Your flaws matter less than you think
Why flawlessness is a faulty metric for human perfection
Great poetry and literature are spurred by depression. Great leaders are enabled by narcissism. Great performers—founders, athletes, musicians—function through myopic obsession and cut-throat competitiveness. Insecurity, the need to prove oneself, impels the exceptional.
This constellation of narratives is commonplace, including in Silicon Valley. Elon Musk is out to resolve his daddy issues. Sam Altman manipulates and silences dissenters. Steve Jobs succeeded by being an asshole.
This narrative is wrong; not just a little wrong, but wrong wrong. Empirically, it ignores the mountains of evidence that psychopathology impairs human performance. Philosophically, it implies that vice, not virtue, is the source of human greatness.
But the ubiquity of this narrative does draw attention to an important truth: highly salient, very real human flaws, even if they are not enablers of greatness, are not showstoppers for greatness.
Between the spectacle of Musk’s contentious behavior on Twitter (officially X) and the drama that ensued over the OpenAI board’s bizarre decision to fire (and later reinstate) Sam Altman, we have been witnessing a seeming deluge of deeply flawed tech giants. Such developments have created fresh interest in these figures—almost as if their flaws are the most interesting thing about them.
But—and I say this as a clinical psychologist—their flaws aren't actually that interesting. Musk's childhood traumas and self-confessed neuroses, the avoidance of hard conversations that likely catalyzed the OpenAI drama—these are run-of-the-mill problems of the sort we all deal with. They are the default.
What’s really interesting, interesting because it is extraordinary, is what these people have been able to achieve even despite and in the presence of these flaws. Greatness is not facilitated by flaws; but it also plainly does not require one to “fix oneself” first.
As a psychologist and coach who works with ambitious people, I'm all about helping people “fix themselves.” But more fundamentally, I'm about helping people embrace the goal of living their best, fullest life—which often means, counterintuitively, that they need to spend less time and energy trying to remedy their flaws, and more time and energy cultivating their virtues and strengths.
Psychological perfection is about standing on a virtuous foundation, not about smoothing out every wrinkle
Previously I’ve argued that we can and should seek psychological perfection. How does this square with the idea that we should generally concern ourselves less, not more, with mitigating our flaws?
It squares perfectly, if you will, with the humanistic standard of “perfection” I have in mind: one on which a flourishing, fully-lived life is the measure. “Flourishing” is not a simple metric that has inputs and outputs that can be easily quantified. But by this metric it is often the case that, roughly speaking, one will have flaws that aren’t worth fixing. It’s not worth the effort, in the precise sense that one will flourish more by spending that effort elsewhere. Paradoxically, the pursuit of flawlessness is often what obstructs the pursuit of perfection.
To put it another way: the virtues that enable and differentiate great builders run deeper than the flaws to which they tend to be prone. Consider common flaws: having a short fuse, lacking social skills, making impulsive decisions when stressed, habitually procrastinating on email, being chronically disorganized. These are real flaws; they make life worse. But they don’t preclude the full exercise of one’s capacity for human agency and thriving.
A high-agency individual might rightly choose to invest time and energy in overcoming a given flaw. But she might also rightly decide that there are higher-leverage ways to invest her time and energy. In that case, she might seek out environments and roles that mitigate the harm done by her flaws (or perhaps even eke some value out of those flaws, as many entrepreneurs have spoken of doing with their ADHD). Perhaps the most common scenario is to put in minimal effort into ameliorating flaws, rather than maximal effort into fixing them. Rather than change a habit root and branch, adopt a few heuristics that will help somewhat and move on.
By the same token, a lower-agency individual might feel helpless to change her flaws, but she might equally feel compelled to “work on” those flaws because that’s what society or her own internalized guilt and shame are pressuring her to do—or because it feels easier than whatever higher-leverage life projects she is afraid of.
