Do you think of yourself as a perfectionist? You’re not alone. Based on my completely unscientific observations, it seems like a lot of people do—myself included. And I’ve never considered it a bad thing—in fact, I prided myself on it until very recently.
Last week, I had the opportunity to hear Marilyn Tam, PhD, speak at the opening session of the National Career Development Association’s annual conference. With a career that spans working as a child laborer in Hong Kong to being the CEO of Aveda Corp., I was ready to be inspired by Dr. Tam’s story. Really, I was ready for her to tell me that being meticulous and working hard was what got her ahead.
And in a way, that’s what she said. It just didn’t really come out that way.
Dr. Tam explained that, throughout her career, she’s followed four life and work principles that have guided her to success (they’re actually outlined in her book, How to Use What You’ve Got to Get What You Want). She started with, “Tell the truth all the time” and “Make partners,” but it was her third principle that really surprised me.
“Make big mistakes.”
To paraphrase, you should (obviously) try to avoid small mistakes, which indicate carelessness. But if you’re making no mistakes and striving for perfection all the time? That just means you’re playing it safe. Big mistakes, on the other hand, are the good stuff. Or, in her own words:
Small mistakes are the thoughtless things we all do when we're not paying attention… On the other hand, big, planned, highly organized mistakes are valuable… Making big mistakes is the occasional byproduct of making big strides. Big mistakes can only occur when you've planned and thought things through. If your carefully laid plan turns out to be a mistake, it may cost you. But it will also give you exactly the information you need to modify your strategy or change your course. You learn, you adjust, and you come back with a stronger, more impactful strategy that works. In the long run, big mistakes are the best feedback we ever get. The most successful people in life are those who make the best use of their mistakes.
So, how do you translate this into your own day-to-day thinking—especially if you’re a perfectionist? Understand that making big mistakes isn’t anti-perfectionism. In fact, it is completely in line with it. Dr. Tam doesn’t advocate for recklessness—she sees big mistakes as evidence of methodically made plans. So, make sure that’s the case. Take comfort that while big mistakes are indeed about being ambitious and taking risks, they’re also about being thorough, making contingency plans, and getting feedback.
In fact, Dr. Tam’s last principle was, “Die by your own sword,” which further supported the notion you should fight for your ideas, especially if you’ve done the legwork and research to support them.
In the end, I got it. It’s all the same—being a perfectionist, making big mistakes, dying by your own sword—it’s about being stubborn when you know you’re on to something good. In other words, if you want to “use what you’ve got to get what you want,” nothing beats work hard and persistence. Take it from Dr. Tam.
Photo of arrow courtesy of Shutterstock.
Lily Zhang serves as a Manager of Graduate Student Professional Development at the MIT Media Lab where she works with a range of students from AI experts to interaction designers. When she’s not indulging in a new book or video game, she’s thinking about, talking about, or writing about careers. Follow her musings on Twitter @lzhng.More from this Author