On the one hand, most of us are familiar with the dangers of perfectionism:
- It can wreak havoc on our nervous systems and our health. (Ever try falling asleep as your mind goes over all the things that could go wrong with your current project?)
- It can cause imbalance between work and life. (“Sorry, honey, I’m going to be late again. Please take videos of Junior’s school play, so I can watch it later.”)
- It can also lead to procrastination; if something isn’t finished, then it can’t be criticized. (“Sue is expecting this today, but I think a seventh edit will really make it shine, so I’ll ask for another extension.”)
- We’re supposed to “give 110 percent,” which doesn’t even make sense if you think about it.
- We’re supposed to “work smarter not harder,” a concept usually offered by employers as they load more responsibilities on our plates.
- I remember past job hunts when career advisors suggested that, when asked during interviews about our biggest weakness, we sheepishly admit to being perfectionists. It was assumed that organizations liked their employees that way.
I worked with someone once who was supposed to pass a project over to me, but it wasn’t in a state where she felt comfortable showing it to me, so she kept canceling meetings and giving me the runaround. It took a lot of coaxing, and eventually threatening to involve our superiors, to get her to finally hand the files over to me. Her perfectionism put the project at risk.
On the other extreme, I was at a meeting once which was led by someone whom in the past I had heard proudly declare he wasn’t a slave to perfectionism. As I sat in his workshop, I quickly saw numerous errors on the handouts, both typos and incorrect facts. It certainly didn’t give the impression that he had worked hard or cared much.
Where’s the middle ground between these two examples of ineffectiveness?
Excellence is the answer. Excellence is when we do our absolute best, then push the Send button, hand the package over to the courier, finally let our team get lunch, and move on the next task that needs our attention. When we call our task “done,” it’s an act of trust in ourselves. Trust in our skills and professionalism, and also in our ability to handle the consequence of any honest mistake.
Falling too far on either side of excellence just doesn’t feel good. When we submit work that isn’t our best, we can try to make excuses, but slacking comes with guilt and shame. It also de-energizes us. On the other hand, the pressure and anxiety of perfectionism is stressful and exhausting, and it can also hinder our performance.
Excellence just feels good. There’s a sense of internal satisfaction and pride in a job well done, along with the pleasing and liberating mental space of being finished with the task and turning our sights on the next endeavor. Over time, this approach leads to more satisfaction on the job and, in the long term, a rewarding, successful career.