At the 1999 Open Golf Championship at Carnoustie, Jean Van de Velde was closing in on victory as he teed up on the 18th hole. What happened next is a good example of why perfectionism isn’t always a strategy that leads to success.
The weight of expectation?
Leading the field by seven shots, Van de Velde would be the first Frenchman to win a major golf title since 1907. Having played almost error-free golf for much of the proceeding week, he approached the 18th having birdied the hole twice in previous rounds.
His first shot was to the right of the Barry Burn (a small watercourse) that cuts through and runs alongside part of the fairway. Luckilyhe found a good lie, but had a decision to make about his next shot – should he lay up and go for the green with his third shot, or should he go for the green?
I’ve not found any comment from Van de Velde as to why he decided to go for the green, but that is what he attempted. Perhaps it was the weight of expectation, or the knowledge that he had beaten the hole convincingly before. Whatever, in trying to play the required shot, his ball ricocheted off the grandstand railings at the side of the green and ended up in deep rough having bounced off the Burn wall.
In playing his next shot, his club got tangled in the grass and his ball eneded up in the Burn itself.
The rest is history…
As Van de Velde approached the Burn, he could see his ball lying in soft sand and seemed imminently ‘playable’. He took off his socks and shoes, whilst contemplating how to play the shot.
Unfortunately the Burn is tidal and the tide was coming in, so by the time he was in the Burn, the water was shin deep and his ball was unplayable. The images of him in the Burn up to his shins in water are iconic. Eventually he was forced to take a drop (a penalty shot incurred when you have to physically move the ball away from a hazard) and after finding the green bunker, finished the hole in seven – meaning that instead of winning he was now tied with two other players.
In the subsequent play off, American Paul Lawrie was victorious. Van de Velde has subsequently spoken about how he couldn’t stop thinking about dropping the four shots during the deciding holes.
You can only speculate, but in work I do with my clients, prevarication and perfectionism are frequently issues that they bring into coaching. The two go together – prevarication often goes hand in glove with perfectionism – as people delay doing things because they fear that the results won’t be perfect.
It is a bit of an irony for Van de Velde that Kevin Costner made the film called Tin Cup in 1996 about a golfer wanting to make the prefer shot over a water hazard rather than lay up. Certainly it seems likely that Van de Velde wanted to end his championship in an impressive fashion and as such took more risk than he needed to. Indeed had he played the safe option, he would probably now be remembered as the golfer who won the 1999 Open rather than the golfer most frequently pictured in rising water in the Burn.
The prevarication about should he/shouldn’t he take the shot out of the Burn rather than taking the drop shot he was eventually forced to take, can’t have helped him settle himself to approach the green. Even before this, perhaps thinking about the perfect end to the perfect championship had an influence?
What can we take from this?
I am not a golf fan, but you have to feel some empathy with Van de Velde having to go through such a public end to his hopes. However, his story gives us some insight into why we might need to address perfectionistic tendencies.
The software industry already does this to some degree – for example Microsoft is well known for accepting that it will ship products with the full knowledge that there will be known defects in them. This is not a statement that quality issues are acceptable, indeed they don’t ship rpodcust containing critical faults, but it is an acknowledgement that it is virtually impossible to guarantee that a software product will be error free. Hence there has to be some pragmatism. Microsoft aren’t blase about it either, they recognise that in saying this there needs to be an understanding that an error in a spreadsheet is one thing, an error in software controlling a nuclear reactor something entirely different. So the quality expectations will be different for different situations. Its unlikely you’d want to fly anywhere knowing that your air traffic control system has been less than rigorously tested!
When people seek professional help with perfectionism, the underlying idea is the same. You have to start learning to let go when something is good enough. Not everything has to be perfect. Yes, you want your Masters dissertation to be the best it can be, but when you cut your lawn, you don’t expect every blade of grass to be cut to exactly the same length, do you? Not everything in life is risk free, so part of the solution is also ensuring that you only take on risk in a considered way – perhaps if Van de Velde had taken a drop ball earlier, he wouldn’t have been as unsettled?
Prevarication and perfectionism often get in the way of our hopes, dreams and ambitions. They hold us back when we should start and prevent us from letting things go when we should do.
If you find yourself reflecting on these sorts of issues over the festive season, remember the following quote:
Otherwise you may find yourself forever in the metaphorical Burn always tring to play the perfect shot, but never quite making it…
Perhaps if you aren’t achieving what you want out of life, its time to start choosing to do the same?
If you need some help with this, why not give us a call?