Perfectionism in Practice: The Power and the Challenges
Perfectionism, in itself, isn’t such a bad trait, provided you can apply it appropriately. In fact, it has often helped me exceed my clients’ expectations.
Years ago, we received an urgent assignment from our client, Samsung. The deadline seemed unattainable, but what needs to be done, needs to be done. This is a common scenario in retail communication. One of the ground rules was that ‘good’ was far from good enough. But when time is limited, this rule can clash significantly with the pressing deadline.
After three days of hard work, the campaign was completed 4 hours before the deadline. The team that worked on it heaved a sigh of relief, having achieved what seemed nearly impossible.
However, when they presented the campaign to me, I noticed they had done precisely and only what the client had asked for. It lacked uniqueness or originality. In my eyes, it wasn’t good enough. I was confident that this team could be more creative and come up with something more impactful.
Seven disheartened faces reluctantly went back to the drawing board, and four hours later, they had an idea that would indeed have the impact we always aimed for. It later turned out to be one of our best campaigns for Samsung that quarter.
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What is perfection, and why do you have it?
Perfection is about wanting to do something 100% right in your eyes and not settling for something you know could be better.
To some extent, we all have this, but some are better at it than others. A good friend of mine is a massive perfectionist. Her 4-day-a-week job at an International NGO takes up an average of 80 hours a week. Her dance lessons, which lead to a performance, take about 4 hours a week, but she easily adds another 10 hours of independent practice. Otherwise, she can’t meet her standards.
This is called perfectionism and stems from how we prioritize things for ourselves. The more important something is to us, the harder we try to achieve the ultimate result.
How do we prioritize things, leading to perfectionism?
In my case with the Samsung project, it was about my company’s reputation and my passion for creation. I had made these two things – and sometimes still do – extremely important.
My company’s reputation was about always wanting to overachieve, and surprise the client, and if we create something, it has an impact and effect on the desired results. By making these three things not just a bit, but extremely important, perfectionism arises.
For my friend, it was different, but the principle is the same. She moved to a new big city a few months ago and started living in a slightly expensive apartment. With her NGO job, she can earn enough to cover all costs and she does what she is passionate about. So that’s very important to her.
She also started dancing, which is equally important because she has associated various things (given meanings) with it that are important in her life. Namely, through dance lessons:
- She meets new people in a strange city,
- learns something new that she gets better at every week,
- has a distraction from her busy job,
- stays fit through movement,
- and can express herself without thinking about words.
If you link that to dance lessons and if, as in her case, it’s important to you, a form of perfection arises.
When we prioritize things, taboos arise.
We all think differently as humans and decide for ourselves what’s important or not. The problem is that once we’ve made something important, we sometimes can’t see that certain things aren’t necessary. Those become taboo.
If you had told me back then that the client doesn’t need to be surprised every time, you’d be entering a taboo area for me. If you told my friend she could also go for a walk instead of dancing, you’d be entering a taboo area for her. This is related to cognitive distortions, and one of those distortions is ‘must’.
Perfectionism can bring a lot but also cost a lot.
In business and private life, a certain degree of perfectionism – in other words, making something very important – can yield a lot. Your results can improve, you learn faster, you receive appreciation, and you can achieve things that others consider impossible. Nothing wrong with that at first glance.
The practical downside of my ‘good is not good enough’ attitude was that the atmosphere in the workplace didn’t always improve. There were, let’s say, regular repairs needed to maintain the relationship between me and the team.
In the case of my good friend, it takes a lot of energy from her, which affects her mental and physical health. A peculiar paradox, as she started dancing and moved to Barcelona to become healthier.
The dark side of perfectionism
Practically speaking, perfectionism can also have a very dark side.
The impact on teams and companies
A leader, manager, or employee who is too perfectionistic can have a significant impact on teams and companies. People might start walking on eggshells and become afraid to make mistakes. Perfectionism also hinders the path to innovation and creativity because innovation always involves making mistakes.
Innovation is about ignoring the status quo and trying new things. That’s the opposite of perfection.
The impact on mental health
By continuously striving for perfection in everything, you mentally exhaust yourself. By paying attention to even the smallest trivialities, you use mental energy that can no longer be used for things that actually give energy.
Consider, that if something is very important to you, it must and should not go wrong. That’s a form of fear, and fears cost a lot of mental energy.
The balance between perfectionism and efficiency
If you want to do it right, it takes time. Almost always. So perfectionism usually goes against efficiency. Setting the table perfectly for guests arriving in half an hour can compromise the quality of the food. Sometimes we have to make choices about what we really find important because if everything has to be perfect, we are hugely inefficient.
The role of feedback & learning from mistakes
We learn to walk by falling and getting up again. The fear that something we find so important and therefore must be perfect prevents us from growing. Feedback is our greatest teacher, and the most creative people fail the most.
The impact on our partner or friends
We can make something very important for ourselves, but the time we take for it and the energy we put into it has consequences. Even if it’s just that we simply do what we’ve made so important and what the other person might not find important at all.
Sometimes the other person also doesn’t understand why the perfectionist puts so much effort and time into something, and that can lead to irritation. Especially if the perfectionist says that he or she is just like that and doesn’t recognize that it’s more a matter of having made something important themselves.
How do you overcome perfectionism?
Perfectionism is not something you’re born with; it’s learned behavior. It often starts with assigning high value to certain things and giving them a lot of meaning. Therefore, ask yourself: what do I find important and why? What would it mean to me if something wasn’t perfect?
In many situations, therapy is not necessary to become aware of this. However, it is true that excessive perfectionism can lead to certain anxiety disorders that may require professional treatment.
This is the first step you can take to tackle perfectionism:
- Make a list of things that, in your opinion, must be perfect.
- Note why you think these things should be perfect.
- Describe what it means to you if these things are or are not perfect.
- Rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how important these meanings really are to you.
- Reflect on your findings, meditate on them, and discuss them with friends or your partner.