Keep in mind that the concept of a “flourishing, fully-lived life” is abstract. Its universal demands are at the level of things like the need for self-honesty and the exercise of our agency. Beyond these fundamentals, thriving does not have one specific look. A life devoted to the single-minded pursuit of a passion at significant cost to personal relationships or physical health (a la Marie Curie, for example) may be just as “perfect” as a quiet life largely centered on cultivating strong, healthy family relationships, or a life of bustling variety, or any number of other sorts of lives. Each specific life has different fault tolerances for different sorts of flaws and requires different sorts of strengths as load bearing structures. To put the abstract, universal principles of the “builder’s mindset” fully into practice in your own particular life, you need to care deeply about the particulars, and design your life accordingly. By contrast, one of the failure modes that precludes a “perfect” life is the passive (i.e. non-agential) adherence to some sterile, generic template of a “good life,” instead of custom-building a life that fully leverages your own inimitable mix of affordances and constraints and idiosyncratic conditions for thriving.
Flaws matter, but they’re not what matters
The whole cultural focus on flaws—whether through the lens of “flaws make us great” or “flaws make us terrible”—distracts from what’s really important to a human life going well. Life poses us with all kinds of problems, our own faults being among them. But personal faults are not magically privileged as the most worthwhile problems. The point of life is not to minimize faults, the point is to live. To reap all the joy and fulfillment we can from our limited time on this earth. In other words: life is ultimately about what we build, not what we escape or minimize.
And it turns out we can build a great deal even in the presence of serious weaknesses, if we set building as the thing that drives us. What I often see happen instead, however, is that people shortchange their building projects for the sake of a detached preoccupation with “self-improvement”, as either an end-in-itself (a la Zen master) or arbitrary rite of passage (a la drill sergeant).
Musk, for example, is correctly portrayed as often making either rash or impetuous or otherwise neurotic-seeming decisions, and especially so in the context of what and how he communicates on social media. In the Isaacson biography we see this further fleshed out in terms of his leadership style, which turns off many talented people and sometimes leads to burnt bridges. And I have independently seen evidence that Musk can lash out in petty, litigious ways at those he views as a threat, sometimes doing significant damage to good people and relationships. These are real, serious costs. Without knowing enough to say much about the underlying issues that might be driving these behaviors, we can at least plausibly speculate that Musk would be a happier and more effective human being if he did not have these patterns.
The speculations that one actually sees, however, are stronger.
First, that the opportunity cost of correcting these issues is worth it: that he would be happier if he spent more time fixing himself and less time doing the other things he is doing. This is very possibly true, but also very possibly false. Put another way: “Musk would be happier if he was less vindictive” is what we might call a benefits analysis. Everything looks worthwhile on a benefits analysis. “Musk would be happier if he really worked on making himself less vindictive and spent less time on his half dozen companies” is much less clear. It’s not obviously wrong, but it’s not as much of a slam dunk as the benefits analysis would suggest.
Second, that his flaws are what animates him, what leads him to want to innovate and to send humans to Mars, and what powers his leadership. This, I think, is deeply, demonstrably wrong.
For one, we have ample evidence of the kind of thinking on which Musk has based many of his most eminently impactful and lucrative decisions, and it is a far cry from the rash impetuousness he often evidences on Twitter. Recall that he is the one who popularized the idea of “thinking from first principles” in Silicon Valley, as I wrote about here.
As to the sometimes petty vendettas and apparent one-upmanship Isaacson documents in Musk’s professional interactions, such acts of injustice may well reflect deeper failings of Musk’s agential capacities; and to that extent they may well preclude him from living a full and happy life.
But is it this insecurity and need to assert superiority over others that “drives Musk to greatness?” Certainly not. Musk at his best is the man who sincerely and non-defensively teared up in this 60 Minutes interview while expressing sadness at the fact that some of his childhood heroes disapprove of his mission at SpaceX. Here he is feeling and expressing sincere, undiluted admiration for some of the very public figures who are speaking out against his most cherished project; while also holding fast to his own conviction, absent any sign of a flinching urge to lash out in defense. This is not the demeanor of a tantruming blowhard, but of a solemn, self-respecting builder saluting his fellow builders, even as they fail to salute him back.
Two tips for how to approach self-improvement
So what does this mean? That one should not worry about one’s flaws? That one should ignore them?
