- September 30, 2020
“I can be a bit of a perfectionist”.
It is the default answer to the job interview question, the tongue-in-cheek response that sounds like a negative but is really positive. It means that you will not stop until the thing is perfect. A more insidious version is, ‘I can be a little OCD.’ which is ableist on top of being harmful in other ways. We say it because it communicates that we will strive for the objectively best outcome but perfectionism has nothing to do with a healthy striving for excellence. Here are 5 reasons why:
1. You cannot quit
Giving up on a path or a project is a part of life. In fact, quitting is an essential skill for anyone trying to achieve success. All ideas are not equal. Some are great, some are good and some need a little work – these are worth pursuing. But some are bad, real stinkers, just terrible. These, you have to let go and do it early so you don’t waste time and money that could be going to the good stuff.
Of course, perfectionism does not allow the perfectionist to quit until what they are working on is perfect. The more evident a project’s weaknesses are, the more work perfectionists put into fixing them. Whether those problems are fixable or not never occurs to them. In short, perfectionism wastes time, talent and gives nothing back but misery.
2. Change is impossible
Acclaimed author Brene Brown says of perfection;
“Perfectionism is addictive, because when we invariably do experience shame, judgement and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough. Rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to look and do everything just right”.
There is no summit on Mt. Perfection. There is always a new peak to reach, a new milestone, a new challenge to meet. Turning back is unacceptable and staying where you are is just as bad. Perfection traps you inside of the same habits and ineffective goal-setting. Where change is necessary in order to move forward, perfectionism asks us to remain on course until it is perfect. The only way out is to stop and break away. Do something imperfect like sharing a project you have been working on before you think it is ‘ready’.
3. Mistakes feel catastrophic
At its core, perfection is about minimizing the shame, embarrassment and pain of failure that we all experience. This would be great if it worked but it does not because life is unfair. The worst lesson of adulting is that you can do everything right and still fail. You can pass every exam, impress everyone you meet, make zero wrong moves and fall short anyway. There are two extreme reactions to this reality, either never expend any effort at all or you guessed it, become a perfectionist.
4. You cannot see the forest for the trees
This is why claiming to be a perfectionist works as an answer to the question ‘what are some of your weaknesses’. Perfectionists get too caught up in the details and lose sight of the bigger picture. It tells the interviewer that you may have trouble completing projects in time because you are trying to get everything just right. This is not the dedication to excellence that it seems to be.
An electrician who wants the wires to look as aesthetically pleasing as possible may not notice that the messy way is safer. An entrepreneur who wants her business proposal to be absolutely perfect could get so caught up in making sure the numbers look right that she forgets to bring samples of her product to the meeting. You have to look up every once in a while and see the bigger picture.
5. Unicorns are vanishingly rare
There are perfect things in the world. Beyonce’s Homecoming album and Van Gogh’s Starry Night are the first examples that come to mind. These are unicorns; perfect not because they are flawless but because they achieved true excellence. Perfection is really about perception and no one can control that. So stop trying to.
Abandon the fight for perfection and embrace the noble struggle of ‘good enough’.