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Why Perfection Kills Excellence–and How to Stop It

You almost didn’t get to read this post. Because I wanted it to be perfect.

But the important thing I’ve learned is that producing work is not about being perfect or imperfect. It’s about doing high-quality work.

Maybe you are noticing that “perfect” changed to “high-quality” in those last two sentences.

More important, perhaps, is to notice that the word “being” changing to “doing.”

Because perfectionism comes not only from setting unrealistic expectations, but also from equating performance with self worth.

Which is a mistake.

Elizabeth Gilbert taught me this about 10 years ago when I first discovered (and relentlessly binged) TED Talks.

Like most great insights, it’s incredibly valuable. And also not always easy to fully internalize or implement.

So let’s look at this a little more closely. And figure out how we should deal with perfectionism.

How is being a perfectionist a weakness?

Why Perfection Kills Excellence And How to Stop It

What is so bad about trying to do perfect work? To aim at the highest possible outcome and avoid all mistakes?

Isn’t that what everyone should be striving for?

Well, the problem is that there is a fine line between a healthy striving for excellence and an unhealthy pursuit of perfectionism. And crossing that line is not a good idea.

  • Setting high expectations, just beyond your reach, is what keeps you in “the zone” performing at your peak (FLOW). But aiming for unrealistically high standards becomes debilitating.
  • Immersing yourself in the process of doing good work helps to ensure that you cover all the bases well. But a fixation on a perfect outcome at all costs can cause you to take shortcuts that can end up being really bad in the long run.
  • A little anxiety can create energy. But a preoccupation with a fear of failure and disapproval can deplete energy.
  • A healthy striving for excellence allows you to take criticism in stride and with perspective, helping you to hone your process and learn for the future. But an unhealthy view that criticism is a personal attack shuts down learning and replaces it with defensiveness.

Weirdly, the quest to go all the way to making everything perfect is pretty much guaranteed to backfire.

This makes perfectionism a weakness.It leads to:

  • Extreme procrastination. Never starting is a good way to ensure we don’t fail.
  • Lost time. Wasted extra effort to be perfect could be better spent on more productive tasks.
  • Chronic stress. From constantly berating yourself and creating lots of anxiety.

There must be a better way.

How do you overcome perfectionism at work?

The way to overcome perfectionism at work is to separate your evaluation of yourself from your evaluation of your work. Your job is not to be perfect. Your job is to do good work.

To see this more clearly takes time. It requires that you build perspective along with your ability to evaluate your own performance more objectively.

You can do this by focusing on your work process, working to independently validate your efforts, and to produce the most complete output that you can.

Step 1: Focus on the process

At the end of the day, you want to feel confident that you have done your best.

The mistake many of us make, however, is to simply look at the results. If everything turned out well, then we did a good job. If they didn’t, then we did a bad job.

But that’s not necessarily true. That approach is actually a potentially wildly misleading oversimplification.

One of the best explanations I’ve heard of this recently comes from professional poker player Annie Duke. In her book, she describes this problem of “resulting” where decisions are evaluated based on the ultimate outcome.

While this sort of “Monday Morning Quarterbacking” is prevalent and seems logical, she explains that it is a flaw in logic that prevents you from accurately evaluating your performance. Because in life, as in poker, there are a lot of variables, hidden information, and many factors well beyond your control.

Which can make the results misleading. It is much more productive to focus on your process.

Did you make good decisions along the way? If you did, and the result was poor, then factors outside of your control caused a problem. There might not be much you can do about that.

If you didn’t, and the result was good, then you maybe got lucky this time. In which case you need to figure out how improve your process even though you somehow skated through this time.

If you can focus more attention on your process, you can begin to gain more awareness and insight into what is important about doing excellent work.

In this way you can be much more productive while continually improving your odds of good results.

Step 2: Independently validate your approach

Evaluating your own efforts is hard. That’s why enlisting some help will do you a world of good.

