This post is by Jane Perdue, founder of Braithwaite Innovation Group and a leadership and women’s issues consultant. Perdue is @thehrgoddess on Twitter and can also be found doing e-learning at Get Your BIG On.

Are you trapped in the paradox of perfection? Do you want to crank out perfect outcomes yet fear failure so much that you quit trying or give up or never get anything finished? In a society that idolizes flawlessness (air brushing photos and the like), it’s easy to step over the line into the dark side of perfectionism: A space where you make an art form of always over-delivering faultless outcomes, even when that level of work isn’t warranted.

For certain, there are many advantages to being conscientious and wanting to excel. Those aims are healthy, especially when they pull you encouragingly toward a desired goal. But if you perpetually push yourself to be the absolute best and don’t allow any shortcomings or defects (as you define them), then you’re mired in unhealthy perfectionism. “There’s a difference between excellence and perfection,” says Miriam Adderholdt, author of “Perfectionism: What’s Bad About Being Too Good?” “Excellence involves enjoying what you’re doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned, and developing confidence. Perfection involves … always finding mistakes no matter how well you’re doing.”

To aim for excellence rather than perfection, remember:

1) Being perfect is elusive and usually not necessary. Since 1876, 199,618 major league baseball games have been played, and only 20 of them have been perfect. The other 199,598 games turned out just fine, as the stat books show. Follow author Peter Bregman’s advice to “shoot for the new gold standard: good enough. Be the good-enough parent. The good-enough employee.”

2) Being perfect is a waste of time. If perfection is your goal, you’re probably living in a self-imposed prison, one filled with non-negotiable criteria. Meeting your own lofty standards requires rework on top of rework. All that tinkering takes time. Think of all the lost productivity involved in preparing what were most likely incremental improvements. Be able to recognize when your work has reached the law of diminishing returns, stop right then, and move on to your next project.

3) Being perfect is an enormous drain on self-confidence. Wanting to do flawlessly is commendable, but narrowing your possible outcome to either being perfect or being a failure is a self-destructive trap. This “either/or” mindset creates self-doubt and reduces creativity (cited as the single most important leadership quality for success in a study of 1,500 CEOs completed by IBM in 2010), innovation and risk-taking. And, if these limitations aren’t enough, a study done by Dr. Prem Fry, a research professor at Trinity Western University, revealed that individuals with high perfectionism scores had a 51% increased risk of death possibly related to high levels of stress and anxiety.

And lastly, remember that meaningful, long-term success derives more from how you handle what goes wrong than from getting everything perfectly right.

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32 responses to “3 reasons to kiss being perfect goodbye”

  1. Monica Diaz says:

    The other trouble with perfection, Jane, is that it gets in the way of learning. People striving for perfection will turn to denial before accepting flaws and learning from shortcomings. I like to say that I strive to be "perfectly human": exciting, engagingly, human. That means I will make mistakes and learn from them. Set high standards and strive for them. Get a rush from reaching the top and get dizzy when I am getting there… all of that and more! Thanks for your post on an always important aspect of leadership

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Monica – great wisdom that you present with being "perfectly human!" The learning process is like a roller coaster – your reaching the top and the dizzy descent prompted the image! You are so right: the desire for perfection can, and usually does, stop the learning adventure in its tracks. That's reason #4 to kiss perfectionism good-bye!

  2. Shawn Murphy says:

    Good list and important for all of us who lean towards perfectionism. As an ongoing, recovering perfectionist, I'd add to the list anxiety. The mind tricks pursuing perfectionism causes is exhausting once anxiety steps in. It can impact sleep and ability to focus.

    Good that you're shining light on this elusive monster.

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Shawn – great add to the list! The negative psychological impact of perfectionism can be huge and debilitating. One starts second-guessing their own work, thoughts, actions, etc. Putting you on Monica's roller coaster….but this time the ride isn't much fun.

  3. Billy Kirsch says:

    I long ago learned to define perfection in a different way. For me perfection is what works. If a song, a project, and event works, then it's perfect because it's operational, accepted and successful. What more could we really want. Experimentation and creativity are often counter to perfection.

