Watching Team USA’s fab five gymnasts try to ace their routines on a world stage has made me stop and think about my own pursuit of perfection. In the Olympics, losing balance for even a second can cause a score to plunge. Thankfully, I have more leeway in my job, but somehow I still don’t give myself much slack.
I recognize that there is a definite backlash to striving for perfection. First and foremost, it can be debilitating. If you have a perfectionist boss, you know exactly what I mean. No matter how hard you try, you can never do anything 100 percent right in their eyes. And because they suffer from “analysis paralysis”—the entire department lives in Limbo Land. When they fail, they secretly blame it on themselves and turn on you. If you also carry the perfectionist gene, you can easily become their victim and do double duty with your own self-flogging.
As a recovering perfectionist, my natural tendency is to beat myself up when I think I’ve missed the mark. I don’t even need someone to tell me I’m not good enough. I take care of that myself. Like many of us, I was taught to be good and I obliged. I felt my father’s love fully when his conditions were met and his rules were followed. So I did what I was told and learned to feel good about myself when I received a pat on the back—always looking outside myself to cultivate self worth.
Working to do the best you can is one thing; striving for perfection is another. What I’ve discovered along the way is that perfectionism can be a principal barrier to success. Although there can be value in it, it's more often another place where we get stuck. If you feel that your career is parked in neutral, maybe it’s because perfectionism is your roadblock.
Five Symptoms of Perfectionism
• Rewriting and rewriting, often becoming less confident with every new version
• Rethinking, neatening, categorizing, or reorganizing
• Obsessing when someone doesn’t seem to approve of you or your work
• Looking for recognition or reward when you finish a project or task
• Beating yourself up when you feel you somehow missed the mark
Successful people with strong brands keep their eyes on the big picture and don't get caught up in the details. Perfectionism can bog you down in details, and can overwhelm objectivity, which can be disastrous in business.
Case in point, I have a client who wants everything she does to be perfect, according to her exceedingly high specifications for perfection. When things don’t go exactly as she envisions them, she becomes disappointed in herself. This is true in her cooking, her gardening, her parenting, and her work. But how many things ever go just as we picture them? My client’s perfectionism keeps her down—and I mean that in two ways: What she counts as her lack of perfection causes her to feel bad about herself, and that lack of self-esteem keeps her from moving ahead.
Even if it were achievable, few of us would get a gold medal at work for our perfectionism. For me, the whole trick to softening or finding balance for my perfectionistic nature is to have a clear vision and mission for my work. It’s also about going inside to find happiness, rather than seeking approval and recognition outside. There is little creativity and authenticity in perfectionism. It’s only when we stop judging ourselves and others, listen to our gut, act spontaneously, and let our creativity flow that we can demonstrate fearless leadership and be most effective at work.