Don’t let perfection stand in the way of progress.
For those who want the best in their careers and their lives, excellence is always a worthwhile pursuit. But how do you know when the quest for doing things really well tips into perfectionism—causing delays or impeding progress?
Like so many things, a positive trait taken to the extreme can turn into something negative—for you and for others. While a commitment to greatness can seem purely positive, too much of a good thing can create a barrier to getting things done and building effective relationships. For individuals, perfectionism is linked to depression, and for teams, it can get in the way of progress as projects are never quite good enough to move forward. For organizations, an overemphasis on perfection can result in paralysis and the inability to innovate.
Perfectionism Is Increasing And Can Be Damaging
According to new research published by the American Psychological Association, since 1989, perfectionism has risen among college students. This was true across genders and related to all kinds of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionism (I must be perfect), socially-prescribed perfectionism (others expect me to be perfect) and other-oriented perfectionism (I expect others to be perfect).
The increase in perfectionist tendencies is correlated with greater incidences of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. In addition, perfectionism is predictive of depression—the more people demonstrate self-criticism and extreme concern over making mistakes, the more likely they are to be depressed. This is true in both adolescents and adults.
Researchers believe the increase in perfectionism may be linked to social media. An over-emphasis on posting and proving one’s value can result in the need to be flawless. In addition, social media tends to exacerbate a sense of comparison. People find themselves always trying to measure up to others who are merely sharing curated versions of themselves.
How To Avoid Perfectionism
Perfection can get in the way of progress, or as Voltaire is credited with saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Holding out for perfection before seeking a development opportunity, delaying a team’s progress until everything is just right, or being overly critical of ideas can impede individuals, teams and companies. Here’s how you can focus on being excellent without falling into the trap of striving for perfection:
Seek stretch. One of the traits of perfectionism is to avoid situations where you might fail. The pursuit of mastery, on the other hand, requires increasing effort and greater amounts of challenge. Seek out experiences in which you are not already competent. Find opportunities to test your skills and push hard enough that you fail sometimes. Learning cannot occur without failure. If you’re never failing, you’re probably not stretching yourself enough—and you may be striving for perfection instead of excellence.
Find feedback. Perfectionism is often associated with avoiding criticism. In order to improve continuously and pursue accomplishments, feedback is key. You need to know how you’re doing, and perhaps most importantly, how you can do better. Part of being human is spotting flaws and opportunities for improvement. Use feedback as stepping stones to build skills and talents rather than information which could be potentially paralyzing or demotivating.
Trust yourself. A growth mindset suggests you can always build your skills, get better and strive for more. If you make a mistake or fail, be sure to keep trying. This is more than just the platitude you may have heard from a parent or teacher, it is the raw material of development. It’s natural to miss an objective or fall short in a task if you’re challenging yourself. A perfectionist attitude is self-defeating. However, research by Australian Catholic University found self-compassion could alleviate the negative effects of perfectionism. What sets those who accomplish the most apart from those who accomplish the least is whether failure inspires continued effort. Be kind to yourself and trust yourself to stretch for the next big step.
Plan for evolution. Have a mindset where improvement is the norm. Learn to discern the elements of a solution that are show-stoppers, and should delay progress to get them right, versus those that can be launched to test, learn and improve. Getting an idea out there, and releasing a project when it is good enough—rather than perfect—is acceptable when you plan to review, iterate and apply new thinking. Ensure a system for continuous improvements to pursue excellence. This thinking (sometimes referred to as Design Thinking) applies to products, projects and processes as well as your own development. You may never feel you’re perfect, but that shouldn’t stand in your way of taking an appropriate risk and reaching for that next opportunity (see Seek Stretch above!).
Pressure to be perfect may come from ourselves or from others, but it is rarely constructive and can cause problems from depression to delays in projects. The alternative is to strive for excellence. Seek stretch, find feedback, trust yourself and plan for evolution so you can be brilliant, even if you’re not perfect.