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Billy – your working definition of perfect as what's "operational, accepted and successful" can be a useful yardstick for going for excellence (which is achievable when perfect many times isn't). Thanks much for sharing!

  4. Hi Jane,

    I agree with your point that chasing after perfection is as useful as racing to reach the end of a rainbow. But I disagree with going with the alternative of "good enough". Frankly, in my experience, good enough only leads to medocre performance, rather than an improved, though imperfect state. That's why I wrote on my blog that one should aim to make things "better" instead of perfect because no matter how good a product or service you offer, there is always a way to make it better.

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Hi there, Tanveer –

      Love the visual image you created with your rainbow comment! I think each one of us has to come to terms with accepting outputs that are less then perfect, whether one calls it "better" or "good enough." Flaws and quirks give flavor to life, love and leadership, and learning to embrace them can be huge step forward.

  5. Jane, this is so "up" for me right now. Thanks for helping me gain perspective.

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Mary – so glad to hear the tips helped to create some perspective. I agree with Shawn that many of us over-achievers push for perfection, when maybe just excellent or better (as Tanveer) suggests is all we truly need. It's creating that internal trigger, alarm, whatever, that goes off when we're certain that, with just one round of rework, we'll have the perfect product in our hands!

  6. Susan Mazza says:

    Always appreciate your insights Jane!

    Totally agree attempting to be perfect is a waste of time and a drain on self confidence if taken to extremes because we never will be perfect. Love how Monica says it – better to strive to be perfectly human. Like Tanveer I am not sure the alternative context I would choose would be "good enough" though, unless the emphasis is on good enough to deliver the desired outcome or make the intended impact. Does a typo really matter if the message got across? Does my daughter feel any less loved because I buy cupcakes for her birthday party at school instead of making them myself like her friends mom does? I think not!

  7. Lead BIG! says:

    Susan – love the real life examples you provide. I have a colleague who apologized while presenting to a room of 50 for the typo in her last newsletter. She said she had been losing sleep over it. Most of her audience said they hadn't even noticed the typo (wonder how many looked for it later?). Regardless of how we define the end product, the key element is stopping yourself from perpetually chasing that elusive perfectionism!

  8. Jane!

    Great post which has allowed me to travel into my past and reflect. I like posts that do that!

    I felt incredible anxiety with the birth of my first son. I wanted it all to be "perfect". Given that perfect does not exist, I became a different person… obsessed! Once I came out of that phase, I started using the term… "Do what works!" It may not be what everyone else is doing or what we "should" be doing, but you know what… It Works!

    We should never stop thinking creatively to find new ways to do things that work for us, and we should never stop communicating these new ideas to those around us for fear it doesn't fit the mold of "perfect". I try to work on this every day!

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Sonia –

      "Do what works" – that's an absolutely spot-on mantra for anyone who's mindful of checking their perfectionism tendencies! So appreciate you sharing your personal story….that's so impactful. Smiles and thanks!

  9. Thanks Jane for a great reminder. Working in a target-driven environment, leaders and individuals would unknowingly pursue Target-X to perfection. To improve productivity and creativity, we need to see success in multi-dimensional ways. In the Chinese language, "success" literally means "efforts accomplished". It would be a good enough starting point! Do you think?

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Your observation that we need to see success is multi-dimensional ways is excellent! I once had an employee who spent eight hours drawing a single line for a training manual. It took him 8-hours to arrive at his definition of success. Good enough would have taken much less time and totally served the purpose. Understanding the end point from the very beginning is often an over-looked part of determining whether excellent or better (Tanveer) or what works (Sonia) is what's needed.

  10. Steven Ferreira says:

    I couldn't help but think of you when I read this article.

  11. Allyn Conway says:

    Great article! Striving for perfection also can create missed opportunities because the door or window gets closed before you take advantage of it.

    Interesting fact about only 20 perfect games in baseball.

  12. Dick Hannneman says:

    I totally DISAGREE. Lift your sight! Perfection should be our goal, but not a parochial, short-sighted attempt to cross every "t" and dot every "i." Properly understood, perfection is the ideal way we allocate our time and effort in our lives: the priorities we choose, our relationships in our families and communities, etc., not just a narrow workplace concept. So, thanks, Jane, for reminding us not to obsess over the trivial. If we pursue a broad and comprehensive quest for perfection, that pursuit captures Jane's concern while allowing us to consider our entire existence within the scope of our purpose in life.

