Emotions

This part is devoted to the way perfectionists refuse failure in the field of emotions. In general, people with a poor view of imperfection tend to want to experience an uninterrupted succession of positive or negative emotions. The optimalists will allow themselves to feel the entire range of human emotions without pushing them away.

Accepting emotions The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar

Let your feelings flow

Because it is necessary to control one’s emotions in public to maintain cohesion in society, you may also tend to repress them in private. Repressing your emotions too much is damaging to individual well-being.

The cost of suppressing emotions

When perfectionists refuse their emotions, this only allows them to grow. “The capacity for true acceptance is at the heart of the difference between the Perfectionist and the Optimalist.”


In order to grow and lead a richer, more fruitful life, you have to accept the laws of human nature in which negative emotions are a part.

Healing the pain

Through peaceful co-existence with negative feelings. The author draws an analogy between our brain and injecting water into a clogged pipeline, which causes pressure to build. It is important to allow negative emotions to flow freely through the brain to avoid an accumulation of unhappiness that can lead to an emotional breakdown.

The range of human emotions

It is perfectly normal for humans to experience a wide range of emotions. The author encourages us to “give ourselves the permission and the space to experience and express the full range of human emotions”.

Acceptance and resignation

Accepting an emotion does not mean resigning to it, allowing it to have the last word. It means being prepared to feel what we feel, without accepting the behaviour that may result from it if that behaviour would cause harm to another person (for example leading to violence). It is the essence of what the author calls “active acceptance” as opposed to passive acceptance.

Morality and emotions

Moral assessment of a feeling (judgement through which an individual decides whether something is good or bad) suggests that we can choose or not choose to feel it. There is no point in judging yourself morally for a feeling, one such as jealously for example.

Emotional growth

Not everyone has the same level of tolerance, in particular when it comes to pain. But a healing process can eventually be put in place, even for the most difficult emotions: emotional growth. A perfectionist who represses his emotions has a greater chance of suffering from emotional imbalance, of stagnation without healing, with a negative effect on mental health.

End of chapter exercises:

  • “Mindfulness Meditation: the author defines mindfulness as meditation that aims to “being fully aware of whatever it is that we are doing and accepting the present moment without judgement or evaluation”. The author feels that this is a very good exercise to facilitate acceptance of emotions on a daily basis.
  • “Experiencing the experience”: in this second exercise, the goal is to focus attention on the emotion in the present moment. You can fully experience the moment instead of brooding about it.

Chapter 3 – Accepting Success

Perfectionists tend to inflict punishment on themselves. No success, no summit or destination is satisfactory to their eyes. Optimalists are “able to find pleasure in the journey without losing focus on the destination.” They draw lessons from adversity that help them evolve towards success. A person with perfectionist behaviour will refuse success, either before they achieve it by setting the bar too high or after achieving because they derive no pleasure from it. In contrast, optimalists attract success by adopting criteria based on reality. They appreciate that success when it comes. “It is these two issues – of grounding success and appreciating success – that distinguish between life as a Sisyphean battle and life as an exciting odyssey”.

Accepting success The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar

Grounding success

Pushed to its limits, the desire to improve can do as much harm as good: this is the syndrome of “never enough”. Improvement is always possible for a human being, but perpetual dissatisfaction condemns us to perpetual displeasure. The author defines self-esteem as “the ratio between success and aspirations. If we have reasonable aspirations, there is a better chance that we will be happy within ourselves. Beware however, of setting goals that are too easy. Without a challenge we are prone to become bored. To find balance between excessive expectations and reality, you have to cleanly define your goals.

The good-enough life

Today, finding perfect satisfaction in every area of life is difficult: career, couple, family, social life, health… The optimalist solution offered by the author to lead a satisfactory life is to adopt a new approach to your time and your expectations, a more acceptable approach. The author tells us how he reassessed every sub-section of his life, changing his perfectionist ideal into an acceptable result. He drew several benefits from this, including a reduction in frustration and an increase in energy.

Appreciating success

There is a clear observation in this part of the book: many perfectionists find it hard to appreciate and enjoy their successes. The author makes a second observation: “Happiness is mainly contingent on our state of mind rather than on our status or the state of our bank account”. Studies into gratitude show that the appreciation of the good things in life means that we get more out of life and the opposite is equally true. Finally, the author ends this part by saying that “when we appreciate the good in our lives, the good grows and we have more of it.”

