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Schrodinger's Cat and the Comfort of Perfectionism

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

I think we all have a little bit of this feel in us about something.

“The longer I put off starting my own firm, the longer it can remain a dream and not something I screwed up at. I mean, it's like I'm giving up before I even started.” - Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother, Season 4, Episode 20

The first time I learned about the Schrodinger Cat experiment was in April 2008, in AP Physics.

For those who have not heard of this fun little thought experiment, let me fill you in by quoting Wikipedia at you:

Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment, sometimes described as a paradox, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. It illustrates what he saw as the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics applied to everyday objects. The scenario presents a cat that may be simultaneously both alive and dead, a state known as a quantum superposition, as a result of being linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur. The thought experiment is also often featured in theoretical discussions of the interpretations of quantum mechanics. Schrödinger coined the term Verschränkung (entanglement) in the course of developing the thought experiment...He proposed a scenario with a cat in a locked steel chamber, wherein the cat's life or death depended on the state of a radioactive atom, whether it had decayed and emitted radiation or not. According to Schrödinger, the Copenhagen interpretation implies that the cat remains both alive and dead until the state is observed.

I am not a professional physicist, and I haven’t obsessively research quantum mechanics (yet...), but in my mind, what that whole shebang boils down to is: You’ve got a cat shut in a deadly box, but as long as you don’t open up the box and take a peek, it is perfectly reasonable to assume the cat is still alive.

This thought experiment is one of my most favorite things in physics (next to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle--but more on that later). To understand why I love this so much, you’ll need to know about my perfectionistic tendencies:

I used to be proud of being a perfectionist. I knew that it supposedly “wasn’t good” to be one, but it seemed to be working out for me: perfect grades, perfect test scores, playing flute in the highest bands in the state, no problems getting into college, no problems getting scholarships, blah blah blah. So I was proud.

But now I’m struggling out of the crushing grip of my perfectionism for one big reason:

I really hate hanging out with it’s best friend: Crippling Fear.

You show me a perfectionist, and I’ll show you someone whose inner world is a war zone.

(You show me someone who argues with me on that, and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t yet met their demons.)

In the book Mindset, the author, Carol Dweck, expounds on the harmful effects of what’s called a “fixed mindset.” To have a fixed mindset means to believe that success is based on talent and intelligence, and that those traits are static. You either are intelligent...or you aren’t. You either are talented...or you aren’t. The opposing mindset, the “growth mindset”, is the state of believing that anything can be mastered, intelligence can be boosted, talents can be grown...with hard work.

For most of my life, I have had a very fixed mindset. My entire life, the following two ego-assertions have been reinforced in me:

  1. I am smart.

  2. I am good at art.

The first assertion was probably the most damaging. “I am smart.” Because I believed everyone who ever told me that I am smart, because I internalized that as part of my identity, I consciously avoided things that would potentially break that view I and others held of me.

I avoided learning AutoCAD (arguably the only truly useful skill I would have learned in high school) on the robotics team in high school because I wasn’t 100% sure I’d be good at it, and if I wasn’t, that meant I wasn’t smart anymore.

I procrastinated on projects and papers I wasn’t entirely sure how to do, because then if I scored low on them, I had an excuse. Procrastination is a form of self-handicapping, and I turned it into an art form.

Now let’s move on to the second assertion: “I am an amazing artist.”

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been drawing. In school, my classmates and teachers told me my posters and class projects were wonderful. Illustrated vocabulary books? I was all over that. Historical war recruitment poster? My friends and I excelled. Book cover design contests? Sign me up.

Art class? NO THANK YOU.

Wait--what? Surely if I had such a knack for drawing, I would have wanted to get even better at it by taking an art class, right?


As soon as art classes became a choice in school, I no longer took art. At the time, I told myself that it’s because I didn’t need it. But the truth was… I didn’t want to get into class and find out I wasn’t the best. Or that I wasn’t even that good, compared to others. I didn’t take art classes in college. I didn’t take art classes in the community, and besides a few sporadic face-painting gigs, I never tried to do anything with art.

Now you might be thinking, “How does this relate to a hypothetical cat in a box?” Here’s the connection: if the various assertions and beliefs I held about myself are the cat, my pathological avoidance of challenging activities is the equivalent of never opening the box. As long as I don’t do the thing that I might fail at, the thing that might damage my fragile ego, I can maintain my fixed-mindset assertions. Like so:

  1. As long as I never take an art class (or later, never try to be a working artist), no one whose artistic opinion I respect will tell me I’m not good, and I can continue to hold the belief that I’m good at art.

  2. As long as I know I really didn’t give myself enough time to write that paper, I won’t be hurt by getting a C on it, and I can continue to maintain the idea that I’m smart, and therefore good at everything, including paper-writing.

  3. As long as I know that I didn’t study, I won’t feel bad if I fail the class, because I can tell myself that I’m actually smart, and had I studied, I would have been fine.

So as you can see, some weird thought patterns and behavior patterns emerge when you’re focused on perfectionism. But, the main problem with maintaining your belief that the cat is alive (your ego, your self-esteem, your self-image) by “never opening the box” is this:

Although you don’t ever see that it’s dead, you also can’t confirm that it’s alive.

My self-efficacy was a house of cards, a mirage. The shiny race car that has only ever sat in the garage. Never battered, but never truly tested.

My ego-comfort was the mental equivalent of patting myself on the back for never losing a game in a sport I never played. The ~best~ you can do if you don't not lose.




Sometimes in your life, there will be events that shatter your world in an incredible way, and an opportunity for destruction, regeneration, and creation crashes into you like a monstrous wave. My wave came in 2016, and I began to assess the damage that my mindset had wrought on my life. It was extensive.

So, I began to open some boxes.

The box relevant to the rest of this website is the “I’m a good artist” box.

I started painting again, and selling my work. Opening it up to the world to either love or hate. (Thankfully, it seems most people love it.) Then, I took at art class. And I got criticized. I brought in a painting I was fairly proud of, and my mentor figuratively ripped it to shreds. IT WAS EXHILARATING. I still paint and sell my art, and even started a business, and I have felt incredibly stupid and like an imposter a few times. But I’ve met incredible people, had incredible conversations, and learned SO MUCH.

2020 Update: I took a portrait class recently and created a monstrosity. But I learned how Behnaz Sohrabian does portraits, and I learned that I should probably stick to non-realistic portraits because they are much more fun for me.


There’s still some boxes I’ve yet to open. It’s a process, and it’s hard one sometimes. But I tell you what: the solid self-esteem and self-efficacy that comes from getting in the game,

from playing,

from learning,

from trying,

from simply opening the boxes (even if it turns out the “cat” inside is dead and I am not perfect or good at everything)--

It’s so much better than comfort.

it’s pure joy.


Update: I recently listened to this TED Talk that talks about the joy of failure. This man works at Google X, where it’s their job to dream of incredible things, do everything they can to test and kill the idea, and repeat the process. There is no room for perfectionism there.

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