No. Here are two more specific, and hopefully helpful, practical implications of this framing:
1. Don’t trade in your fully-lived life for “shadow work”
A lot of therapy and coaching clients I've worked with are initially very preoccupied with some issue that has been a major blocker in their life. Maybe they’re very socially anxious, or depressed, or they’ve suffered a lot of trauma. And the pattern is that they organize their lives and identities around these very real problems in a way that precludes them from actually, really living. A common example is the client who says “I can’t start dating until after I’ve fixed my social anxiety,” or “I can’t apply for these really ambitious jobs until after I’ve fixed my depression”; so they identify their dysfunctional behavior patterns and process their feelings and pick up new self-care frameworks from one therapist or self-help guru after another, all the while stalling in their career or romantic life. What they often don’t realize is how easily this “shadow work” can itself become a coping mechanism to avoid the harder work of actually going out and living their best lives.
To their great credit, these clients are usually quick to get on board with the idea that every effective social anxiety treatment involves exposure therapy (e.g., going on a bunch of awkward dates!) and every effective depression treatment involves re-engaging in valued activities (e.g., doing challenging work!), once I present it to them. But what I often find is that there is still something subtly “off” about their internalized approach to these tasks: like they’re not going out and living their best life but rather just doing more shadow work. For instance, they might go on a date and then report back about how well or poorly they managed their anxiety or their negative self-talk; but I don’t hear much about how much they liked or connected with the other person. Or they might describe the coping strategies they used to “get through” a job interview, but I don’t get the sense that they showcased any of the passion and brilliance with which I’ve sometimes heard them riff on their most ambitious technical projects. Not too surprisingly, they tend to get middling romantic and professional outcomes with this approach, which further reinforces their “I’m broken and need fixing” mentality.
To really unlock their full flourishing, I find that these clients need a more fundamental paradigm shift: from “I’m broken, how do I fix myself?” to “This is my one precious life, how do I make it awesome?” Once they are looking through this lens, they may well still decide to work on their social awkwardness or their proneness to depression—or they may decide to invest their energy in other, higher-leverage endeavors, drawing inspiration from the many socially awkward and depression-prone individuals (from Ella Fitzgerald to Abraham Lincoln, respectively) who nonetheless lived unambiguously awesome lives.1
2. When choosing and designing your work, center on your strengths, not your weaknesses
All else being equal, we get a lot more mileage from the time we spend exercising and nurturing our distinct strengths than from the time spent remediating or inhibiting our deficits. If we find ourselves in a position where most of our time or energy goes toward trying to curtail our defects, we should think hard about why we’re doing it, and what we could be doing instead. For instance, I’ve known countless academics (my former self included) who are constantly battling their short attention spans and forcing a level of detail-orientation that will never come naturally to them, when they could be thriving at a scrappy, fast-paced private practice or tech startup. And, on the flip-side, I’ve worked with startup founders who freeze up under time pressure and have a profound aversion to “failing fast,” whereas they might actually flourish in an academic lab where they get to do slow, meticulous deep tech research.
On a more “local” level, I’ve worked with founder/CEOs who had gotten burnt out from years of struggling to inhibit their naturally curt, decisive leadership style for the sake of 1 or 2 “high-maintenance” team members who required a more “hands-on” approach; only to discover how much more joyfully productive and aligned their company culture could get once they let those team members go. And, on the flipside, I’ve worked with executives who were making themselves miserable trying to emulate the “curt, decisive CEO” persona, whereas they finally leveled up their leadership and decision-making when they leaned into their naturally empathetic, collaborative communication style.
For each of these examples, to wit, I can find at least one counter-example: a case where it did serve the founder better to override his “natural” interpersonal style than to lean into it, or where it was worth changing significant parts of one’s character for the sake of a valued endeavor (hell, I’ve written a whole treatise on how to do just that, when warranted). My aim here is not to issue yet another concrete prescription, at the level of “lean into your strengths” or “remediate your weaknesses”. Rather, it is to shine a light on the common ways such prescriptions infiltrate our life design and constrain our agency—that we may throw off such shackles and free ourselves up for the work of building our perfect life.
As to the flawed tech giants of the world: instead of attacking or defending their flaws—or elevating those flaws to the level of pseudo-virtues that will only cause pain in their confused emulators—let us study the workings of their outsize human agency, and therein find the inspiration and courage to cultivate our own.
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