Perfectionism Is Killing Your Career: Here’s What You Can Do About It

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Perfectionism can sound like a good idea. At first glance, it makes sense; being a perfectionist must lead to perfection. But the truth is that perfectionism is greatness killer. A 2016 longitudinal study verified that perfectionism doesn’t make you better at anything, and can actually make you significantly less successful in life. Many of us know from experience that it can:

  • Hamper creativity
  • Decrease risk-taking
  • Make the creative process unnecessarily stressful

Pushing yourself to create strictly above-average work and consistently perform at peak levels seems admirable enough. But when your standards become inflexible and unforgiving, perfectionism becomes an impediment to success; creativity diminishes, risk-taking wanes and your stress level goes sky-high.

Perfectionism is counterproductive.

Perfectionists are driven by a critical inner voice that demands flawlessness. This inner voice never self-regulates, never shuts up. It’s your job, as the person in charge of your life and your work, to regulate this voice, so your creativity and productivity can evolve.

The first step in conquering perfectionism is, like they say in 12-step programs, acceptance. Try to accept that you have some thoughts and behaviors that that are undermining your prospects for success. For example, you may be spending 90% of your time on that last 10% of the project (this is one I frequently get stuck in). Step back and look at your thoughts and behaviors from a distance. When you catch yourself in a perfectionist tangle, accept and adjust your reaction. Acceptance allows for change.

Sometimes your inner critic is so fearful of failing that it paralyzes you. I’ve had that “scared stiff” feeling. When I was in art school I used to paint on large five by six-foot canvases. That huge expanse of stark white canvas was very intimidating. Often I would get an idea of what this perfect painting would be, go to my studio…and just stare at the white canvas.

I was absolutely paralyzed by my perfectionistic preconception of the final result.

Then I realized I only needed to do one simple thing to get the creative juices flowing: make a mark. Just making a mark - taking a brush and some oil paint and just marking the canvas. It didn't matter what kind of mark it was. It broke that white surface. It broke down the imposing aspect of not starting. That mark gave me something to react to, something to react against, something to build on.

Of course, I would cover it up with other marks, which would then disappear under more marks. But that first touch of paint to the canvas was the most important brushstroke because it got the ball rolling. It broke the paralysis of perfectionism.

Renowned author Anne Lamott encouraged her writing students to make a “shitty first draft”. “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” That’s true for all creative endeavors.

When Apple made their first logo, it sucked. It was way too busy and complicated. But they got it out there. Now, their logo now is so well-known I would guess that 90% of the population could probably draw it. It's beautiful, simple and refined. So far removed from their initial identity, yet it would be impossible to evolve the logo if they didn’t take the first messy step.

When you start off, even if you’re Apple, you're gonna suck a little bit.

That's just the truth.

But it’s actually okay because sucking a little bit makes you more human.

It makes you more approachable and relatable. People don’t warm up to other people (or things for that matter) that are too perfect or too polished. They are off-putting. It’s counterintuitive but scientifically verified that being vulnerable is actually magnetic (it’s called the Pratfall effect).

Maxims are great tools to short-circuit perfectionist thoughts. A helpful saying I use is “ship it,” or “done, not perfect.” Getting something out into the world, “shipping it,” is the first step in making it better. It gives you the opportunity to react to it or against it –it’s just like making my mark on the canvas. The faster you get it out there, the faster it becomes something – rather than just an idea in your head or a project cloistered in your office or studio.

“Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.” -Steve Jobs

Tech companies in Silicon Valley use a method called rapid prototyping. They create a minimum viable product (MVP) software or website and quickly put it on the market. The MVP is a starting point; it allows consumers to give feedback that’s used to iterate the design or the product; it begins the cycle of feedback and improvement. An MVP is a great model for conquering perfectionism. Put things out into the world that may be 90% there - accepting that it’s not perfect, but knowing you will learn from it. This will put any perfectionist out of their comfort zone, but that is where we grow, try new things, experiment, and innovate. Playing it safe never won any awards.

Pushing through self-imposed barriers opens you up to learning and improving.

Here’s an illustration:  One day my wife decided that she wanted to learn to play the viola. There is so much information about the viola out there. You can watch YouTube videos about the viola. You can attend lectures about the viola. You can read viola books, listen to viola music, but if you want to learn the viola, you have to pick up a viola and drag that bow across those strings and make a horrible sound. That’s the first step. Practice and practice until it makes a beautiful sound.  You will get better over time. That's very much what conquering perfectionism is all about.

It's about starting.

It's about making that mark.

It's about shipping it.

It's about innovating, improving and working outside of your comfort zone.

Conquering perfectionism is not always easy, but it does get you closer to more creative, fulfilling, useful work, with more perfect results (the irony!). Accept your perfectionistic thoughts and actions, and challenge them. Nudge them off the stage by doing something imperfect, no matter how small. It may be scary at first, but I guarantee you’ll feel liberated and more creative over time.