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Dick – I love alternate points of view! Your observations about pursuing the "short-sighted attempt" and "obsessing over the trivial" succintly sums up the sink hole that swallows up many folks chasing perfection. One can never go wrong aiming for a higher purpose in life. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Nancy Casterlin says:

    This is great wisdom Jane. I remember 17 years ago on Sept. 10th my wedding day, I wanted everything to be "perfect" (I'm sure all brides do). My parents had this wonderful vision of walking me down the aisle while a musician played "Trumpet Voluntary", to the create that perfect mood of elegance and grace. As we stood at the back of the church, waiting for our cue, the musician to start playing "Trumpet Voluntary" and he blew the first 2 notes REALLY badly. Our reaction? The three of us cracked up! We laughed all the way down the aisle, and everyone else smiled or laughed right along with us! So much for perfection! I felt like a huge weight had just been lifted off my shoulders. It wasn't perfect, but it was the most beautiful, wonderful, slightly imperfect ceremony and reception of my life – and my husband and I cherished every minute of it, as much as we cherish our "slightly imperfect" but beautiful, wonderful, partnership today.

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Nancy – what an amazing story, thanks so much for sharing it! It sounds as if your marriage got off to a perfect start – laughing together about something over which you had zero control…love it! While we may strive for perfection, it really is those delightfully imperfect quirks that make us interesting.

  14. Teddy says:

    Being "perfect" is extremely rare or impossible. As you stated being excellent is something possible. You hear comments like he is an excellent doctor, or excellent advisor. You do not hear he is a perfect doctor. No one can be perfect.

    By the time you are perfect in some skill that skill will probably be obsolete. Go for excellent because that is what everyone wants

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Teddy – you make a great point that parallels what Allyn had to say: that by the time we achieve the vision of perfection that lives in our mind, well, the moment has passed. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  15. Tina says:

    Attempting to be perfect is fools gold. When you hear someone say this person is perfect we start looking for faults. However, when we hear someone is excellent they seem to have more credibility. So in your career or family go for being excellent.

    Do things to the best of your ability and no one will fault you if you fail.

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Tina – love your healthy perspective on life! Doing your best, learning from your mistakes along the way, failing a time or two, and growing as person = recipe for success. Thanks for adding your voice to the discussion!

  16. Vicky says:

    Trying to be perfect all the time, in everything you do, can only create more obstacles for you, rather than help you. At least that's why I see it. I remember a few years ago, I had this morning routine that just needed to be perfect each and every time, I hated when I couldn't find my toothbrush, I needed my sugar in my coffee just right and so on. It was ok for a while, since I lived alone, but as soon as I found a life partner, my carefully constructed plans went out the window. I realized I was getting pissed for no reason, so I slowly started to not care anymore. Why should I set these standards for myself on even the most easiest of tasks?

    Here's a cool article that explains the negative aspects of perfectionism in business:

    Enjoy and thanks for the great article!

    • Lead BIG! says:

      Vicky – thanks so much for sharing your story of overcoming perfectionism and for sharing the link. I particularly like the following quote from the link you provided. Good stuff!

      Psychologist J. Clayton Lafferty, who studied the lifestyles and personalities of 9,211 managers and professionals, is quoted in Psychology Today. Lafferty says, “Striving for perfection is likely to harm employees and companies alike. Perfectionism has nothing to do with actually trying to perfect anything. Because they equate their self-worth with flawless performance, perfectionists often get hung up on meaningless details and spend more time on projects than is necessary. Ultimately, productivity suffers.”

  17. […] 3 reasons to kiss being perfect goodbye by Jane Perdue (SmartBlog on Leadership) This blog post inspires you to be excellent, not perfect. Perfection is drains not only productivity, but also your self-confidence. […]

  18. […] 3 reasons to kiss being perfect goodbye #in | SmartBlog on Leadership Trying to being perfect is such a waste of time,effort and self-confidence since it is unattainable yet its so difficult to break free from the paradox  (tags: philosophy Public) Rate this: Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post.   Leave a comment […]