The Dangers of Perfectionism

This June I’ve conducted six Well-being programs for legal professionals, including programs specifically for summer associates. 

I poll each group to better understand what they struggle with most. Perfectionism is most frequently mentioned. 

This is not a surprise. Over the past 30 years of working with Big Law professionals, I’ve observed that many smart, ambitious people have a tendency towards perfectionism. 

But there are real dangers to perfectionism. 

For example, some of the most accomplished attorneys 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, burns us out, and limits our growth.

I have come to believe that having a perfectionist mindset actually limits our development and success. We learn and grow the most when we stretch ourselves — and that requires taking on challenges that are initially uncomfortable, and beyond our skillset or 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. 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.

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!

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