Blog: Chris Ward on perfectionism and his new book Less Perfect. More Happy.

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This is a transcript of the Business Breakfast we held at The Court, Private Members Club in London’s Soho with entrepreneur and author Chris Ward.

It’s an incredibly personal story of how we are perceived by others when the reality is sometimes very different. it’s a story of incredible entrepreneurial success, tempered with the impact that journey had on his personal life. In analysing and writing about his own story Chris has identified a common mental health issue that has until now lain undetected.

It’s “Perfectionism” and it’s consistently pushed forward as an attractive trait by marketing and advertising campaigns, when in fact it’s the root cause of many people’s anxiety and stress. So much so Chris has asked the Advertising Standards Authority to ban all advertising alluding to perfectionism, which particularly affects the more vulnerable members of our society. Over to Chris:

“So why do we want things to be perfect? Why did I want this speech to be perfect? It was perfect in bed last night. It just went so well and you all bought a book and then I went home happy! I grew up in Farnborough in a little suburban place and my first job was in Boots the chemist for three years, then I went to art college, dropped out of that so ended up with nothing at all. I managed to get a job at the BBC, just in the record library putting records on the shelves and then I managed bands.

Then I started a little agency, just in my bedroom, marketing music. So I needed to make some money as I’d just met my future wife and I had made nothing from managing bands. The agency grew, and I ended up selling it to another agency and ended up with 100 staff. When I left the first thing I did, literally the day I left, I went to a bike shop and bought a load of lycra and started bike racing.

That was when I was 40, I’m now I’m 56 and I ended up in the world championships of cycling, cycling around the world, doing mad challenges. There was a point when I was in the final of the Amateur World Championship bike race in Australia, going down the motorway with about 200 riders, and I’m looking around at everyone, apart from one bloke who got a puncture right at the start, which was unfortunate!

I looked around and I thought all these people are really lonely obsessed people, and my days there had just been surrounded by obsessed people, and I thought, this is me, and I don’t want to be like this. These people had nothing else other than this; their bike, their weight and winning this race. I just thought I don’t want to be here anymore, this is horrible. It’s a horrible life. It was just so mad that there was no conversation apart from what’s your VA to Max or what speed did you take that corner on the run-out yesterday or whatever.

So why was that? What had happened and why had it got to this point when had I achieved so much? Why was I so depressed? It was because behind the scenes and part of why I didn’t want to do this anymore was that I just constantly argued with my wife. We’d split up twice over 25 years – we’re happily married now and we’ve got four children but I was living separately from my children at points, which is the most depressing part of my whole life. These are the most important people to me, and I can’t leave my wife who I’m arguing with and who just won’t do things my way.

What I realised was, I was riding my bike to prove to my dad I was good enough. I knew that was always in my head as my dad was in a bike club when I was a young kid. I never really took any notice, I just rode around with my mates, just riding around the block. I didn’t come home in full cycling gear in the 1970s – which he did!

So I sort of hated doing that but I knew I was trying to prove to myself, prove myself to him. I knew I was a perfectionist at work. I didn’t think it impacted any other part of my life. You know the riding was about proving to my dad I was good enough, the arguments my wife were because she didn’t agree with me and so work was where my perfectionism came out.

So I started to investigate this, it was a low point – I don’t want to do this anymore I feel depressed. So I started looking into this. Why is there a huge success, huge depression? Essentially my life was screwed up but everyone on the outside thinks it’s brilliant. So I wanted to write a book, I’ve written a couple more before the thing that hit me, the Epiphany if you like, was me finding on the Internet, OCPD, which is perfectionism and all the traits you need to make something perfect or to make your life perfect.

So it’s an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. When people say “well, I’m a bit of a perfectionist” perfectionism isn’t making everything brilliant, it’s making the things “perfect” that is worthy to you, or are worthy to the person you’re trying to impress. On the alternate side is that you don’t want to know about all the other stuff, so I have no interest in clothes. I have no interest in money really. I have no interest in a lot of stuff.

So it’s “all or nothing thinking” about every aspect of your life. If things are not right, they’re wrong. There’s no middle ground, there’s no compromise. If someone says you’re wrong. That’s it. You go into a depression, there’s no middle ground at all. So you need to make certain things perfect to prove that you’re good enough.

Being frugal is when you save money. Being controlling because you need everything, being controlling at work means there’s no delegation, everything has to be done your way when you’re the boss. That’s why I didn’t realise I had a problem because I was the boss – everyone just naturally did everything my way! And it felt good!

It was when I joined Comic Relief and worked in the charity sector, which I still do working on some massive campaigns, but when you’re running 50 people in the charity world where everyone’s allowed to have a say, that was a nightmare! Why weren’t these people not doing it my way?!

