Throughout my coaching career, I’ve had the privilege of working with many people we would consider to be high achievers. They tend to be incredibly focused, driven, and have a deep desire to contribute to their organizations.
And one of the most common challenges I see with these achievers is an internal drive for perfectionism. Why is that a challenge, you ask? Actually, there are a lot of reasons. And in this post I’m going to share with you the top 5 ways that perfectionism may be killing your career.
Perfectionism keeps you stuck in inaction. It really is the ultimate in procrastination strategies. Perfectionism says, “It’s not good enough yet. I have to do this better. There’s still more.” You struggle to find the right way to do it, the perfect way. You continue to refine, refine, and refine some more, never quite coming up with that perfect solution. So you never seem to complete that project, submit that report, or create that new program that could save your company time, energy, money, and potentially launch your career on a whole new trajectory.
“The pursuit of perfection often impedes improvement.”
Perfectionism feeds your fears of not being good enough. The truth about perfection is that it’s an unattainable ideal. Certainly we can say that there is perfection in nature or even perfection in beauty. But the idea that we can be perfect is at best a pipe dream, and at worst, delusional. At our most basic essence, human beings tend to have two main fears when it comes to our lives. “I’m not enough,” and “I won’t be loved.” The drive for perfection fuels those fears and keeps you stuck in a downward spiral of self-criticism and blame.
“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.”
Michael J. Fox
Perfectionism prevents you from seeing the best in others. One of the truths about those who tend to be perfectionists is that we have a tendency to hold ourselves to impossible standards. That said, we also tend to impose those same standards on the people in our lives. And when we do that, when we impose our expectations for perfection on others, we not only hold them to an unfair standard, we tend to see them as not meeting our expectations.
When that happens, we will fail to recognize and acknowledge them for the things they’ve accomplished. This alone will sabotage the success of your team and leave them feeling disconnected, unappreciated, and disengaged.
“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”
Perfectionism stops you from trying new things. “If I can’t do it perfectly, then I won’t try it.” I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that from a client, and also how many times I’ve said those exact words myself. The drive for perfection places such a burden for performance on us, that we will deny ourselves the opportunity to learn, grow, and expand as leaders out of fear of what we deem to be failure.
The truth is, all learning provides us with an opportunity to grow, and growth requires us to be vulnerable and to face the truth that we don’t know everything. Let me put it to you this way, how many opportunities would you give a baby to learn to walk before you tell him or her to give up, they’ll never make it? Exactly. You let them keep trying until they get it. Why would you not extend that same privilege to yourself and the people around you?
“Strive for continuous improvement, instead of perfection.”
Perfectionism steals your joy and sense of fulfillment in your work. You might look at this one and ask, “So what? Why should I care about joy and fulfillment in work? It’s called work, after all.” That is such a limited way of viewing your work in the world.
And, what I know to be true from working with hundreds of clients, and speaking with thousands of people over the years, is that we are all looking for more from the work we do. More fulfillment. More joy. More meaning.
Work is about more than simply earning a paycheck. And when we take perfectionism to work with us, it denies us the sense of accomplishment and meaning we so desperately seek. In fact, I was speaking with a client recently, and he was telling me about a specific challenge he was facing at work. I asked what he was afraid of, and he said he never wanted to disappoint anyone by not meeting expectations.
When I asked if that had ever happened, he said no. And then I told him what I sensed was really true. He had such unrealistic expectations for himself – fueled by the drive to do it perfectly – that even when he did achieve his end goal, he never felt a sense of pride, joy, or achievement, but instead merely felt relief. You could have heard a pin drop. In that moment, he realized how he was denying himself the joy and fulfillment of a job well done.
“The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves it in nothing.”
The bottom line here is that perfectionism is simply a thought or series of thoughts you have about yourself and the way things should be. But realize they are just thoughts. They don’t have any basis in reality, and are, in fact, completely detached from reality. And those thoughts will keep you stuck, limit your ability to make progress in your life and work, and steal any opportunity you may have for long-term, lasting success.
The way out is to seek excellence and continuous improvement. I no longer expect myself to do things perfectly. In fact, I celebrate my failures, because I realize I have just experienced a powerful lesson in learning!
What’s true is this: you are enough. Talented enough, smart enough, and successful enough. And once you embrace your own abilities from a place of being enough, you open yourself to the very real possibility of finding greater fulfillment, joy, and meaning in the work you do. And that is the ultimate definition of success!
To explore pathways out of paralyzing perfectionism, set a time to meet with Kevin.