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Calming the Perfectionist Inside

Posted on: June 11th, 2013 by Valerie Grubb

"Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough."
Julia Cameron, American artist and author of The Artist’s Way

Sure, we all want to perform at our best. A fine line exists, however, between excellence and perfection: striving for the latter can hinder your performance and cause serious emotional turmoil.

How do you know which side of the line you’re on? To a perfectionist’s ears, these scenarios may seem familiar:

  • Nothing you do is ever good enough.
  • You procrastinate embarking on new projects because you’re waiting for the "perfect time" to start them.
  • Everyone around you is better than you.
  • You mentally beat yourself up for not being perfect.
  • You dwell on your mistakes or play them over and over in your head.

Constantly comparing yourself to others can result in headaches, feelings of exhaustion, chronic anxiety or stress, or frustration-or some combination of all of the above. Inhabiting this tough space over the long-term can adversely affect not only your work performance but your health as well.

It’s time to let go of your perfectionist streak and understand that doing your best is good enough.


Let It Go

Perhaps we should all heed the advice in Nike’s advertising campaign and “just do it.”

Constantly striving for perfection means travelling down a long road without an end. If your goal is to be perfect, or if you’re waiting for the perfect moment to start something you’ve always wanted to do, you’ll be waiting forever, because "perfect" never arrives. So just do it-just start the project and do the best you can in the time allotted for it.

Make up your mind that today is the day to let go, move on, and stop obsessing about perfection. Only you have the ability to stop the debilitating thoughts in your head. Make a list of your successful projects and refer to it when you start to obsess. Remind yourself that you have done well in the past and that this project is no different from your previous success stories.


Good Enough versus Perfect

“Good enough is good enough. Perfect will make you a big fat mess every time.”
Rebecca Wells, The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder

Keep in mind who your audience is and what they’re looking for, because your job is to deliver on their expectations. Remember, they won’t distinguish between excellent and perfect. They’re just looking to answer a simple yes-or-no question: did you complete the project on time, to their satisfaction, and within budget? That’s ultimately how they will judge your performance.

Peter Bregman, a strategic consultant to CEOs and leadership teams, hit the nail on the head in a 2009 blog post he published on the Harvard Business Review website:

But the world doesn’t reward perfection. It rewards productivity. And productivity can only be achieved through imperfection. Make a decision. Follow through. Learn from the outcome.

In other words, don’t worry about getting it perfect. Just worry about getting it done. (And keep in mind that failing to make-and keep-timelines can torpedo a career, so if your perfectionism is getting in the way, now is the time to switch your focus to “done.”)

You can gain another perspective on this issue by measuring your effort against the project’s payoff. At some point during the course of the project, you’ll encounter the law of diminishing returns as your efforts begin to outweigh any improvements to the project. When you hit that wall, it’s best to ask if good enough is good enough.

One final note: avoid the temptation to keep raising your standards, because you’ll inevitably fail at some point. Keep your project on time and within budget and find the point where good enough is good enough-then aim that for point in every project you do.


View Mistakes as Learning Opportunities

"No one is perfect. That’s why pencils have erasers."

Unfortunately, we’ve all grown up hearing "practice makes perfect"-an adage that can set the stage for perfectionism. You’re better served, however, by understanding that mistakes are a part of life and a part of growth. As Rania Habiby Anderson writes on her blog, The Way Women Work, “The more ‘mistakes’ we make, the more we will most likely learn and the greater the likelihood that we will remember and [apply them] . . . to our next endeavour.” The goal is to use each mistake as a learning opportunity for your next project.

In fact, only by making mistakes can we learn anything at all. You must consciously and systematically review your projects to identify what went wrong. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What was the goal?
  • Where did we not achieve our objectives?
  • Why did this failure happen?
  • What do you want to improve (and what do we want to repeat!) in the next project?

Active learning will help you ensure a better result the next time around.


Embrace your Imperfection

According to Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College and expert on perfectionism, perfectionists believe that their self-worth is contingent on their performance and that if they don’t do well, they are worthless. In that vein, overcoming perfectionism means finding worth in yourself and what you do. It isn’t just about accepting that you’ll never be perfect-it’s about embracing your shortcomings, flaws, and weaknesses!

Remember, nothing good comes from perfectionism!


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Question: I've been out of work for a while. Do I take a job offer if the pay is awful?

Answer: Yes, taking a job, sometimes any job particularly if you have not worked in a while is good not only for your paycheck but for your mental health as you search for the job you really want. There is no shame in accepting work for honest pay. You are in transition and you need to remind yourself of that and not feel bad if the job you have now or are considering isn't willing to pay you what you are worth. There will be a job out there that will and you need to use all of your resources available including interim work to realize your goals. Taking a low paying job in the meantime may bruise your ego but it won't kill your pride or your wallet.