The (Negatively) Magnetic Perils of Perfectionism

shutterstock_7668085-150x150Dear Memorizers,

It has been said that perfectionism bears a relationship to anxiety, and this makes sense. After all, who feels calm and carefree when impeccability is at stake? Relaxation is impossible when trying to get everything “just right.”  As I stress in my other books, in order for our memorization work to truly succeed, relaxation is precisely what we need, both during the memorization process itself and during recall.

Here are just a few of the steps perfectionism can disrupt:

1. Filling out the Magnetic Memory worksheets and deciding upon a Memory Palace for every letter of the alphabet because one feels the need for each Palace to perfectly fit the letter.

2. Identifying a sufficient amount of stations within each Memory Palace.

3. Choosing the best words to work on first.

4. Setting up an Excel file or other means of tracking for the purposes of testing and rehearsing.

5. Sitting down with a dictionary and memorizing.

6. Not leaving a word because it doesn’t feel perfectly memorized, leading to rote repetition rather than Magnetic Memorization.

7. Completing effective rehearsal sessions, or turning them into rote learning instead of memorization exercises.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Seeking perfection at each of these stages has its rewards, and the accomplishment you may sometimes experience can reinforce your feelings of triumph, if only for the short term.

However, it’s important to realize when perfectionism is in fact tripping you up, if not halting forward progress altogether.

Has perfectionism in fact become a form of self-sabotage? Could you be memorizing 50 vocabulary words per day instead of just 10 if this “anxiety” of perfectionism were to disappear?

If so, there is a cure for perfectionism:

Make A Mess Of Things!


One of the toughest lessons when it comes to memorization – especially after we’ve tasted its power – is that our Memory Palaces and the associations within them aren’t going to come toppling down if we make a few mistakes now and again. Sometimes words simply won’t “hold” in the way that we hoped they would. This is normal.

And if you want, you can learn from skeptics of memory techniques. They have super-powerful tools for overcoming procrastination.

Defeating perfectionism is also why the “compounding” and rehearsal processes I talk about in the Magnetic Memory series are so important. Plus, you can easily get in the habit of creating impromptu Memory Palaces. One almost always makes mistakes with these, meaning that you’re bound to grow and get better.

We know that mnemonics, as powerful as they are, do require revisiting from time to time. I like to think of it as “ballooning” because it reminds me of the way one rubs a balloon against a sleeve in order to create the static magnetism that allows the balloon to stick to the wall or other people.

When you go back to a memorized word later and find problems with the mnemonic, that’s when you compound or make repairs to the associations you’ve made (i.e. rub the word balloon against your sleeve). But don’t work on the word forever during the memorization stage in the hopes of finding perfection. That will only slow you down and prevent you from fully exercising the capabilities of your mind. Perfectionism will also reduce the amount of time you can spend on rehearsal, and that is on top of having severely reduced the amount of words you could have memorized in the first place by moving forward without stopping.

So in sum, allow yourself to make mistakes when using Memory Palaces to memorize foreign language vocabulary.


Expect potholes and patchwork, all of which you can return to and patch up later. Because you are memorizing a language or a field of expertise, these words and terms are material that you want to revisit anyhow. Needing to revisit and strengthen your associations is always going to have the positive benefit of increasing your exposure, and maximizing the amount of attention you’re allotting to the word over the long haul. So don’t fear moving ahead with errors in your mind. They are a good thing so long as you attend to them later and in a spirit of calm and relaxation.

Above all, make sure to teach someone what you have learned about memorization. It’s the best way to deepen your own understanding and to help make the world a better – and more memorable – place. This will help you overcome perfectionism because you’ll be explaining your way over and above even the snarliest hills by explaining them to others.

And never forget: the more we remember, the more we can remember. The more we learn, the more we can learn. But perfectionism …

It’s a dead end.


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