How Striving for Perfect Can Kill Your Career

Pursuing perfection might seem like a good strategy for thriving in your career, but it can actually have the opposite effect.


Are you a perfectionist? If so, you’re probably limiting your career’s potential. Pursuing perfection in all you do might seem like a good strategy for growing and thriving in your career, but except in rare circumstances (brain surgery, anyone?) it can actually have the opposite effect.

Here are five ways perfectionism can kill your career.

Perfectionism limits opportunities

The more important perfection is to you, the less comfortable you are with imperfection. The resulting feeling can range from minor irritation to downright pain. As humans, we’re wired to avoid pain.

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Combine that with the fact that attempting anything new is almost guaranteed to be bumpy at first, and you have a recipe for avoiding the kind of possibility—expanding steps that are necessary for your career to stay fresh, vibrant and alive.

Let’s say you have 10 opportunities available to do something new in your career. Of those, let’s say seven of them feel too far out of your perfection-based comfort zone. It’s a good bet that if you pursue them you’re going to feel the discomfort of imperfection, so you opt not to. That leaves you with three opportunities you feel comfortable enough pursuing because the likelihood of a satisfactory (to you) performance is high.

I made those numbers up for illustration, but whatever it looks like for you, the basic concept is the same. Limiting the number of doors you are willing to walk through limits your potential.

Perfectionism stunts growth

Not only does the reluctance to jump into the new, uncertain, and probably imperfect limit your opportunities, it also stunts your growth in your career. Growth doesn’t come when you are safely in your comfort zone. It comes when you are out there beyond the boundaries, exploring, stretching, even flailing.

Ironically, the more you are willing to venture into those uncertain stretch-zones, the better equipped you will be to perform at a higher level in the future. The more you attempt, the more you learn, even when the immediate results are less-than-preferable. And the more you learn, the more you can apply that learning to future efforts.

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Perfectionism sabotages self-belief

When you measure performance and success against an ideal of perfection, you almost always fail to measure up. There is always some way you could have done better. There is always some way what you did wasn’t good enough. When you get that message over and over, the cumulative impact can be devastating. The message you constantly reinforce is, “I’m not good enough. I can’t do it right.”

Confidence in your own ability to perform is vital if you want to push beyond your comfortable boundaries into a career that lets you thrive, achieve, and grow. And by measuring your performance against an unrealistic ideal, you set yourself up to reinforce exactly the wrong message.

Perfectionism limits the potential for positive reinforcement

At the same time as it sabotages self-belief by focusing on the gap between actual outcome and perfection, perfectionism also cheats you of opportunities for positive reinforcement. For example, instead of focusing on the fact that you did a 95 percent great job, you focus on the 5 percent where it was a little rough around the edges.

Again, it’s a question of what message you’re reinforcing. If you focus on the 95 percent, the message that gets sent is, “Sure, there is room for growth, but I do have what it takes.” If you focus on the 5 percent, you’re back to sabotaging your self-belief.

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Perfectionism expands your failure zone

Finally, perfectionism expands your failure zone. If perfection is your measure for performance, anything else becomes a form of failure. Imagine a line representing a continuum from utter failure (0 percent) to complete perfection (100 percent). Realistically, depending on the endeavor, your success zone might be anything on that continuum from 80 percent on. You can feel good about it, which in turn gives you an opportunity for positive reinforcement.

If perfection is your target, on the other hand, everything else falls short. You can get it 99 percent right, but that 1 percent will expand in your mind to unreasonable proportions, effectively expanding your failure zone to include almost all the possible outcomes.

To sum it up, holding on to perfectionism limits your potential and creates stress, frustration, and fear. Letting go of it makes your personal experience lighter and more enjoyable and expands your career’s potential.

Which would you prefer?

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 Work, 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.


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