Concepts like perfectionism, individualism, problem-solving, and multitasking are often considered virtues. Notice when reviewing the list if you feel a twinge. Might you identify with any of these concepts as “virtues?” Might you lean into these as “skills” when relying on colleagues or friends?

Many people rely on these mindsets and look for these “skills” when recruiting employees. Yet, with closer scrutiny, they also have downsides and challenges. I’ll explore how each concept can distort perceptions and impact our learning.

1- Perfectionism.

When perfectionism is driving us, shame is riding shotgun, and fear is that annoying backseat driver! – Brené Brown

At first, striving for perfection seems like a virtue. We admire high standards, and perfectionism can lead to setting and achieving high standards and goals. Additionally, perfectionists usually pay attention to detail, often promoting a commitment to quality.

The AMA defines the causes and types of perfectionism, such as setting unrealistic expectations for themselves and others. In most cases, perfectionists are quick to find fault and be overly critical of mistakes while shrugging off compliments and overlooking their success.

They tend to procrastinate on a project out of their fear of failure, which includes the inability to perform a task unless they know how to do it perfectly. They cannot see a task as finished until the result is perfect according to their standards.

Additionally, perfectionists may confuse making a mistake or doing something wrong with being a mistake or being wrong.

Perceptions.

Perfectionism can distort our perception in significant ways.

  • Fear of Failure: Perfectionism can create a fear of failure, leading to procrastination and avoiding new challenges.
  • Self-Criticism: This often results in harsh self-criticism and self-doubt, which can hinder confidence and risk-taking.
  • Time-Consuming: Striving for perfection can be time-consuming and may prevent the completion of tasks.
  • False Ideals. This short video shows how our imagination often compares actual and challenging tasks with our manufactured ideals. Lacking actual information, evidence, or experience, perfectionists do not develop the patience to achieve excellence and harshly criticize themselves when their ideals don’t manifest.
  • Constant Comparison. Social media distorts our perceptions as we scroll through curated stories and identities for the perfect ideals for comparison.

Unlearning.

The process of unlearning perfectionism can begin by:

  • Letting go of the comparison mindset. Remember, truth exists beyond appearances. Most of what we see online has been curated to reinforce false ideals.
  • Recognizing black-and-white (all-or-nothing) thinking to explore different alternatives.
  • Shifting our relationship with mistakes. Instead of avoiding or denying mistakes, we can understand and acknowledge that mistakes are part of the learning process, ultimately leading to improvement.
  • Frame mistakes as learning opportunities that cultivate humility. We can de-center or practice letting go of identifying with mistakes, thoughts, and emotions as “our mistakes,” or worse, “I am a mistake.”
  • Distinguish between clarity and certainty. Clarity involves seeing the next choice, while certainty needs to know and control all outcomes of that choice.

Perfectionism can impede learning by focusing on certainty or the end “ideal” result rather than the learning process or leveraging mistakes to improve the result. It may discourage experimentation and risk-taking, which are vital for learning and growth.

2- Individualism and Independence.

The notions of individuality and independence seem part of the American DNA—a proxy for freedom and rugged individualism. Our definitions of individuality and individualism rest on the ideals of self-reliance, as in “going it alone.”

Individuality is the idea that every person exists independently from external forces or people. Psychologically, no two people have the same psychological makeup. This can overemphasize uniqueness as a virtue rather than one of many human qualities.

Individualism is the idea that a person should act on their own uniqueness and fulfill their personal desires, valuing independence and self-reliance. This advocates for the interests of the individual to gain precedence over the state or a social group.

At its best, individuality encourages taking personal responsibility for one’s actions, emotions, and impact. And independence can lead to innovation and the development of unique perspectives and self-expression.

Perceptions.

Again, this seemingly virtuous ideal promotes a view of human potential as hyper-individualistic, focusing exclusively on self-reliance, self-sufficiency, self-responsibility, and individual achievement, causing several distorted perceptions and beliefs.

