Perfection is the “condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects”—and perfectionists refuse to accept anything less. While it appears that perfectionists are driven by ambition, they sometimes can use perfectionism as a defense mechanism. Pursuing “perfection” is a way to protect against criticism: if the work is flawless, no one can find fault with the person who produced the work. It’s a powerful motivator, but not always a sustainable one.
Even when the pitfalls are apparent, it can be difficult for perfectionists to move away from these tendencies. Perfectionism does pay off in certain moments, which can become self-reinforcing. But if you’re a perfectionist who’s ready to consider some alternatives, read on for ideas that may resonate.
The imperfectness of imperfection
First, let’s consider what perfectionism means in a professional context. I’ll rework the above definition: in order to be perfect, you essentially need to identify all possible shortcomings in your work and systematically eliminate them. Then, as you repeatedly deliver captivating presentations and hit every last fundraising target, your stellar performance shields you from any modicum of criticism. Right?
Well, not exactly.
Eliminating flaws from your work—assuming that’s actually possible—requires you to imagine the gamut of criticisms and internalize them. Far from creating a protective barrier, the very process of becoming “perfect” does the opposite: in effect, you willingly absorb and address the critiques of multiple, prospective observers. Even if you never ultimately receive negative feedback from others, the criticism is still there. It’s just coming from a different (and likely unintended) source: you.
A rising trend
Although perfectionism has its flaws, it’s becoming more prevalent in certain contexts. According to one recent study, perfectionism ison the rise in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, where researchers observed that “competitive individualism” incentivizes people to perfect their behaviors and lifestyles.
While it’s beyond the scope of this post to rigorously analyze the sociocultural influences on perfectionism, it’s worth acknowledging that perfectionism is often reinforced by external narratives about the “model employee,” the “top performer,” the best anything. We compete, compare, rank, and review—all at hyperspeed via email or other digital media. At any moment, we could see or hear something positive or negative about ourselves and our work, measured against any number of standards. All things considered, perfectionism as a defensive response is understandable.
Understandable but unsustainable. So, what’s the alternative?
Make adjustments, keep the payoffs
The tricky thing about perfectionism is that it has payoffs. This reinforcement makes it difficult to manage an about-face, even if you want to. With this in mind, let’s consider some adjustments that retain the payoffs, without the price of using “perfection” as your standard.
Payoff #1: Perfect work means ultimate satisfaction
If you’re a perfectionist, it may be difficult for you to relax before achieving the flawlessness you imagine. Perfectionist writers spend exorbitant amounts of time adjusting a string of sentences, while perfectionist designers endlessly tweak colors until they achieve perfect balance.
In these moments, you may (consciously or not) disregard time and efficiency. You invest three extra hours in order to achieve “ultimate satisfaction” rather than sparing yourself the effort. Perhaps you feel as though you can’t (or won’t) move onto the next step in a project until your present task is exactly as you want it.
Here, it can help to interrupt yourself by rationally evaluating the project at hand. Try listing strictly objective evaluation criteria based on the overarching purpose of your work and its intended audience. This will help you to zero in on when and where to apply your most rigorous standards. By relaxing your personal preferences—that ultimately have little bearing on performance—you can refocus your efforts to deliver a more consequential return on investment.
With this in mind, the perfectionist designer may realize that it’s most important to have a bold and eye-catching design, and that a mere handful of savvy viewers will notice that the colors are ever-so-slightly off-balance.
Payoff #2: You’re known as someone who “thinks of everything”
Thanks to your internal critics, you likely have the capacity to think from multiple vantage points: you anticipate how a plan could unravel or identify logical inconsistencies in an idea or piece of writing. It’s a fantastic skill—for the most part. But if you spend hours on end addressing all possible gaps and variables, you risk losing sight of the big picture.
The alternative isn’t to leave gaping holes in your logic or disregard worst-case scenarios. What you can do is identify these limitations and simply be upfront about them. For instance, when sending work to colleagues, list points you have yet to address and either indicate why they’re negligible or suggest ways to factor them into more advanced drafts. This way, you show that you’ve effectively “thought of everything” without outlining every last contingency or going on tangents.
Payoff #3: Perfection makes your work worth the time you invest
You’ll sometimes hear perfectionists say: “When I do something, I do it all the way. Why bother otherwise?” This “all-in mentality” often makes perfectionists reliable colleagues who pull their weight and remain focused. Here’s the catch: this holds true as long as they’re not over-committing. Unless perfectionists are also able to say “no” on occasion to balance their workload, the return on their efforts will diminish. You can’t be “all-in” on too many things; the ball will drop somewhere.
This is where the “essentialist perfectionist” becomes a stellar combination. If you’re not familiar with essentialism, it’s a practice that focuses on identifying what’s really important in that moment. Eliminating non-essentials means focusing on tasks that are most relevant your position or that have the greatest impact on your organization’s mission. This mindset will help you limit the scope of your activities and wisely focus your energy.
You can perfect the art of imperfection. Are you willing to try? Share your thoughts in the comments below.