Feedback from others is invaluable to improvement. But you have to be thoughtful about who’s feedback you should consider and how much weight to put on any of it.

Relying solely on your boss for feedback, for instance can be a mistake. Too often this is going to come from a narrow point of view and probably also late in the game.

It is better to get feedback from others, including “disinterested” parties. And to get that feedback as you are shaping and refining your work, not just at the end when it’s done.

I’ve worked for some tough bosses over the years. Their feedback or criticism could be pretty direct and biting. And sometimes it was irrational.

Yes, sometimes I got the short end of the stick for no reason other than the boss or client was having a bad day.

The frustrating part of experiences like that is, it can be really hard to tell that is what’s going on in the heat of the moment. And taking that kind of feedback personally–especially when it’s unwarranted–is not a good thing.

The way I have figured out how to insulate myself from that experience is to make sure to review my own work as objectively as possible.

To do that, I need help from others.

By talking through my process, examining my decisions, and sharing draft results with others I am able to get useful insights. They help me to see things I’ve overlooked, flaws in my logic, and mistakes in how I’ve pulled it all together.

All of that helps me to improve my work and my process….BEFORE it is submitted. Then, I can more easily let the chips fall where they may knowing that I’ve done my absolute best.

I have found that getting feedback is easier than you might think. People like to be asked their opinion and they like to help.

The important thing to keep in mind with this approach is that it is helpful to include people closer to whatever you are working on but also people who are further away from it.

A line of questioning from someone in another division of the organization or outside of the company can shed as much (or more) light on your work than someone who is intimately familiar with the people and topics at the heart of it.

Step 3: Celebrate successes and accept losses

It’s human nature to find losses more painful than equivalent gains.

We are weird that way.

Knowing this, we can try to rebalance things a bit.

Celebrating success more intentionally can help us to understand that things are, in generally, probably going a lot better than we think. You are having more wins along the way, you simply minimize them.

By focusing more attention on these good things, you can build your self confidence up. And you can simply recognize that things are pretty good most of the time.

On the loos side, a little more attention can be helpful too. Provided you face it, learn from it, and then move on. This isn’t about wallowing. It’s about learning.

The losses will still feel bad, but the lessons will be helpful. And they won’t be as stark if you are celebrating lots of wins along the way.

You can go even further by stepping back and looking at everything in a broader context.

Over the course of the month, this win or loss is just one of the many things that’s happened. It looks even smaller if you think about it in the context of the year.

Better still, step back and look at your work year in the context of your life. Many other wins and losses have happened across the board. And you’ve landed ok.

This too shall pass.

Maybe you could even reflect a little further back. Over the past few years, how do things look?

Chances are that in retrospect you can see the good times and bad times flipping. Good events will stand out and bad ones fade more. Because those bad times aren’t so bad and don’t mean so much in the end.

Accept the losses knowing they will fade. Celebrate the wins knowing that is what you will cherish more over the long term.

Bringing it all together

Excellent work comes from a focused effort. It requires diligence and intensity. But if you take to too far, you will venture into dangerous territory.

Perfectionism kills excellence because it pushes too far into that territory.

Unrealistic expectations become debilitating. A results focus taken too far screws up the process and causes damage.

Too much anxiety fosters a deeper fear that depletes energy. Taking things too personally stifles learning with walls of defensiveness.

All of this can lead to extreme procrastination, lost opportunity, and chronic stress.

That doesn’t sound perfect at all. And it sure messes up excellent.

A wiser approach is to focus on the process, knowing that however things turn out that you tried your very best. And leave it at that.

Independently validate your approach to be sure that you are indeed doing your best. Outside help will help you to find and fill gaps while also building confidence.

Finally, celebrate wins and accept losses. Know that these moments are important, but that they are part of a larger context.

Give yourself a chance to acknowledge to good stuff in particular, because we have a tendency to focus too much on the bad by default.

This more balanced and thoughtful approach can help keep you off of the ledge, making yourself crazy and preventing yourself from doing your best work.