  • Self-Made. Combined, independence and individualism promote a false perception of the self, a rugged individual who relies on no one. Worse yet, when internalized, we project this false belief onto others as a standard. “I did it. Why can’t you?”
  • Isolation: This can reinforce or overemphasize separateness and otherness, leading to social isolation and a lack of collaboration.
  • Limited Perspectives: This can limit exposure to diverse viewpoints, hindering deeper or fuller understanding.
  • Resistance to Help: Excessive independence may make it difficult to seek assistance or guidance when needed.
  • Attachment to individualistic notions of leadership: This blocks the emergence of shared leadership. Accountability is vertical, not to peers or those served.

Unlearning.

Although individualism and independence can promote self-directed learning, they can also hinder the benefits of group learning, diverse perspectives, and collaborative problem-solving.

Our “self-made” myth, which is so connected with “The American Dream,” has been associated with the Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Horatio Alger stories. Yet, if we reflect honestly, we’ll find many “trail angels” in our lives.

In their books, authors Malcolm Gladwell (“Outliers”) and Marion Wright Edelman (“Lanterns”) reveal different kinds of support that shape us, such as mentors, community, culture, one’s generation, and upbringing, to name a few.

None of us have arrived here independent of nature, community, caregivers, or the resources, minerals, land, and oxygen this earth has offered. Indeed, we would not survive without depending on multiple living and non-living conditions. Thus, cultivating an interdependent awareness can reveal multiple (inter)connections,

Finding a balance between our autonomy while recognizing and honoring our connection to the world we come from can begin by distinguishing between autonomy and independence.

  • Independence means we don’t depend on, need, or accept help, resources, or care from others. We function without others.
  • Autonomy doesn’t require independence. With free will, you can stand behind your actions and their values. We can be autonomous and depend on others by cultivating mutual dependence to exchange support and care.

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated,” declared Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr on Christmas Eve 1967:

We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

3- Problem-Solving.

“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” — Albert Einstein.

Who can be against problem-solving? Problem-solving fosters critical thinking skills and analytical abilities. Moreover, it drives innovation and solutions to complex issues.

Problem-solving can go awry when this “method” is adopted as a mentality or mindset. First, let’s define the model from this Problem-Solving Video.

  • Solvable: This model begins with the belief that all problems are solvable.
  • Model: We can cultivate the tools and experience necessary to understand the impact of a problem, dream up ideas, and create innovative solutions to meet actual needs.
  • Problem-solving: The process of finding alternatives and applying the one best solution.
  • Problem: A complex issue needing to be overcome.
  • Alternatives: Available possibilities to overcome a problem.
  • Solution: The best possible alternative to solve a problem.

As a method, problem-solving can create positive solutions. But when adopted as a mentality, we become fixated problem-seekers: discovering solutions to make something unwanted disappear.

Problem-solving trains us in formulaic assumptions with expectations to resolve, fix, avoid, or dismiss any perceived problems. We automatically view mistakes and failures—the essence of learning and discovery—as problems. This also leads to our perfectionism.

Learning scholar, researcher, and engineer Peter Senge (Fifth Discipline, Presence) from MIT states this well:

The reactive stance in management is evident in the fixation on problem-solving. Many managers think that management is problem-solving. But problem-solving is fundamentally different from creating. The problem solver tries to make something go away. A creator tries to bring something new into being.

Perceptions.

  • Stress and Pressure: Intense problem-solving can lead to stress and burnout, affecting overall well-being.
  • Tunnel Vision: Focusing solely on problem-solving may lead to a narrow perspective that reflexively seeks our problems, misses broader contexts, or even misdiagnoses some emergent issue as a problem.
  • Neglect of “Connection Skills”: Overemphasis on problem-solving might neglect developing soft (connection) skills like empathy and communication.
  • Expectation of Certainty: Problem-solving often assumes there will be a certain solution. However, some problems may be complex and require multiple solutions to be effective. This expectation of certainty can limit creativity and innovation in finding solutions.

Unlearning.

Although problem-solving is essential for learning, overemphasizing it at the expense of holistic understanding and well-being can hinder growth.

We can shift our assumptions and observations from “something’s wrong” or “what’s right or wrong” to “what is needed from me in this situation.”

Whenever we identify a “perceived problem,” pause and review the situation again. Are we being requested to fix something or to understand something? If it’s the latter, return to listening to deepen your understanding.

4- Multitasking.

“The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence.” — Zen Master, Teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh

The term “multitask” first appeared in an IBM paper describing the capabilities of the IBM System/360 in 1965. Now applied to human tasks, the term details how one splits their attention to more than one task or activity simultaneously, such as speaking on the phone while driving a car.

