Don’t Let Perfect Get in the Way of Good
But the quest for perfection is a lot like Captain Ahab’s quest to hunt and kill Moby-Dick. He spent a lifetime in pursuit of the elusive creature and, in the end, was dragged to his death by the great white whale.
Not that you’re going to go insane or die a horrible death if perfection is the creature you hunt. But perfection can be detrimental, especially to small business owners or marketing managers who have long to-do lists and fewer productive hours to get things done.
Let’s take a look at some of the consequences of an unhealthy obsession with perfection — and how we can use perfection to make us more productive.
Taking Too Long
It takes a long time to make something perfect, and that can have a negative impact on productivity. It won’t matter that your new sales or business development proposal is perfectly accurate, has the best graphics and contains no typos if it’s not submitted in time to make the deadline for consideration. Furthermore, if you spend too much time working on any one thing, other aspects of your business will suffer.
Taking too long doesn’t just mean being late. It can mean never finishing. To a perfectionist, a project or effort may never be good enough to share with others, and therefore it’s never done. We call this perfection paralysis.
Art Markman, a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin who has written business books such as Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership, addressed this in a Fast Company article in which he wrote of the all-too-familiar problem of a graduate student struggling to finish a PhD thesis: “When I start working with new PhD students for the first time, one of the first pieces of advice I give them is that the best dissertation is a completed dissertation. That is, it is crucial for students to find projects that are manageable. Many PhD students never finish their dissertations, because they want their PhD thesis to be a masterpiece.”
And those who do finish often lose 15 years of their lives. That’s because the average student takes almost eight years to slog through a PhD program and is 33 years old before he or she starts a career. It’s hard to blame all of that on the quest for perfection, but it can certainly contribute.
Stifling Risk Taking and Creativity
Perfectionists tend to have extremely high standards about what they do and how they do it. If you are a perfectionist, you are more likely to develop a fear of failing that could prevent you from taking risks or expressing your new creative ideas.
To a perfectionist, it may seem better to say or do nothing than to share an imperfect new product or idea or try an imperfect new business tool. The perfectionist may also see only one (his or her!) path to success and be unwilling to take other, less traveled roads.
Creating a Negative Work Environment
Perfectionists are hard on themselves — after all, they have those high standards to meet. If you are a perfectionist, it’s all too easy to apply those same standards and expectations to your colleagues or employees, but beware — you’re on the fast track to an uncomfortably tense working environment.
Someone who works for or with a perfectionist may feel like they can never work hard enough or well enough to merit approval. Over time, that’s demoralizing and can lead to negativity and poor performance or even ruin professional relationships.
Never Being Happy
The relentless pursuit of perfection is stressful and can mean that we’re never happy with where we are or what we have. It’s connected to a host of mental health issues.
In her BBC article titled The Dangerous Downside of Perfectionism from February 2018, Amanda Ruggeri linked “perfectionistic tendencies to a laundry list of clinical issues: depression and anxiety (even in children), self-harm, social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, binge eating, anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, hoarding, dyspepsia, chronic headaches, and, most damning of all, even early mortality and suicide.”
It’s Not All Bad
What we’ve been describing so far can indicate maladaptive perfection — the bad kind that leads to all kinds of problems. But perfection isn’t always bad. There’s a type known as adaptive perfection that forms the foundation of what we call conscientiousness, the personality trait marked by the desire to do what is right, especially to do one’s work or duty well and thoroughly. Adaptive perfection motivates us to perform well in business, sports and personal life.
For many of us, adaptive perfection isn’t about the destination, but the journey. Rather than focusing on perfection, we strive for excellence. It helps us prioritize what needs to get done, be productive and keep our eyes on the big picture.
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins describes the idea of the “Flywheel Effect.” A flywheel, by the way, is a heavy revolving wheel in a machine that is used to increase the machine’s momentum and thereby provide greater stability or a reserve of available power during interruptions in power delivery (flywheels help reciprocating engines work). Collins explains how good companies don’t become great by any single action or in any single moment. They do so over time by sticking to a “down-to-earth, pragmatic, committed-to-excellence process.” Think discipline instead of a quick fix. It takes time and a lot of pushing to get a flywheel moving, but once it starts turning and hits a critical threshold, it picks up momentum. You can only get the flywheel moving by being committed to iteration, to pushing in small bursts. He says that consistency is more important than perfection.
A simple example of this could be your company’s communications efforts. Think about your blog or social media — something that stymies many overworked, time-crunched small business owners. Doing any single “perfect” post is far less valuable than consistent “good” posts over time. Rather than getting hung up on making the perfect post and ending up doing nothing, you could be busy building a loyal and interested following over time with regular good-enough posts.
Another example is launching a new or redesigned website, a project that many small business owners undertake but struggle to complete. Rather than getting hung up on the site having to be perfect, consider putting out a good-enough version that you can test, tweak and improve over time. Your customers will never know anything about you if you don’t get the site live, so why not launch it and then continue to hone it gradually over time while incorporating user feedback?
Finally, let’s return to consider our earlier PhD dissertation example. Art Markman also said, “If a dissertation is the best piece of work a student ever does, that is a shame, because it means they did not sustain a career. It is much more important to do good high-quality work over a long period of time than to seek perfection in any particular project.” We don’t have to be in grad school to apply this; we can also take this approach every day at work, no matter what type of work we do.
When to Focus on Perfection
We’ve been talking about the pitfalls of perfection and how to avoid them, but before we wrap this up, let’s consider that there are times when it’s good to embrace perfectionism. According to Jim Collins, an area in which a company should focus on perfection is defining its brand values. His advice: “Commit to a set of core values that you will want to build your enterprise on, without changing them, for 100 years.”
Your company’s values should be authentic and unassailable — they should stand the test of time (100 years!), even as you’re working tactically to execute against those values. In other words, the strategic principles of your business should be fixed in place (i.e., closer to perfect) because they need to guide everything you do, every day. The specific programs, activities, campaigns and business tools you use in your day-to-day execution of the business will change and evolve, but the strategic north star should be a permanent, unchanging beacon.
If Captain Ahab had followed this advice, if he had used the fixed constellations to guide the Pequod instead of the hulking form beneath the waves, perhaps he would not have died such an ugly death.
Six Tips for Fighting Perfection
- Be compassionate with yourself: separate self-worth from perfection.
- Accept that you will make mistakes and commit to learning from them.
- Let go of attachment to outcomes and appreciate the good in an experience — even a negative one — and the progress it represents.
- Learn to be ok with good and accept that perfect may not be possible. Instead of perfection, strive for excellence.
- Put everything in perspective and take the big picture approach. Do good quality work over the long term rather than getting stuck on perfect work for any particular short-term project.
- When feeling paralyzed by perfection, do something. Nothing will happen if you do nothing. While what you decide to do may not be perfect, it will help you move forward.