End of chapter exercises:

  • “Good enough”: as an extension of the example given in his own life, the author invites readers to make a list of the most important aspects of their lives.  For each category, we then list what we would ideally like to do, and in what time frame. Finally, we go on to review our expectations to add what is genuinely doable in the “good enough” column. Example: ideal, see my friends every evening after work; good enough, plan an evening with friends twice a week. This list can be reviewed regularly to make adjustments.
  • “Gratitude visit”: for this exercise, the author invites readers to write down their gratitude towards an important person in their life. Writing something down is beneficial, but the author encourages us to send the letter to make the value even greater.

Chapter 4 – Accepting Reality

This chapter is about metaphysics, a philosophical discipline that considers the nature of reality, playing a role in the appearance of perfectionism. The author introduces the chapter by opposing Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy about our perception of reality. Saying “I refuse to be sad” is to adopt a Platonic position: an attempt to reject reality. Saying “I don’t like being sad, but this is a natural emotion that I accept” is to adopt an Aristotelian position: reality that is observed and experienced through the senses.

The constrained vision

Believing that we cannot change human nature is the constrained vision, in contrast to the unconstrained vision. Perfectionists subscribe to the unconstrained vision. Their aspirations are to eradicate negative emotions and refuse failure, in sort to achieve an impossible, unrealistic degree of success. But this vision is “as detrimental on the individual level as it is on the political, societal one”.

  • The law of identity

“Something is itself: a person is a person, an emotion is an emotion”. Through implied acceptance of this law, we are able to communicate.

Non-observance of the law of identity in emotional matters can lead to perfectionist behaviour, in particular among children.

  • The optimal journey

We are bombarded, by the media especially, with the idea of what is “perfect”. Accepting reality is the optimalist antidote to perfectionism.

End of chapter exercise:

“Sentence completion”: this is an exercise in acceptance. It involves completing sentences with what spontaneously comes to mind, with no filter. Here are some examples: “When I reject my emotions…”, “If I accept myself…”, “If I become an Optimalist…”.

Part two: Applications

The second part of The Pursuit of Perfect presents applications for optimalist behaviour in three areas.

Chapter 5 – Optimalism and Education

In this chapter, we tackle the importance of applying the doctrine of the mean (balancing point between two extremes) in education.

Optimalism and Education The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar

The underprivileged privileged

The author is referring to children from advantageous backgrounds, noting that they are often poor in moral well-being. These children are statistically more prone to depression, anxiety and drug consumption. Factors that contribute to this are the obligation to perform and over-involvement of their parents and teachers in their lives. The pressure of academic success can manifest itself in many children by perfectionism. The current school system often supports an obsession with perfection. The challenge for educators (in the broad sense) is to “combine high expectations with the permission and encouragement to explore, to take risks, to make mistakes and to fail”.

Good-enough parents

This term, coined by the paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, is used by the author to signify the “adequate response” from a parent to the needs of a child, and not a “perfect” response. This educational approach consists of leaving the child in some discomfort (as long as they are safe) before responding to their need. This will result in a child being able to accept the outside world (and therefore failure) more easily. “Good-enough” parents find the right balance between under- and over-involvement, with the goal of “immunising” the child against the perfectionist germ, to use the author’s words.


In this paragraph, the author brings up the work of Carole Dweck on mental rigidity and flexibility.

  • Mental rigidity: belief that your abilities (physical, interpersonal skills, intelligence) are written in stone, unchanging.
  • Mental flexibility: knowledge that your faculties are adaptable, that they change throughout life.

According to her results, evolving personalities manage to rise to challenges and enjoy them, in the end encountering more success in what they undertake. We understand from this that the rigid personality is akin to perfectionism, and mental flexibility is akin to optimalism. To help children develop confidence, they need to be congratulated for the effort they put into things (what they can act on) and not for their intelligence (over which they have no control).

Tradition and progress

Some children who recently entered the job market (aged 25/30) are members of the “glorified generation”: constantly praised and rarely reprimanded by their parents, to improve their self-confidence. But these children turn out to be adults who cannot accept criticism and need constant reassurance. A frank educator who set clear and precise boundaries will have a better chance of being respected over time, than if they seek to be loved by giving in to every little whim. Educational methods, traditional and progressive, produce perfectionist tendencies that are comparable: they do not learn how to handle failure. Once again, the author suggests striking a balance between old and new methods.

