Perfectionists Can Have a Hard Time Learning

By Lilian Abrams, PhD, MBA, MCC, ESIA.

A coach-friend quoted the following maxim to me recently, which I found very interesting:  

“If you don’t introduce something new into a system, the system stagnates.”  

Now, there are all sorts of possible support and applications for this thought. For example, if we don’t put food into our bodily systems, they stop functioning. That’s on the physical level. Similarly, I would say that mentally, if we don’t learn something new on a regular basis, we likewise begin to stagnate. Stagnation here might look like running around the same mental loops, over and over again.

A day or so after I heard this quote, a highly analytical client of mine, Sanjay, and I were discussing something that I thought was relevant to this idea, so I told it to him. He loved it (I knew he would!) 

We had been discussing various ways in which he could sharpen his more-junior team’s ability to make practical, actionable recommendations for their senior leadership. In talking this maxim through with Sanjay, I realized both he and his team would need to add something else to the mix, along with the “something new” — Forgiveness.  


Because driven, highly-analytical types strive for perfection in their analyses. They ask themselves: “Did I think of and include EVERY relevant variable? Did I weight each one correctly in my analysis? Did I construct the relationships among the variables correctly? Did I come up with a valid, true answer, that someone can use to make a solid decision on?” Etc. 

Being an analyst like this can therefore be very stressful. Part of the reason Sanjay’s junior team doesn’t feel comfortable making recommendations for the senior-team is because of the extra pressure they would feel to “get it right.” And that kind of pressure and perfectionism is hard to bear.

Which led me to realize Part Two of the maxim, about (self-)forgiveness.

By its very definition, to be able to learn something new, there has to be something you don’t already know. In other words, whatever it is, that is new to you, was NOT already included in your prior thinking. The perfectionistic analyst then might think “Oh no! I should have thought of that already! And because I didn’t, I failed to do it right, and therefore maybe the decision/solution/outcome was wrong! And I let others down And… (etc.)”

To avoid this spiral, and stay open to learning, then, one must be open to the fact that you didn’t already know that something beforehand. You have to be able to forgive yourself for that “lack,” that space, and instead need to realize that not-knowing things is actually NORMAL. We all don’t know things all day long! It’s OK! It’s fine! It happens all the time! To everyone!

So set the stage to allow yourself to learn something new, by including a healthy dose of self-forgiveness for not-already-knowing. Enjoy!

To learn more about growth, change, and developing your leadership skills, contact Lilian for a consultation.