At its best, multitasking can enhance efficiency and productivity in some situations. It can also improve the ability to handle multiple tasks and shift priorities.

Since the 1960s, however, psychologists have conducted experiments on the nature and limits of human multitasking. The evidence reveals time wasted due to human context switching and becoming prone to errors because of insufficient attention.

Multitasking Still?!?

These recent articles debunk the myth of multitasking, revealing the neuroscience of how multitasking affects productivity and brain health.

Despite the volume of evidence about the perils of multitasking, the habit persists. You will still find job descriptions and postings touting this “skill” for employment. These posts from the career services company Indeed are from the past two years:

This last article emphasizes this “skill”:

Adding multitasking skills to your resume helps hiring managers quickly identify that you have the necessary qualities for the role.

These videos define the problem with multitasking (2014) and what multitasking does to your brain (2019), discussing how our inattentiveness causes “Change Blindness.”

Change blindness is a perceptual phenomenon that occurs when a change in a visual stimulus is introduced, and the observer does not notice it.

The video Multitasking is the Mindkiller (2022) explores the notion of “busyness” as a status symbol and introduces a newer dynamic: Continual Partial Attention.

What is Continuous Partial Attention (CPA)?

In 1998, Linda Stone, a tech writer and consultant, coined the term “continuous partial attention” (CPA) to describe a modern adaptive behavior of continuously dividing one’s attention. Stone has clarified that CPA is not the same as multitasking.

  • Multitasking is driven by a conscious desire to be productive and efficient.
  • CPA is motivated only by “a desire to be a live node on the network” or the need to connect and stay connected.

CPA is motivated by FOMO. It involves scanning and optimizing opportunities in an effort not to miss anything going on. CPA fragments attention spans, which increases stress and decreases the ability to focus and concentrate on the present moment, prohibiting reflection, contemplation, and thoughtful decision-making.

Perceptions.

Multitasking and CPA offer a false view of “productivity” by keeping us on the surface of reality, superficially skimming and scanning. We miss patterns and deeper meaning. We lack focus and concentration, resulting in mood disorders like depression and anxiety or lifestyle issues such as stress, fatigue, and poor sleep. Related issues include:

  • Reduced Focus: Multitasking often leads to reduced focus and lower quality of work.
  • Increased Stress: Multitasking can increase stress, cognitive overload, and cognitive impairment.
  • Decreased Learning: Multitasking during learning can impede the absorption of knowledge and understanding, making it less effective for long-term retention and meaningful growth.

Unlearning.

Unlearning multitasking begins with removing the need for it. With mindfulness and reflection, we can recognize our impatience, the need for constant stimulation (i.e., connection) via FOMO, overpromising, and overextending ourselves. A few easy practices can help:

  1. Check yourself regularly and learn to recognize your distractions. Turn off all unnecessary notifications, sounds, and alerts to minimize distractions.
  2. Practice doing one thing at a time; do tasks slowly and intentionally. Complete each task or schedule incomplete tasks to be completed later.
  3. Develop rituals, designate time for certain things, and engage with them fully.
  4. Learn how to engage in Deep Work, a concept you might know better as flow or in the zone.
  5. Create space. Start with pausing between tasks, meetings, and events to breathe fully, connect with the ground and reflect.

In Sum

Perfectionism, individualism, problem-solving, and multitasking have been “virtues” leveraged in business – born of a hyper-modern era preoccupied with productivity, efficiency, certainty, and predictability. These “virtues” cultivate desires to control conditions, master our environment, and achieve unique identities that can be isolating – often to avoid the unknown.

These concepts also pose significant challenges to human development and learning and can impact organizational cultures.

Consider that learning can be most inefficient. True learning involves gaps and missteps as we venture into the unknown with uncertainty and unpredictability. Yet, learning is one of the most rewarding aspects of humanity, full of discovery, expansion, and possibilities that support natural growth and evolution.

Becoming mindful of our needs and being grounded in our limitations can provide realistic expectations. Awareness of any habitual need to apply these concepts is essential for achieving benefits without undermining our perceptions, learning, and possibilities.

Reading Time: 10.5 min. Digest Time: 14.5 min.


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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.