Person and behaviour

Parents and teachers should appreciate the child as a person, to allow him or her to make the most of the best they have. To do this, you need to separate the person from their behaviour: compliment the effort and the results, not the personality and the character.

End of chapter exercise:

“My best teacher”: the author asks readers to describe the best teacher they had in school. Depending on the answer, think about how to put those teaching methods into practice in your own way to act as an educator in your own life.

Chapter 6 – Optimal Work

Perfectionist employees, because they cannot accept failure, are more inclined to cover up their mistakes, which is dangerous for the company. This chapter tackles the importance of establishing a climate in which employees are not afraid to make mistakes, and above all, to speak up.

Optimal Work The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar

Learning from failure

With a secure psychological environment, companies allow employees to bring out the optimal side sleeping inside them. For the most part, big company directors have experienced many failures and have learned from them. However, success is usually lauded, pushing people to believe that their model has never made mistakes. The best managers encourage their teams to take risks and to turn feelings of failure into something positive.

Perfectionism and micro-management

Micro-management is a series of behaviours that a perfectionist manager will adopt to try to eliminate any possibility of mistakes on their team. The author is clear: it is not acceptable for a manager to scrutinise every initiative taken by his or her employees. Optimal management knows when the moment is right to apply controls. Exercising control should be only when necessary, and as little as possible.

Working hard and working smart

Burn-out is a consequence of unhealthy perfectionism: working in an unfailing and mechanical way. “Hard work” has its limits. The world of business should take inspiration from the world of sport, and include the concept of “recovery”. To give your best at work, an employee should respect the demands of the body and plan for periods of recovery.


The need to recover is not just physical, but psychological too. You must not close your eyes to emotional signs of overwork, or this could lead to depression. “Painful emotions” are a natural warning from the body against a state of overwork. Finally, working a lot is not a problem in itself, says the author. The problem comes from a lack of rest and when there is not enough time to recover, and this is a problem in many companies.

Multilevel recovery

Employees should behave like sprinters, and not marathon runners. Alternate between periods of intensive work and periods of recovery. The author introduces three different levels of recovery.

  • Micro-recovery: recovery breaks lasting at least 15 minutes between each session of focus lasting 90 minutes. This quarter hour can take different forms, the important thing being to enjoy it.
  • Mid-level recovery: this is the period of sleep, variable in time depending on the person, that we take every 24 hours. It also includes weekend recovery.
  • Macro-recovery: these are holiday periods throughout the year. Relaxation offers the best results, in particular when it comes to creativity.

All recovery phases promote productivity because your batteries recharge. The end of this chapter about work talks about how optimalists are more satisfied with their work, and their performance is “generally better than that of Perfectionists”.

End of chapter exercise:

“Learning from your best past”: write about a professional period in your life that you found to be fulfilling. The author asks readers to examine the period to deduce what can be applied to the current situation to find the same level of satisfaction.

Chapter 7 – Optimal Love

Perfection does not exist in love either. A person with too many expectations about love will be disappointed for three reasons:

  • They will not have a partner because they will be waiting for the person who is a perfect match for their expectations;
  • If they do end up with someone, they will continue (consciously or unconsciously) to search for the perfect individual;
  • They may think that they have found the perfect person, but they will be disappointed when they discover their weaknesses (and everybody has some);

While love can have a smooth and perfect form in art, it is not a reflection of reality.

Optimal Love by Tal Ben-Shahar

Real love

An inevitable part of any relationship is the time when defects that were hidden by the initial passion appear in plain sight. When the illusion of perfect love dissipates, a crisis of self-confidence and confidence in the other person takes place. This kind of crisis can mean the end of a relationship, or the beginning of a new one, that the author calls “real love”. When a perfectionist admits that their partner is not perfect, their vision of that person can often go from one extreme to the other: from a partner with no defects to a partner to give up on. As Optimalists consider defects to be natural, they know how to appreciate the nuances and complexities of love relationships.

And they quarrelled happily ever after…

Perfectionists will seek to get all disagreements out of the way at the start of the relationship to prepare for life as a couple with no difficulties. But the author says that conflict is inevitable in a couple, and even vital to its long term success. Little or no conflict in a couple shows that the partners avoid confrontation and difficulties (a perfectionist attitude).


