Although I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a perfectionist, I’ve been categorized as such by more than a few managers over the years. The first time my boss uttered the word, I was flattered—I thought it was a compliment. And, sometimes, it is. But, in the working environment, perfectionism can be a surprisingly debilitating condition—if you don’t know how to handle it.
It took a few years, but I finally realized that perfectionism wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it turns out imperfection is the new, well, perfection. Don’t believe me? Read on, and I’ll explain.
Mistakes Are Our Friends
The first time I inherited my own team, my boss had just one piece of wisdom to impart: “I’ll give you just enough rope to hang yourself, but I’ll be standing close by if you need cutting down.” Morbid as that may sound, it was exactly what I needed. After years of being at the top of my game, it was important for me to realize I was about to make some near-fatal mistakes. And that it was completely OK if I did.
Let’s take my first firing as an example. I took a chance on this employee when I hired him. He didn’t quite fit our standard model for the ideal employee, but something about him told me I should give him a chance. So I trusted my gut and hired him.
At first, he was a star employee, and I secretly patted myself on the back for such a stellar decision. But soon, hints of trouble started to emerge. Although that trusty gut now told me something was amiss, I just couldn’t accept the fact my first impression could be wrong, and that I had made a huge mistake in hiring him. I ended up giving him far too many chances to clean up his act, until finally, the firm suffered a material impact, and I had to let him go.
Ultimately, by being committed to the idea that my original decision was the right one, I caused both myself and the company a lot of grief. But what’s more, I nearly missed out on a great learning opportunity. When discussing the incident with my boss, he gently reminded me that mistakes are how we learn, and if I hadn’t made this one, I never would’ve had the context to recognize these types of situations in the future. (And believe me, I encountered a lot of them.)
Work is Messy
I think for any perfectionist, the term “messy” elicits all sorts of uncomfortable feelings. But, the fact of the matter is, work is messy. Things rarely go according to plan, and the more dead-set you are on things being perfect, the harder the impact will be when you run up against a wall.
A favorite recent example comes from my time volunteering in Tanzania, where little, if anything, follows a strict itinerary. The organization I was volunteering for was hosting a cocktail party, and I had been tasked with creating and showing a short presentation that evening. I rehearsed the presentation dozens of times in the office, tried it out with the office projector, tested the sound, the works. I even made a back-up copy on an external hard drive, in the event my laptop melted or the facilities weren’t compatible with my computer. I thought I’d thought of everything.
Well, sometimes, things just don’t work. There’s no logical explanation, and no one could reasonably expect absolutely everything would go wrong. But, that’s what happened. Nothing worked. The guests began to arrive, some of whom were very important, and there I was, fiddling with two different laptops, desperately trying to appear business-as-usual calm, while glasses clinked and people asked “Will we be starting soon?”
Fortunately, I knew my plan was just that; a plan. So, when plans A, B, and regrettably, C, failed, I sprang into problem-solving mode. What I’d envisioned just wasn’t working out, perfect as that plan may have been in my head. But, appreciating that work—and life—can be messy, I went with the flow, improvised the presentation to work in a different format, and somehow, magically, made it go off without a hitch. All two minutes and 39 seconds of it.
The lesson: If I hadn’t allowed for the possibility of complete and total malfunction, I might’ve frozen. That happens when we’re obsessed with the details. But remembering work can be an untidy affair helped give me the mental capacity to deal with the issue and allowed me to mourn the death of my now clearly imperfect plan (after work, of course).
Perfection Won’t Get You Promoted
Hear me out. I know perfection is an ideal many of us strive to achieve, but when you get down to it, “perfect” rarely comes up in performance reviews or is given as grounds for a promotion.
Take two of my employees a few years ago. One did everything by the book—she did her job “perfectly.” Yet she lacked imagination and flexibility and stuck so religiously to the letter of the law, she could rarely appreciate its spirit. Employee number two, however, was far from perfect. He made a lot of mistakes and was constantly at my desk asking for help. But he was also learning and growing.
By the end of one year, both employees, who started at the around the same time, were at vastly different skill levels. Employee number two—Mr. Imperfect—got the promotion, while employee number one stayed behind for an entire year before she gained enough experience to move to the next level.
Perfection sounds like a nice concept, but if you’re not willing to draw outside the lines a bit, you probably won’t expand your skill set or learn anything that falls outside a checklist. And frankly, those are the keys to getting ahead.
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with striving to be your best. But, when perfection is your ultimate goal, chances are you’ll miss the forest for the trees. If you can remember that you don’t have to be perfect all the time and embrace the opportunity imperfection presents, you’ll get much farther.