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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Perfection Is Overrated—Here's What You Need to Be Striving for Instead

Finish this sentence: “Before I launch a new product, send my resume to a potential employer, or finalize a speech to deliver in front of the whole company, I want to make sure it’s ____.”

Maybe you said “engaging” or “spell-checked” or “approved by my boss.”

But my guess is that the majority of you finished that sentence with the same word: “perfect.”

As humans, the need to strive for perfection is ingrained in us. You can see it in the way we look up to successful people: We expect the people we hold in high regard—like managers, CEOs, or political candidates—to be perfect, without a single flubbed answer or ill-conceived business decision.

So it’s no wonder that when you’re striving to be successful, you’re simultaneously striving for perfection.

Which is a big, fat waste of time.

Why? To start, everyone have a different definition of perfection, making it impossible to actually be perceived as perfect by everyone.

In addition, think again about those people you hold in high regard. When you do see them behaving perfectly, it generally makes you feel less connected to them, rather than more connected.

As Michael Bosworth and Ben Zoldan say in What Great Salespeople Do: The Science of Selling Through Emotional Connection and the Power of Story, “As ironic as it seems, we trust people more when they’re willing to expose themselves as imperfect … We don’t connect with perfection, we connect with people who have been there.”

However, taking away the pressure of perfection doesn’t mean you can show up, say and do whatever you want, and expect to be successful. How can you switch your focus from perfection to vulnerability, while still aiming for serious awesomeness? Here are my three tips.

1. Understand Your Own Definition of Perfection

Each time you sit down to complete a new project, ask yourself: “What does being ‘perfect’ mean to me in this situation?”

You’ll probably have a few realistic and fair goals wrapped under the perfection umbrella—like making sure your cover letter is free of spelling mistakes and includes targeted messaging for the job you’re applying for.

But, your definition of perfection might also include a few sneaky goals that are unattainable or totally out of your control, like “Make the employer like me better than any of the other candidates.”

Once you understand what perfect means to you in each individual situation, you can start to evaluate how important each goal is and how much it will actually influence your success (and realize that you may not be able to achieve “perfection” in every aspect—and that’s totally OK).

2. Get to Know the People You’re Trying to Be Perfect For

When you’re focused on being perfect, it’s easy to spend all of your time in your own head—figuring out how to make yourself look better in the eyes of your customer, boss, or future employer. But in order to create something really excellent that those people feel connected to, you need to place the emphasis on them.

If you’re about to launch a product, for instance, step away from the product itself and dig into the people you’re building that product for. What problems do they need solved? What are their values? What can you build or write that will surprise and delight them? How can you communicate that product, resume, cover letter, or other assignment in a way that will cause them to stop and really listen?

Those are the things you should be focusing on.

3. Explore Ways to Bring More Openness and Vulnerability to Your Work

Let’s say you’re writing a speech. Instead of lobbing statistic after statistic at your audience, share a personal story. If you’re working on your resume, include bits of your personality along with your credentials—from the words you use to the way you design it. (Here are some things you probably didn’t know you could include.)

And if you do make a mistake in the moment—like flub a line during your speech or fumble over your words during an interview—cop to it. Be human about it. Own up it in a lighthearted, we’ve-all-been-there way, and move on. Those are the moments the rest of us humans most connect to.

Brené Brown, a researcher and one of my favorite authors, once wrote, “Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.”

Vulnerability may feel uncomfortable, but at the end of the day, learning how to be vulnerable will put you more ahead of the game—in both your life and business—than striving for perfection ever will.

Photo of paper idea courtesy of Shutterstock.