Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Pitfalls of Perfectionism

Do any of these descriptions apply to you?
  • You are extremely competitive and can’t stop thinking about mistakes you have made.
  • You want to either finish a task completely or not do it at all.
  • You demand perfection from other people and frequently point out other people’s mistakes.
  • You are self-conscious about making mistakes in front of people, and you hesitate to ask for help.
  • You persist in finishing a task without stopping, even when there is no deadline requiring you to do so.
Most of us consider perfectionism to be a positive term, or at least a moderately beneficial idea. We associate it with the concepts of hard work, aggressive determination, or a desire to produce something…well, perfect. Quality is the point we are after, superior skill, excellent production, absolutely the best outcome in the pursuit of a goal. But perfectionism has a dark side, one that can cripple the individual who embraces it and bring their effectiveness to a grinding halt.
“Perfectionism” as defined by Webster is this: “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable”. Still sounds pretty good, right? On the surface this sounds like the most excellent disposition for an entrepreneur, doesn’t it? But lurking beneath the surface is a sinister energy that will steal the productivity and render ineffective the efforts of the most honest, hard-working businessperson.
If this is how you feel about work...
You are taking things too seriously!
When an individual works under the assumption that nothing short of a perfect outcome is acceptable, they set themselves up for frustration because only rarely will such an outcome be attainable. While high and lofty goals may cause the average person to strive with greater effort, a goal dictating that “nothing less than perfect will do” negates the possibility that a lesser outcome may actually be not only acceptable but preferable in some situations. For example: If you are an author writing a piece describing the life of inner-city children growing up exposed to violence, drug use, and poverty, you may wish to employ some colorful language, or colloquial phrases to illustrate your points from those children’s Perspective. As you begin the final editing of your thought-provoking literary work, your grammar checker goes crazy and points out error after error in your sentence structure. Now, if you choose the path of perfection in your English language format, your piece is about to lose a great deal of the “punch” that it had as an expose’ of the traumatic life experiences you attempt to describe.Your only other option is to ignore the grammar correction prompts and allow your words to flow onto the paper with each and every imperfection intact, driving home the full emotional impact you had hoped to convey to your readers. In other words, the imperfections in the piece add weight to your words and imbue the images you describe with a life and power that will invoke a response in your readers. In this case, perfection would sanitize the writing and render your descriptions impotent and emotionally void.
Understandably, it could be argued that although perfectionism may be a negative concept when applied to creative pursuits, in the world of absolutes it is more beneficial than hurtful. For example:
  • An accountant must be accurate to a degree approaching perfection. 
  • A surgeon must not accept errors in their work.
  • An air-traffic-controller dares not suggest that mistakes on his part are inconsequential.
There are professions wherein the margin for error must be so small that it approaches perfection, or disaster would be the definite result. But still there is a balance involved, a finely tuned orchestra of high and low notes that combine to enable those in such professions to sing their song without destroying their own voice. For instance:
  • The accountant may boast that they have never had to endure an audit because their records are so impeccably well-documented.
  • The surgeon may take extreme care to be rested and knowledgeable so that he rarely encounters a case he cannot successfully treat.
  • The air-traffic-controller might have a keen eye for detail coupled with calm decision-making, so that he encounters not one dangerous incident in an entire career.
But is there a balance to these seemingly perfect performances? What do their desks look like? Are they bothered if few tiny lint bunnies propagate in the corners until they feel inclined to vacuum?These are the vital balances that enable those in “necessarily perfectionistic” roles to function in a healthy manner.
Life is all about balance...
The universe is built on balance. Newton’s third law of motion states: “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. This can be applied to our perfectionistic tendencies. If your work demands that you have little to no margin for error, then at some other place in your life there must be the opportunity for blatant imperfection to be acceptable. Our accountant needs to be permitted to leave the mail in a messy pile on their desk without criticism. Our surgeon needs to be allowed to leave the magazines on their coffee table at home in a state of disarray. Our air-traffic-controller needs to be permitted to leave their cereal bowl in the sink without having a guilt complex about a messy kitchen. Why?Because these seemingly small things are the balancing factors to their otherwise perfection-demanding workplace. Perhaps these three individuals will choose something else as their “let it be less than perfect” aspect of life, but they will all, consciously or unconsciously, find or at least try to find such an outlet.
So what about the majority of us who do not live and move in quite such demanding daily environments? I know that my own work is very important, and I do strive for excellence. Most of the individuals that I know strive daily to do their best to deliver a quality product, or to perform a service as well or better than their industry competitors. This is admirable, though still in need of balance in order to be healthy.
My best example of personal perfectionism in myself has to do with the simple task of laundry. I might look at a full laundry basket and decide that I have time to wash and dry those clothes, but not to then iron, fold, and put them away. If I decide it is not worth washing and drying them because the rest of the task will have to wait, I am acting with perfectionism...getting halfway through the task is unacceptable, only completing the whole task from start to finish will do. As a result, I don’t even begin the task and I accomplish nothing. How is it advantageous to accomplish nothing, rather than at least finishing part of the task? Quite obviously, it is not advantageous and I have done nothing more than increase the workload I will have to bear at a later time.
In the workplace, I encounter this mentality on a daily basis. If I foresee that building a new PowerPoint presentation for a client will take twelve hours but I only have three hours available at the present time, I could choose to put off the project until I have twelve straight hours to work on that presentation. In all honesty that is not likely to happen, so I set myself up for failure before I even begin. Now, I could choose to begin the project, complete as much as I am able to in the time I have available, and come back to it at a later time when I can give more energy to it. I can repeat this process as many times as necessary until the project is completed without ever beating myself up over the fact that I didn’t sit down and complete the entire task all at once.
Again, it is the balance of doing what I am able to do the very best that I am able, without adding pressure and guilt to myself by placing an unattainable goal of absolute perfection on my shoulders.
What does this mean to the entrepreneur? As a whole, entrepreneurs tend to be driven, goal-oriented, “master of their own destiny” types of individuals. They like to call their own shots, make their own opportunities, and chart their own course.Unfortunately, the pitfall of perfectionism looms hidden and deadly in the paths of those who intensely forge ahead with single-minded determination. We need to recognize when we truly must reach for the prize of zero errors and landing our dart in the center of the bull’s-eye. Sometimes such accuracy is necessary and earns us success, while at other times it is a stress-inducing standard that accomplishes nothing but to designate smaller accomplishments or partially-finished projects as failures.“Doing our best” and “being a perfectionist” is not the same thing, and recognizing the difference can save us much discouragement. As entrepreneurs, we owe it to ourselves to be the best that we can be, and at the same time to recognize when what we are and what we are doing are enough.

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