Gridlock is a stage in the couple where you feel stuck in the conflict with no way out: oppositions are increasingly regular and violent. This is the moment when most couples separate. However, the author suggests that this critical stage is the opportunity to grow, from a personal point of view as well as that of the relationship. By facing personal problems, the optimalist comes out stronger as an individual.


Love, and physical love (sexual relations) can intensify over time (growth mindset). The pessimistic mind set sees the life of a couple as a straight line. The occasional failed performance is inevitable, and not necessarily a sign that the couple is not working. These moments exist to help improve and deepen the love relationship. The optimalist personality “allows for imperfection in oneself, in one’s partner, and in the relationship”.

Help meet

The help/meet relationship is evocative of the fact that partners guide each other through opposition. A perfectionist partner will find it hard to accept reproach because he does not like being questioned. In reality, by challenging him, the partner is allowing him to improve. The concept of help / meet alternates the idea of domination within a couple: each of the partners has times when they are in opposition to their partner. When one partner questions the other’s words or deeds, this offers the opportunity to evolve in a positive way. Phases of opposition should alternate with phases of support.

End of chapter exercise:

“Sentence completion”: a series of sentences is given, and the author invites readers to complete them as quickly as possible. Then they should read them out loud to learn more about their love relationships. Here are some examples drawn from the book.

  • “I am beginning to see that…”
  • “To create more intimacy in my relationship…”
  • “To improve the relationship I have with myself…”

Part 3: Meditations

The third and final part of “The Pursuit of Perfect” is divided into ten chapters, each with a form of meditation.These are additional points for reflection introduced by the author.


Chapter 8 – First meditation: real change

Individuals attribute value to a positive character trait, but have difficulty changing the negative equivalent. Perfectionists often associate this character trait with motivation and rigour, and that is why they (unconsciously) do not succeed in changing their behaviour. They do not want to appear negligent or lazy (the negative equivalents). To change their perfectionist behaviour, they need to subdivide the components of their character, and then sort through them to only conserve the beneficial perfectionist aspects. This way, we beat the “all or nothing” aspect and move towards a more nuanced, and therefore more realistic, analysis of the person.

End of chapter exercise:

“Unbundling perfectionism”: the practical application of this chapter is, primarily, to list the behavioural traits we want to change in ourselves. We then associate each one with a positive equivalent. Finally, explain in writing what we want to change, and why.

Chapter 9 – Second meditation: cognitive therapy

The basic concept of cognitive therapy is as follows: we react according to our interpretation of events rather than to the events in themselves. That is why a single factor can trigger a variety of responses depending on the individual.

Event (generated) to Thought (aroused) to Emotion

The goal of this type of therapy is to “restore a sense of realism by getting rid of distorted thinking”. An emotional reaction leads to biased and irrational thoughts that lead to a disproportionate emotional response.

The author introduces the PRP method that he finds very useful to face the unpleasant emotions related to failure. It is illustrated like this: “Giving myself the permission to be human, reconstructing the situation, and gaining a wider perspective.”

  • Permission: to face an emotion in a constructive way, you first have to accept that it is real. Above and beyond emotion, the reality of the original event has to be accepted. There are two tips when it comes to accepting emotions: write them down and focus on their physical manifestations.
  • Reconstruction: move from a negative and unhelpful view of the situation to a positive and useful one. Reconstruction leads to a reinterpretation: a chore becomes an adventure, a threat becomes a challenge, an obligation becomes a privilege…
  • Perspective: reposition the situation in a broader context to facilitate a reduction in fears and disappointments. Perspective allows you to take a step back and extract the good elements from a negative situation.

End of chapter exercise:

Apply the PRP process to a recent disturbing event. Repeat this exercise regularly for past events, then little by little apply it to current events.

Chapter 10 – Third meditation: imperfect advice

Third meditation: imperfect advice The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar

Very often, when someone close to us asks for advice, we respond with our own experience and advice. But the other person is not looking for solutions; they simply want someone to listen. That is why the role of a therapist is to create a context in which the patient feels that he is “accepted and therefore comfortable being himself”. Compassion and empathy are essential to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and genuinely sense their needs. Perfectionists are naturally inclined to offer advice, but rarely ask to get some for themselves. Optimalist behaviour means that you are able to admit your weaknesses.

