In your career, as in the rest of your life, perfectionism can be a huge obstacle to living out your fullest potential. In the perfectionist’s mind, anything short of perfect is instead a form of failure. Perfectionists are fully aware of how greatly the odds are stacked against success (that is, achieving perfection). That awareness creates resistance to taking new steps that lead them outside the comfortable, dependable, and the tried and true. And when they do decide to take those steps and get the predictably less than perfect results, they use the opportunity for a little negative reinforcement, focusing on their “failure.”
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If you want to dramatically open up the potential of what you can achieve and who you can become, give your perfectionism the heave ho. Easier said than done, you might say. Too true. It would be nice to just flip the switch and say, “Hey, cool! I’m not a perfectionist anymore!” But it doesn’t typically work that way. So, if you can’t just up and change those perfectionist tendencies in one fell swoop, what do you do? As a recovering perfectionist (who relapses far more often than I’d like), I have found it helps to play with a variety of approaches. Here are eight ideas to help you shift out of your perfectionist mode:
Experiment. One of my favorite tricks for getting around perfectionism, especially when I’m trying something new, is to make it an experiment. When you treat something as an experiment, you’re not attached to a specific result. Instead, you’re looking for insights and information.
It’s literally impossible to fail in an experiment, because you’re guaranteed to generate the outcome you’re looking for – learning. You take a step and something happens. That might be favorable (“Hey, it worked!”) or unfavorable (“Oops! That fell flat.”). Either way, you have a result that you can look at and say, “What can I learn from this?” And that learning can be put to use in refining further steps.
Go for volume. I’m drawn to creating with paper and light (this candle holder, for example). But recently it occurred to me just how much perfectionism gets in the way of really being able to enjoy the process. Instead of having fun with creating, I get tensed up and meticulous. And largely because of that, I don’t do it anywhere near as often as I would like.
When I realized that, I decided to go to the art store to get some sheets of paper with the intention of going for volume instead of perfection. The paper I bought was specifically to create with the permission to be “imperfect”–and to do it again and again. I realized that not only would it feel lighter to do it that way, I would also learn more about what works and what doesn’t (both technically and creatively) by repeated attempts. So perversely, in the long run I would get closer to creating the results I want by letting myself be looser along the way, repeating it over and over, and learning from the outcomes.
Make a lump of clay. If I want to guarantee myself a first-class case of writer’s block, I try to make whatever I write perfect right out of the gate. Sometimes that happens, but more often than not my writing has to go through a couple stages. I think of the first stage as creating a lump of clay. It’s just getting the general idea out of my head and onto the page so I can start refining it. Often, that lump of clay is horrible. The end result typically winds up looking significantly different (much to the relief of my perfectionist). And while I never like seeing the lump of clay, I have been at it long enough to know that it’s an invaluable part of the process.
Mine your mistakes for treasure. If you let your perfectionist parts run the show, odds are good that you’re going to cheat yourself of something incredibly valuable–the learning potential inherent in your mistakes. Instead of ranting about them, or looking the other way and pretending that they didn’t happen, make it a habit to mine your mistakes for the treasure they contain.
Next time you feel the friction of something done imperfectly, look at what happened and ask, “What can I learn here? What could I have done differently? How can I apply that in the future?” Do it with a sense of gentle curiosity. The more you do this, the more you start to shift how you experience those mistakes. You might not ever welcome them, but it becomes easier to see their value.
Put it in perspective with a visual. Have you ever had the experience where you did something well, save for one piece that could have been better, and your attention immediately zeroes in on what wasn’t perfect? Most of us have, and proportionately that response ends up being incredibly out of whack. Next time you find yourself doing that, stop and draw a pie chart. The entire pie represents the whole of what you just did.
Step back and look at the situation objectively, without the emotion you have attached to the less-than-perfect aspect (it might help to pretend you’re looking at it as though it were someone else’s). How much of the whole was done well? How much of it was done imperfectly? Assign each a percentage, and then fill in the pie chart to reflect that. Typically what you’ll find is that the imperfect part only represents one small slice of the total pie. Seeing it visually like that can help you realize how distorted your perfectionistic view is.
Focus on the positive percentage. It helps to stop focusing on the negative, but it’s also important to actively shift your focus to the positive. Practice paying attention to what you did well. Make an inventory. Explore why you did that well (i.e., what is about you–your knowledge, skill, abilities, etc.–that helped you get that positive result). If you’re going to dwell on something, dwell on something that builds you up rather than what tears you down.
Ask for positive feedback–and listen to it! This one can be a real challenge, and if you can really do it, it can be immensely rewarding. It starts with a simple question: “What did I do well?” But this time the question isn’t for you; it’s for somebody else. Reach out and ask for positive feedback. And then step back and really listen. Don’t try to downplay anything. Don’t try to counter anything. Just sit and absorb what they have to say. Write it down so you can refer to it later.
Celebrate yourself. Those of us who have perfectionist tendencies are often quite skilled at beating up on ourselves for what we didn’t quite get right. But often, we’re not quite as good at celebrating the positive aspects of what we do. The result is a skewed picture of our own performance. The imperfect parts get deep and vigorous attention, while the positive parts get skimmed over with barely a second glance. Work on putting that into a more balanced proportion by taking the time to stop and acknowledge what you’ve done well. Praise yourself. Pat yourself on the back. Celebrate what you’ve accomplished.
Try each of these ideas on. Experiment. See which ones work for you and which ones completely miss the mark. Then build on what you discover. Keep taking steps in letting go and, whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up for not perfectly releasing your perfectionism!
After years as a professional malcontent, Curt Rosengren discovered the power of passion. As speaker, author, and coach, Rosengren helps people create careers that energize and inspire them. His book, 101 Ways to Get Wild About, and his E-book, The Occupational Adventure Guide, offer people tools for turning dreams into reality. Rosengren's blog, The M.A.P. Maker, explores how to craft a life of meaning, abundance, and passion.