Starting anything –no matter how small– is always better than being stuck in a perfect dream.
How can any organization do something perfectly for the first time?
How can you say you are not good at something without even ever trying it?
Looking for the perfect moment, solution, decision… can only get you paralyzed.
Perfectionism can easily turn into your worst enemy.
Overcoming the Perfection Syndrome
“Any defeat in tennis is nothing compared to such a moment (death).” — Roger Federer
Becoming good at something is a journey. Obsession with perfectionism can derail us before we even hit the road.
Take Roger Federer, the best tennis player in the modern era, he didn’t become number one overnight. It took him a while to get there. And not because he didn’t play well. The biggest opponent he had to defeat was perfectionism.
Federer wasn’t always the role model we are now familiar with. He cried, threw balls at the spectators and used to smash his racket against the court. He couldn’t tolerate his own mistakes or to lose a match.
Roger was suffering from the perfectionism syndrome. He had a hard time accept his own flaws.
Federer is now widely recognized as a gentleman. The death of his coach Peter Carter, according to many, was the trigger that turned Roger into the mild-mannered and cool guy we are now familiar with. This was the first time someone close to him died. “Any defeat in tennis is nothing compared to such a moment.” — Federer said about how deeply this death impacted him.
Vulnerability connects us to our human side. It makes us realize we are not perfect.
That’s why we embrace perfectionism: to hide that we are imperfect.
We live in an era full of uncertainty. Productivity, big data, artificial intelligence, social media fantasies and multi-tasking, are only adding more and more pressure to our lives.
We are all expected to be flawless. But we are not.
Perfectionism is a defense mechanism to hide our vulnerable side.
But we cannot hold on to it forever. It’s like suppressing our emotions and will. Sooner or later we’ll need to release the internal pressure. You know what happens when you squeeze a toothpaste tube with its cap on.
The Paradox of Perfectionism
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” — Anne Lamott
Striving for perfectionism can have the opposite effect.
Many parents want their children to be better than them. And that’s because they don’t accept their own flaws. Their children’s success will make them feel successful as parents.
Those parents who want their children to be perfect, they just limit their possibilities. They are just raising kids who will have a hard time connecting to their vulnerability. Or to their own desires.
Kids will either please their parents or rebel against their mandate.
The same happens with perfectionist bosses. In most of the cases, all they seed is fear. Their subordinates will seek to please them rather than do their best.
Fear, paradoxically, generates more mistakes. Instead of using their own instinct or common sense, employees try to read their boss’ mind. And, in doing so, they will drop the ball over and over.
As Martin Antony says in his book “When perfect isn’t good enough”: “the constant pressure to improve performance can have the effect of triggering fears of underperforming and of making mistakes.”
And constant criticism has a similar impact.
In both cases, parents and bosses are promoting a “pleasing others” behavior, rather than encourage kids or employees to do their best.
Perfectionism Makes Us Afraid
“Everything is funny, as long as it’s happening to somebody else.” — Will Rogers
The push towards perfection is a double-edged sword.
While striving for constant improvement is great, searching for perfection hurts everyone. Those who are not perfect will suffer from not being valued. Those aiming for perfection will always feel frustrated.
The thing people fear the most at the workplace is making mistakes, according to this study. And, as I said before, fear only drives making more mistakes.
To create a culture of experimentation, not only requires to eradicate fear, but also to realize that mistakes are a necessary component of learning. Penicillin and Post-it are just two out of many inventions that were made by mistake.
Aiming for betterment is good but trying to be perfect is not. Perfection is an illusion.
Perfectionism is like happiness. The more we aim for it, the further we push it away. Happiness is more a state of mind than a reality, as I wrote here.
One thing that separates us from robots or AI, is our sense of humor.
My wife is super meticulous, great at sports and achieves things faster than anyone. Yet, she struggles washing our wine glasses. Not that she breaks them all the time, but she has broken quite a few.
Originally, I felt upset. We love to enjoy wine in our exquisite glassware. But I realized that the pressure –both hers and mine- would only improve her record. She has gotten better now. And if she happens to break one, we laugh hysterically.
Humor helps us deals when things don’t go our way. Laughter helps us adapt. It’s our human way to let go of our mistakes.
Three Questions for The Perfectionist in You
The only thing that makes us human is our humanity.
Please stop trying to be perfect.
We all connect with the imperfection of others. We like to those who feel fragile and vulnerable. We prefer our friends to be human rather than expect us to be perfect.
Hope these questions help you keep perfectly imperfect.
1. Are you trying to please others?
Stop focusing on others’ expectations for you. If you start to think about disappointing others, the only person you will disappoint is you. Live the life that you choose, be truthful to whom you want to be and people will respect you. Try to please others and, the more you aim for acceptance, the more you will disappoint them.
2. What’s the worst thing that could happen?
If things don’t go according to your perfect expectations, how could that possibly harm you? Is there a real loss or are you just imagining a bad outcome?
When we get stuck by our expectations, we feed our fears rather than our motivation. Rather than focusing on what didn’t happen, enjoy what is happening.
3. What can you learn when things don’t go as you expected?
Embracing a Change Mindset requires to being adaptive to reality rather than getting stuck to how things are supposed to be. Why didn’t things go your way? What can you improve?
Is there something you could have done better? Or was it simply out your control.
Vulnerability is also accepting that we cannot affect everything, especially other people.
The perfect life is the one you have and can enjoy as is.
Aim for improvement. Be bold and brave. Experiment and be the best person you can be.
But don’t let perfectionism cloud who you want to be. Don’t let an idealized version of your life get in the way of enjoying the one you have.
Before You Go
How change-fit is your organization? Do you want to thrive in an ever-changing environment? Check my new book on Amazon: “Stretch for Change”.