So there’s all these issues around this OCPD perfectionism. Essentially, it’s the fact that most people grow up feeling in some aspects of themselves, that they’re not good enough. By the time you’re 18 (this is the clinical definition of OCPD) you don’t feel good enough. OCPD is obsessing about proving you are, by making certain things in your life perfect, and all the traits that go with it. And a lot of us don’t feel good enough.

And a lot of this comes out in shopping. That’s the main thing that keeps our whole system going. The fact that brands buy into this feeling of unworthiness from young consumers. And then there’s obviously alcohol and drugs and gambling, but perfectionism is up there as a personality disorder that people struggle with but we don’t know it.

We see it in young kids when they procrastinate, another big thing will come up and they won’t finish their work. We just think they’re going to grow out of it. You know that’s good enough but saying “that’s good enough” to a perfectionist is like saying “cheer up” to someone who’s mentally ill! it is completely the same thing, it will have no impact at all apart from making that person feel worse.

It could be the biggest result of divorce, of parents splitting up when children are very young, particularly for girls. If you actually look at most medal-winning UK athletes the females come from broken homes. You can’t compete in a sport without being a perfectionist these days because you’re competing against obsessed people.

So it’s everywhere, and it’s now becoming an epidemic in young people. I’m sure we see it amongst ourselves and we see it particularly now amongst our children (I’ve got four), three girls and a boy, and all three girls have all struggled, and my 15-year-old is struggling now. She’s feeling her work isn’t good enough, she doesn’t look good enough, no aspect of her life is good enough in fact, she was saying the other day “97% of my problems are caused by my school”, which is just depressing.

Seeing as a few years earlier, like everyone here when we’re first born and we’re first coming into life we’re carefree, we’re happy we have friends, that’s enough for us. So what happens to make us feel we’re not good enough? There are five elements really, and number one is just modern parenting rules. What we’ve been taught, the way we’ve been taught to parent or not taught to parent.

Our first child was five weeks early so we did nothing, we had our first lesson at NCT on Wednesday, before my wife went into labour and on Friday we had a baby that we knew nothing about! So you read the books and the books tell you to feed the baby when you need to feed the baby and make sure you look after yourself. So don’t respond to its crying in the middle of the night, put it in a separate bedroom.

We are told to do all the things that humans were not evolved to do. We evolved to stick the newborn straight on the mother’s chest or even the father’s chest and stay there for two years, essentially, and feed on demand. So the baby feels unconditionally loved and can go into the world, feeling that.

But we don’t do that, the conclusion of clinical research into this is that generally, we’re already on the back foot in terms of are we unconditionally loved? We’re almost clinical robots, there’s no discussion of emotion where underneath we all need to feel unconditionally loved and that’s where perfectionism comes from, it’s where alcohol abuse, gambling, betting, and shopping all stem from that need.

So we feel on the back foot and then we come to schooling. In my school reports, it just said I was doomed to failure. There was no rationale behind it. It was just “this boy is doomed to failure”. The reality was just I wasn’t interested because I didn’t think I could make it perfect. So I left school thinking I was useless.

I invented board games in my own time, I got a top grade for those and I went to art college for a year and hated it because it wasn’t about board games, it was about painting and drawing, which I couldn’t do, and had no interest in perfecting. I put the journey from school into work and the increase in pressure is essentially down to neoliberalism. The years of Thatcherism and Reaganomics that came in in the late 70s, which was the UK Prime Minister saying you’re going here, but if you work harder, you will be able to earn more, and you’ll be happier.

You’ll be able to buy a bigger house that house will generate more profit and you’ll be richer and happier. And they achieve that by giving a free market economy let’s support businesses to grow, employ more people pay them more money, etc and we could argue that we are the one generation that benefited from that. The one thing government always saw was themselves at the top, even though it’s a free-market economy Thatcher is still sitting there deciding what actually is going to happen and controlling things to make sure that the NHS is paid for that the bottom line is managed enough.

But Neoliberalism was invented when the internet wasn’t invented and then the Internet came along and so all the regulation, all the taxation just shot straight through government controls and then we have this triangle with all these global companies, Uber, Facebook, Snapchat, Amazon, Apple and Google at the top, unregulated and untaxed and at the bottom, we now have zero-hours contracts. Everything’s become about success and achievement for people, for individuals, so schools are just ranking their children they get more money if their children do better. So the pressure on kids is just ridiculous.

In fact, we saw our 15-year old’s photography teacher last week and she said Rose is brilliant she’s doing really good stuff he’s got one more project and I told her work has got to be as good as it’s going to be on a billboard for an advert. This is a 15-year-old girl! This is genuine, it genuinely has to be that good to get a good grade in photography for a 15-year-old kid who’s never worked in a company in her entire life.

