How might striving for perfection be stalling your career?

There are a few themes that come up again and again as I talk to my clients. Perfection is one of them. One question I ask them is how might striving for perfection actually be stalling your career? 

Perfectionism is the root of the fear of failure, fear of rejection and procrastination. Already, I think you might see how this might stall your career. 

Do you ever find yourself procrastinating because you think it's not good enough? I see this a lot with CVs and covering letters. Folks get trapped re-writing/tweaking their CV, trying to get it perfect. Trouble is, they then can't press send and so might miss the deadline. 

Or maybe this sounds more like you? Have you ever submitted a piece of work, even received positive feedback, but you worried endlessly after sending it, afraid you missed something or it wouldn't be good enough. 

Perfectionists are often bright and detail-oriented individuals at work. However, they have a hard time letting go of projects, delegating, and knowing when good enough is good enough. These kinds of thoughts stop us from stepping out of our comfort zone, they stop us from taking on new challenges and keep us stuck. 

Understand the downside of perfectionism

If you're willing, it can help to honestly reflect on the negative impact that perfectionism has on your work and life. If you're constantly missing deadlines, stressing out your coworkers, letting things fall through the cracks, or feel stressed and overwhelmed, then understanding the true implications of such items can bring awareness to help you take steps to approach your work differently.

If you're someone who sets impossibly high standards for yourself and others, it can sometimes lead to damaging coping mechanisms where you try to cover up your failures e.g. avoiding social situations, lying to friends and family or showing up inauthentically on social media. I know I have been guilty of all of these at points in my life. 

Perfectionism does not guarantee success

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to be our best selves or do our best work. We want life to be as good as it can be, but, perfectionism leaks into smaller tasks and daily activities e.g writing an email, updating our CV and connecting with people in your network. Perfectionism sabotages your chances of success and is a source of stress and anxiety. 

Success, however, depends on many factors outside of your control. You could be the most talented, skillful, passionate person and it still might not work out. Aiming for perfection doesn’t correlate with your chances of success. This can be a really hard lesson. 

To give an example, I have spent ages crafting a blog post that never receives a single like, but I have also churned out articles in less than an hour that people love. You can’t always predict it or control all the factors that determine success. Sometimes it’s down to luck, or timing. Sometimes it depends on what else is going on in the world and how people are feeling. Whilst there are other unforeseen factors, there are some things you can do to help yourself. 

Just start

It is this uncertainty that also stops us taking action, but, you can only start in ideal conditions. By which I mean, sometimes you have to just start. We could always want more practice, more fully-formed ideas, and more resources. But the truth is that these are excuses because we are scared of failing. There is no perfect starting point. 

So what’s the solution? Sure, you can prepare. To take my blog post example. I choose a topic, I do some research but then I need to start writing. I put on some music to help me focus, or find a time when I can write uninterrupted by the children. I open up the computer and I start writing. If it doesn’t flow easily I might come back to it later, I might choose another topic, but once I have started, it’s easier. And although I can’t determine its success, I have found that the more I write from the heart, without worrying about making it perfect, the better it is received. There’s definitely a lesson in there! 

If you find yourself hesitant to get started, push forward anyway. The smallest action you can possibly do e.g. opening up the computer. Create rituals for yourself as a way of triggering yourself to start work. If you begin the process, your mind will follow. 

Celebrate your successes

We tend to hold our failures in our mind, especially as perfectionists. If you see the times you have failed, made a mistake, been subject to factors outside of your control, you might feel like you can never let it happen again. That’s a lot of stress to put on yourself. True success and freedom come from a place where anything is possible. It’s OK to fail, to make mistakes, that’s how we learn. Noone ever learned from it all going well. It’s a bout recognising when something isn’t working and trying something else instead. 

This is tapping into a growth mindset. In these situations, I love a mantra e.g. 

  • I can do hard things
  • Mistakes are an opportunity to grow
  • Practice makes progress
  • I’m not perfect, I’m learning

If you struggle to celebrate your successes, take a moment to be proud of something you have achieved each day. It can be something that feels small and insignificant like making yourself a cup of tea and drinking it mindfully, whilst it’s hot instead of letting it go cold and gulping it down without a thought…unless you like cold tea that is! 

Lower your standards by 10%

A question I like to put to my clients is what would happen if you reduced your standards by 10%? This question is usually met by horror! If you are someone who holds yourself and others to impossibly high standards, you set yourself up for failure. 

If you are reading this, it’s like you already have some self-awareness that perfectionism is causing issues for you. You probably already know that perfect isn’t possible and that trying to be perfect is exhausting. I know you’re probably scared of what will happen if you’re not perfect, but I promise it’s not going to be as bad as you think. 

In many cases we’re comparing ourselves to others but in reality even those people who appear perfect aren’t. We each have the ability to choose our own way of doing things. It’s OK to be inspired by others and learn from them. This allows you to set realistic and inspiring goals for yourself. Then, as you reach them (because they are more achievable), you can remind yourself that you are doing a good job.

As you continue to pay closer attention to your responses to day-to-day work tasks, expectations of others, and so on, you'll be able to make different choices in how you respond to getting your work done and getting to a point that good enough is good enough. What’s perfect and what’s possible can be very different things! 

Life and work are about progress, not perfection

A small amount of perfectionism is not a bad thing when it creates high standards, optimism, and a way to improve skills and knowledge without hindering progress or knowing when good enough is good enough. It's when perfectionism creates a sense of "never good enough," unhappiness, stress, depression, and negatively impacts work productivity that it becomes an issue. Perfectionism is hard-wired into many, if not all of us on some level and isn’t an easy change for many people. If perfectionism is taking over your life it would be beneficial to seek counselling or therapy to help you talk through the deeper rooted issues of your perfectionism and to deal with the emotional impact of being a perfectionist. 

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