End of chapter exercise:

“Learning from another person”: choose a person who helps you or who helped you during a difficult moment in life. In describing the situation, draw lessons about the way to speak or behave.

Chapter 11 – Fourth meditation: a perfect new world

Our obsession with seeking perfection pushes us to believe that in order to live happily, we should never feel negative emotions. But Tal Ben-Shahar writes that when he feels very sad, overwhelmed or hopeless, it is often because he has too much going on in his life. Negative feelings are the sign that it is time to slow down or let go, a mental sign that should not be ignored.

End of chapter exercise:

“Focussed journaling”: the goal of the exercise is to allow us to change the way we interpret facts, and therefore our emotional reactions. The exercise takes the form of a table with 3 columns: an event that provoked a painful emotional reaction, the perfectionist interpretation we may have made at the time, and the optimalist interpretation we would have now. Here is an example given by the author:

EventPerfectionist interpretationOptimalist interpretation
I failed an exam.I am good for nothing, I will never amount to anything.It was just one exam, and next time I will make more of an effort.

Chapter 12 – Fifth meditation: the role of suffering

At first glance, taking a path towards optimalism may seem to be a way to eradicate all pain or suffering, but that is simply not possible. The author shows us that suffering brings its own benefits, allowing us to better accept it:

  • Wisdom: we don’t ask questions when everything is going well. We only start to think when we find ourselves in difficult moments.
  • Endurance: going through difficult times is character building.
  • Compassion: accepting and welcoming the suffering of others is only possible if we allow ourselves to feel it too.
  • Deep respect for reality: unhappiness reminds us of the limits and constraints of reality, which we often forget when things are going well.

End of chapter exercise:

“Reflecting on suffering”: devote at least 20 minutes to remembering a time of suffering in your life. Describe the impacts of this experience and the lessons drawn to learn from it and extract the positive development it led to.

Chapter 13 – Sixth meditation: the platinum rule

We tend not to demand that other people be perfect, even though we demand it of ourselves. The author invites us to apply his golden rule – “Do not do unto yourself what you would not do unto others”. We need to be capable of self-compassion and self-esteem towards ourselves.

End of chapter exercise:

“Sentence completion”: a new series of sentences to complete. Here are two examples for this chapter:

  • “To increase my self-esteem…”
  • “To become 5 per cent more compassionate towards others…”

Chapter 14 – Seventh meditation: yes, but…

The author highlights how often people say “yes, but…” in conversations about personalities. The phrase often crops up when a positive point is mentioned – the other shoe drops. Sentences with “yes, but…” are often killer sentences that are designed to devalue people who are in fact extraordinary. This is a perfectionist reflex: we have trouble admitting that “heroes” are first and foremost human beings. For the author, bringing up positive rather than negative points, or vice versa, determines what we see in ourselves and in other people. Focussing on the negative aspects (negative focus) is typical of a “fault-finding perfectionist”. In contrast, optimalism is conscious of the positive side of things (positive focus). With this vision, optimalists are not afraid to act, because they accept mistakes. Perfectionists tend to hold back because they are afraid of getting something wrong, of hearing someone say “yes, but…”.

End of chapter exercise:

“Making a difference”: what can we do to make the world a better place? The author invites us to commit to taking action, with one or two specific acts that will offer something to other people. In fact, why not also reap personal benefits?

Chapter 15 – Eighth meditation: the pro-ageing industry

Eighth meditation: the pro-ageing industry

According to one American study presented by the author, we learn that having a positive vision of age increases as we get older. Beliefs and perceptions surrounding age affect the physical and mental health of individuals. The author once again encourages us to accept reality as it is (we all get older) in order to live a happier life.

End of chapter exercise:

“Learning from elders”: chat with someone older than you with experience in a field you would like to improve in. Highlight their experiences, their victories and mistakes.

Chapter 16 – Ninth meditation: the great deception

For the author, while morals have evolved over the ages, human beings essentially remain emotional prudes. We find this tendency in perfectionists. They try to appear happy, hiding any signs of unhappiness at all costs. Lying about your feelings is stressful. It is called “the stress of suppressing emotions”. You don’t necessarily have to wear your heart on your sleeve either. It is possible to strike a balance between hiding every emotion and revealing everything. In the end, revealing how you feel can help other people. They feel reassured because they are not alone in feeling the sadness “behind the mask”.

