In my upcoming book, Your Fairy Job Mentor’s Secrets for Success, I devote an entire chapter to the dangers of perfectionism. I thought could be helpful to share it with you as we begin another year.
Over the past 30 years of working with Big Law professionals, whom I love, I’ve observed that many smart, ambitious people have a tendency towards perfectionism. For example, some of the most accomplished ones have told me it’s a fear of failure that drives them. Imagine getting out of bed each morning and working your butt off not to feel fulfilled, or to create something meaningful, but just to avoid failure.
The need to be perfect is what’s known as a negative driver. Having a negative driver means you are motivated to avoid something painful rather than achieve something positive. The truth is that to expect ourselves to do “A” work without exception doesn’t inspire us; it causes anxiety, warps our perceptions, and limits our growth.
Perfectionism Limits Growth
I have come to believe that having a perfectionistic mindset actually limits our growth and success. We learn and grow the most when we stretch ourselves — and that requires taking on challenges that are initially uncomfortable, challenges that, at first, are actually beyond our skill and knowledge level.
Think about the achievements you’re most proud of: Did you start out as an expert, or did you have to learn and master new territory?
In addition, perfectionism actually causes us to play it safe and stay in our comfort zone. When you’re afraid of failing (or even just falling short of impeccable), it’s just not worth it to take a risk.
Perfectionism Often Leads to Procrastination
That leads me to another thing I’ve frequently observed perfectionists struggle with: Procrastination. Wanting to produce work products that are perfect creates so much stress that our brain shuts down and we end up delaying starting until the pressure and deadline overwhelm us.
If you have a perfectionist who reports to you, I recommend you urge them to show you early drafts or outlines so you can give them feedback that will help ensure they deliver what is needed on time.
How to Remedy Perfectionistic Tendencies
To break any perfectionism tendencies, I suggest putting a sign over your computer that says Progress, Not Perfection! When you focus on actually getting things done well rather than tormenting yourself with trying to be perfect, you are likely to produce much better results with far less pain. Having high standards and working hard are great traits. Expecting constant perfection from yourself is not!
As a side note, when I decided to write the book in July I spoke to a few publishers who told me it would take at least 18 months to get a book published. I felt that young professionals needed resources as soon as possible to help them take control of their career in these uncertain times and decided to self-publish. Over the past 6 months, as I have written the 40,000 words and developed a new website to house the book and podcast, I have focused on Progress Not Perfection. These projects have required me to live way outside my comfort zone as I didn’t have the necessary expertise when I started and putting my life’s work on paper feels very vulnerable. One of the young professionals who has been a key member of our focus group asked me after reading the first draft if I’m at all nervous about releasing the book. I laughed and responded, “I’m scared as hell that people may read the book and think, ‘Who made her the authority?’ or worse, but deep down I know that it will be progress, not perfection.”