What’s Better Than Perfect? Escaping the Perfectionism Trap

Sometimes perfection is beside the point.

What’s better than perfect?

Many years ago, when I applied for my first real career-launching job, I prepared for my round of interviews with practice questions supplied by a university career counselor. I remember one question we were advised to be ready for. It was this: What is your greatest weakness?

And I recall my ready answer: I’m a bit of a perfectionist.

That answer was true. And it was an answer that, while describing a weakness, reflected well on me. Perfectionism sounded like a point of honor in a hard-charging corporate environment. Come to think of it, the term “hard-charging” sounded like a point of honor, too, though many wouldn’t see it that way.

And so it is with perfectionism. While it sounds like a virtue, or at least the most harmless of faults, true perfectionism can be a major source of procrastination and a paralyzing trap.

Have you heard the phrase, any job worth doing is worth doing well? Or worth doing right? Maybe you believe those words. But striving for perfection cuts both ways.

In her book entitled Making Work Work, professional organizer Julie Morgenstern tells of a perfectionistic client who polished the spelling and grammar in every email and note, giving every single piece of work the same top-level response. It’s a lovely ideal, but in an overcrowded schedule, that kind of perfection gets in the way of genuine productivity.

I recall a client who carefully crafted every message and memo, including a note to her sister asking her to look after her cat while she was away for a few days.

This exactly illustrates the trouble that perfectionism can cause. It’s a productivity killer. Because the truth is, not everything worth doing is worth doing well. Some things are worth doing quickly. Some things are worth doing at 80 percent, or 70 percent, not 100 percent.

If an unhealthy commitment to perfection is holding you back, try these steps to get back to a more healthy balance.

  • First, set a goal to experience peaceful, joyful productivity.
  • Then, if you find yourself in a state of anxious perfectionism, stop what you’re doing. Ask yourself, is my action right now contributing to that feeling of peaceful, joyful productivity that I desire? If I let this task go now, will the sky fall? Will people shun me? My favorite way to ask this question is, if I make a mistake here, will someone put a contract out on me? To imagine that my perfection has life-or-death consequences always makes me laugh. Of course it doesn’t. So ask, what’s the worst that will happen?
  • Notice when you begin to second-guess yourself. Is it hard to choose what to do first? Notice how much time and energy you spend worrying whether you’ve made a good choice. Then let the worry go.
  • If you find yourself worrying about making mistakes, take a break. Maybe get a second opinion by showing your work to a trusted colleague. Someone else can help provide a reality check that tells us when our work is sufficient.
  • Choose something you can do imperfectly. Make the bed to look just good enough. Send a casual email without correcting typos every time. Realize that lots of people rarely make the bed at all, and typos abound in other peoples’ emails. Save your commitment to excellence for things that really matter.

It’s our mistakes, not our successes, that help us grow. We need to make mistakes in order to learn. If we fret about being perfect, we can’t actually achieve the level of skill and productivity we desire.

I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot…and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

Michael “Air” Jordan, basketball great

Remember, it’s not perfection, but excellence that gets results. And excellence requires making mistakes.

Consider that the next time you find yourself fretting, and set that perfectionism aside. Choose something that’s better than perfect.

3 Responses to What’s Better Than Perfect? Escaping the Perfectionism Trap

  1. I love your suggestion to ask yourself What’s the worst that will happen if I make a mistake here.
    This topic reminds me of a clever phrase I first heard from ultra-busy Stanford Professor Tina Seelig: “perfect is the opposite of done”.

    • @TheEnglishOrganizer I love that phrase! Thanks for sharing it. The challenge is to do excellent work, not perfect work, and to save our effort for things that really do matter.

Leave a reply

Copyright © 2009-2014 Margaret Lukens