“Go and make mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break the rules. Leave the world more interesting for you being here.”
—Neil Gaiman, author
There’s one particular habit many workers bring to their quest for career success, and that one thing backfires because it goes against the grain of human nature: Perfectionism. In its clutches, it tightens you in a stranglehold, injects its rigidity into your bloodstream and chokes the flow of spontaneous and flexible ideas. Uncurbed, it causes you to set unrealistic goals, try too hard and over focus on your mistakes. It blinds you from generating your best work and contributes to job stress and burnout.
Chances are, if you’re a perfectionist, even when others don’t demand perfection, you demand it of yourself anyway. And it can stop you (and your career and closest relationships) in your tracks. Studies show that perfectionism has increased since the 1980s—the rise believed to be the country’s increases in pressure, stress and anxiety. Young people in particular perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others and are more demanding of themselves. Research shows that perfection can be toxic and aiming for it contributes to mental health problems, psychological strain, burnout and reduction in engagement.
The Difference Between Excellence And Perfectionism
It’s important that managers and employers distinguish between excellence and perfection and monitor their employees for lofty standards. Perfectionism is excellence taken to the extreme. Think of it this way. Water is necessary for survival, but you need it in balance because either too much or too little will kill you. The same goes for excellence. Too much—perfectionism—harms your career and health. If you’re a perfectionist, you’re such a stickler that nobody—not even you—can meet your standards. When you hold the bar too high with coworkers, subordinates or yourself, it creates problems. Contrary to what you tell yourself, most companies don’t expect you to be perfect. Perfectionist thinking is flawed thinking. It narrows your perspective and limits possibilities, constricting your career potential and leading you to go overboard—far beyond what colleagues and business organizations expect. What you consider an adequate effort far outweighs the expectations of others.
Perfectionism is your relentless faultfinder, quick to judge you for minor missteps, minimize your accomplishments or demote you to an underdog. It causes you to over focus on your mistakes, blinds you from seeing your career strengths and talents, and prevents you from generating your best work. On some deeper level you might even believe that kicking yourself when you’re down increases your chances of success. But studies show that it’s the other way around. Perfectionism keeps you in your comfort zone, which keeps you “safe” but prevents you from facing challenges and growing your career. It traps you in a self-made emotional prison, sabotaging your professional growth.
How To Sidestep Perfectionism
Has perfectionism limited your professional growth? Has it imprisoned you in a lackluster job with nowhere to go? If you want to sidestep perfection, here are seven obstacles to overcome.
- Distorted view of your abilities. Ask yourself what you can do to view your capabilities in a more balanced light and set reasonable goals. Your best work isn’t perfection; it’s your best work. That’s good enough and as good as it gets.
- Too tight of a grip. Loosen your grip and allow yourself to make mistakes along the way to triumph. Coming down hard on yourself after defeat is like fighting the fire department when your house is on fire. It reduces your motivation, output and chance of success. The paradox is if you allow yourself to make mistakes, you will make fewer of them.
- Self-condemnation. Instead of attacking yourself when you forget, make a mistake or fail at a task, shower yourself with compassion. Self-compassion gives you the strength to get back in the saddle and recover more quickly from a bruised ego. Practice pep talks and nurture yourself with kindfulness just as you would for coworkers, friends and loved ones after a letdown.
- Overfocus on your shortcomings. There’s a reason “shortcomings” is in Wikipedia and Webster’s but “tallcomings” isn’t. There’s no such word. I made it up because perfectionists ignore their positive attributes and clobber themselves with negatives, creating a flawed view of themselves. It’s important to have a critical eye, accept constructive feedback and recognize your strengths and limitations without dropping your head in your hands. Throw modesty out the window and make a list of your tallcomings to build your resources so you can jump everyday hurdles that are sure to come your way in the workplace.
- A narrow perspective. A broad perspective allows you to build on the positive aspects of your career. Avoid blowing disappointments out of proportion; look for the upside of a downside situation; underscore positive feedback instead of letting it roll off; focus on work solutions instead of problems; pinpoint every opportunity in a challenge; refuse to let one bad outcome rule your future outlook.
- Stuck in the safety of your comfort zone. Growth happens outside your comfort zone. Instead of fleeing from the unknown or unpredictable, you can strengthen your resilience by stepping into the unfamiliar and unexpected. Once you start to stick your neck out and accept failure as an essential steppingstone to success, you become willing to go through the required hurtful steps (they’re called “growth pains”) to get there. What edge can you go to in your career? and What limb can you reach to get to the fruit of the tree?
- Inability to accept imperfections. It’s counter-intuitive, but admitting your imperfections, instead of striving for perfection, can actually improve your job performance and enhance your career. Join the human race. You don’t have to let pride cover up mistakes. When you open your heart and accept your vulnerability, you can be realistic about your goals and unlock your full potential. The paradox is that this approach can make you a better team member, manager or high performer. And others will look up to you.
Think Of Missteps As Your Personal Trainer
A slip-up is a glorious teacher for all of us. When we avoid the pain of human failure, we automatically avoid our growth. You will make mistakes, say things you regret and hurt others. It’s inevitable. The key is what you do afterwards. The hard part is admitting a shortcoming and living with the consequences, but it pays off. Maybe your job has walled you off from friends or caused you to neglect family members. Or perhaps you developed controlling habits that excluded cooperative coworkers eager to perform as a team. Admitting your imperfections allows you to forgive yourself. Even sharing a mistake or failure (with confidence, not self-condemnation) with a close friend, support group or team reflects strength, honesty and integrity, not weakness.
You won’t ever stop making mistakes, but you can stop denying them or covering them up. Choosing the path of humility and courage, instead of ego and pride, makes you a stronger leader and a more loving family member. Facing perfectionism helps you grow, engage and enjoy a happy and fulfilling career and personal life.