So academic pressure leads to work pressure. Kids at school often think that because they’re measured like this, that their whole life carries on like that and then obviously we’ve got social media which obviously makes them all feel brilliant after all of that! The worst example I’ve got, which plays into that is that is Snapchat. We’re able to see where everybody is. What happens when everyone gets invited to a party except you. You can see them all arrive at the party you can see how long that they’re there you can see when they leave.

We are at home the other evening and we said to our 15-year-old do you want to go out and she said yes. And I’m convinced that she wanted to go out so that other people could see she had gone out and that she wasn’t at home and wasn’t sad. And that’s just so depressing, but we’re at that level of pressure. You know when we weren’t invited to play we just didn’t know what happened, no one ever talked to us about it and we can get on with our lives. That’s not possible now the party’s right in your face, let alone the fact that social media connects you with the richest, most successful people on earth as a comparison. It’s not great.

And then we have advertising, almost every brand now just reached a natural conclusion – let’s just offer perfection because we can’t actually get there. If we can fill that gap because the consumer doesn’t feel perfect we can make them feel perfect. I’m actually making an application to the ASA (the Advertising Standards Authority) to add a new ruling that they stop advertising using the theme of perfection in advertising. It’s just everywhere. I’ve got 35 examples I picked up in the last week. The Daily Mail is doing a spread on it in the next few weeks.

Because of all this neoliberalism, there are now essentially and I generalise, but there are no jobs for over 55’s, jobs have disappeared and there’s zero-hours contracts at the bottom but we grew up in a world where we were meant to work till we were 65 and our career was meant to gently rise all the way there. But now we find out there are no jobs and that’s a mental health problem itself.

Let alone if you’re a perfectionist who hasn’t got over it and you still believe you need to be valuable and you need to prove you’re good enough but there is no job for you to try and prove that. So we’re going to end up with a serious mental health situation regarding people over 55 and probably particularly men.

So, can we get over it? Can you get over perfectionism? Rather than just being told come on, get over it, you’ll feel better. There is a way, you can get over it, but it’s not just a short term process, no one discusses getting over perfectionism. I have got over it by my understanding of the big thing that helped me and what place you need to get to. If you suffer from perfectionism you need to ask why am I driven to do this, where is the feeling that I’m not good enough that drives me to do this? Mine was about my father. So coming to terms with that helped me.

There are lots of different routes perfectionism can come from, your parents raising an eyebrow that you got a B instead of an A. So you think oh I’m just not good enough which just adds more pressure. For example, someone I’m helping was put on a pedestal by their parents when they were young because they were brought up like a princess, so they feel like they’re not worthy to be on that pedestal, they don’t feel bad, they had a brilliant childhood but they’re on this pedestal so everything has to be good enough for their parents, even though that’s higher than average anyway.

So in my book, I’ve got some booklets at the back outlining a 12 step process, similar to the AA 12 step process on how to overcome perfectionism. I still want to make certain things perfect in my life but now because I enjoy the process or enjoy the rewards. I can still enter a bike race, but when I choose to and I know I have the time and I won’t be sacrificing everything to do it. I know I could still compete at the same level as I did when I was a perfectionist, but I’m choosing to do it now rather than obsessed to prove I’m good enough, which is the difference.

It’s a huge difference and it changes your life. So now I’m correcting my kids all the time, I’m not showing them how to do everything slightly better than they are which is a very common trait with parents, or just coming in annoyed and just telling them off to get rid of your own frustrations. Being distracted – one of the biggest failings of me as a parent was I was constantly distracted. I was always there for the kids, especially on sports days or trips. I’d make time for them but I was distracted in my mind, I was elsewhere so you miss emotionally feeling those events because you’re thinking “Oh I’ve got to do that or I can make that idea better”.

I don’t have any of that now and we’re happily married and what we did was make our kitchen like a no judgment area so there are no arguments, no moaning, everyone comes in, we can all freely chat (we have three of them still living at home), and it’s brilliant. It’s like their safe place away from this world, even in their own bedrooms, where they’ll be back on the laptops and mobiles. So that’s working really well.

So it is hard to work with protectionists obviously, they want to do everything their own way and not delegate. And so overcoming it enables you to still try and achieve perfection, but to do it working as part of a team. That’s the biggest thing change in me, I was a very solitary person, obviously cycling’s very solitary, being a CEO is very solitary, and now I just want to be part of a team. I just love it by being part of a team, I’m not judging everyone by my own high standards all the time.

I’m doing a campaign called “Friendfulness” which is just encouraging people to set up groups to talk to each other, just basic friendship as we’re missing it now and perfectionism takes you away from people. I’m doing the application with the ASA, which is going to be a big deal to stop advertisers using the theme of perfection to sell to kids.

If you’d like to learn more you can buy Chris’s book “Less Perfect. More Happy!” here.

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