End of chapter exercise:

“Sentence completion”: once again, the author challenges us to complete sentences, this time finding six different endings. After examining our answers, he encourages us to make commitments. Examples of sentences to complete:

  • “When I hide my emotions…”
  • “If I am more open about my feelings…”

Chapter 17 – Tenth meditation: knowing and not knowing

Naturally, fear of the unknown makes us what to know everything. This fear of the unknown can create anxiety. The solution would be to “accept the obvious”. Sometimes we simply cannot know. This is realism: accepting the fact of knowing as well as that of not knowing.

End of chapter exercise:

“Just walk”: the goal of this exercise is to go for a walk with no specific goal, taking the time to enjoy and appreciate the moment. The author encourages us to establish a walking ritual, a lesson that one of his teachers gave him.

Tenth meditation: knowing and not knowing

Tal Ben-Shahar’s conclusion

The author concludes this book by saying that accepting his perfectionism was a release for him. He starts his conclusion by writing: “My name is Tal and I’m a perfectionist”. He adds that admitting that his perfectionism would never truly disappear helped him move towards optimalism.

Optimalist and perfectionist character traits are not always separate – they co-exist in each one of us. What we can do is choose to move towards one state or the other. Symbolically, Tal Ben-Shahar ends the book by saying “My name is Tal, and I am also an optimalist”.

Conclusions about The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar

The main message to take away from this book is that for a happy life, you have to accept to live imperfectly. Throughout the book, the author opposes concepts of perfectionism and optimalism using examples to demonstrate that changing one’s behaviour when faced with a situation can contribute to better well-being. Another important point for the author is: Nobody is completely perfectionist or optimalist. We are all a subtle blend of these states.

You can read this book again and again to integrate the concepts and advice.

Strong Points:

  • Short inserts offer breaks in the reading to think about the concepts.
  • The words often come from psychologists, psychotherapists or philosophers, with quotes from their works for readers who may want to learn more about the topic.
  • Concrete examples, inspired by the author’s life.
  • Several exercises to apply the concepts expounded by the author.

Weak point:

  •  Some references may not be familiar to international readers, provoking a slight culture gap.

My rating : Permanent Record by Edward Snowden Permanent Record by Edward Snowden Permanent Record by Edward SnowdenPermanent Record by Edward SnowdenPermanent Record by Edward SnowdenPermanent Record by Edward SnowdenPermanent Record by Edward SnowdenPermanent Record by Edward SnowdenPermanent Record by Edward Snowden

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A short practical guide to The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar

Three negative manifestations of perfectionism:

  • Failure
  • Painful emotions
  • Non-recognition of success

FAQ about The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar

1. What was the public reaction to The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar?

The book was welcomed by the public and is considered to be second to none in terms of quality. It swiftly became a best-seller and has been translated into 25 languages.

2. What was the impact of The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar?

This book helped readers break free from their quest for unattainable perfection by using many simple and practical exercises. The book is an assembly of solutions to help readers find fulfilment in complete freedom, to allow themselves to be imperfect and live a better life.

3. Who is The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar intended for?

This is a book for any perfectionist who wants to change.

4. What is Carole Dweck’s work on mental rigidity and mental flexibility?

  • Mental rigidity: belief that your abilities (physical, interpersonal skills, intelligence) are written in stone, unchanging.
  • Mental flexibility: knowledge that your faculties are adaptable, that they change throughout life.

5. How can we define micro-management?

Micro-management is a series of behaviours that a perfectionist manager will adopt to try to eliminate any possibility of mistakes on their team. The author is clear: it is not acceptable for a manager to scrutinise every initiative taken by his or her employees. 

Perfectionist vs Optimalist

The perfectionistThe optimalist
rejects failureaccepts failure
refuses painful emotionsaccepts painful emotions
refuses successaccepts success
refuses realityaccepts reality

Who is Tal Ben-Shahar?

Tal Ben-Shahar

Tal Ben-Shahar was born on 17 May 1970 in Israel. He is a writer, speaker and teacher, recognised for his work in the field of positive psychology and personal development. Tal Ben-Shahar studied at Harvard and has a Doctorate in psychology and education. Tal Ben-Shahar established his name through his popular course on positive psychology at Harvard, and his successful books like “Happier”. He advocates for a balance between success and emotional well-being, and his philosophy has influenced thousands of people all over the world.

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