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Steve Jobs. Martha Stewart. Winston Churchill. Serena Williams. Gene Kelley. Lance Armstrong. Michelangelo. James Cameron. David Foster Wallace. What do these men and women – who come from vastly different careers, time periods and nationalities — have in common? They are or were notorious perfectionists. But what exactly does that mean?
There are two definitions of perfectionist that usually come to mind: 1) someone who takes great pride in his work, is detail-oriented and cares about quality and doing things right; 2) a rigid Type-A personality who is difficult to work with, irrationally demanding and nearly impossible to please. Is a true perfectionist someone who is never satisfied with any work product and often wastes a lot of time “tweaking” work over and over? Or is it someone who is obsessively focused on the details of high quality work? Is perfectionism a quality or flaw? Actually, it’s both.
Perfectionists strive to produce flawless work, and they also have higher levels of motivation and conscientiousness than non-perfectionists. Viewed from that perspective, it would seem that being a perfectionist is the most ideal quality to have in a worker. However, perfectionists also tend to demonstrate five dark personality traits. They are argumentative, impersonal, narcissistic, insensitive, and fear failure.
There is irony in that the most insidious of all human imperfections is being a perfectionist. That’s because perfectionists are more likely to set inflexible and excessively high standards, evaluate their behavior overly critically, and hold an all-or-nothing mindset about their performance. They think “my work is perfect or a total failure.” No in between. Their self-worth is contingent on performing perfectly. As a result, perfectionists have higher levels of stress, burnout and anxiety than other people.
This trait rears its ugly head and screeches for attention most in an environment of intense deadlines. It kills all learning, and dooms the person to a life of plateaus: the desire to be perfect. Being a perfectionist forces the person to conform to societal norms and expectations. A perfectionist ensures that there are no surprises—good or bad. The basic ingredients that make life interesting are weeded out leaving the perfectionist in a dull and boring world where each day is the same as the next one. If someone’s fidelity to perfectionism is too high, they never do anything because doing something sacrifices how gorgeous and perfect it is in their mind for what it will be in reality. And, perfectionists view criticism as a personal attack and in turn become defensive when receiving feedback for their work. They are unable to take negative feedback in the right way.
Women who are perfectionists are often stuck between a rock and a hard place: they are increasingly afraid to hold themselves and others to high standards because they fear being labeled a rigid Type-A perfectionist who is difficult to work with.
The Perfection Myth
The problem with being a perfectionist is that perfection is a myth… a mirage… a delusion. It is a lie meant to make each person striving to achieve it feel like “less than”. Then there are the terms “almost perfect” and “good enough”, which also imply that one is settling for less. So what level of work product should be expected from workers if perfect doesn’t exist?
When it comes to work product, there is right — many forms and versions of it – and there is wrong — mistakes or flaws that cannot be overlooked and should not be accepted. At work, a decision-maker may reject work because it is wrong… has a mistake that must be fixed. If an artist is asked to paint a sunflower but instead paints the sun… that is wrong for the purpose and must be corrected. It might be a beautiful sun, but it is not what was requested. It must be changed, if it can be. If a writer writes a story that has misspelled words, such as two instead of too to represent also, then that is wrong. It is a mistake or error. It must be corrected so that the message is clear. For an accountant, an entry in the books that shows $7300, instead of $73.00 for 3 ink cartridges, is wrong. It is a data entry mistake or error that must be corrected.
Mistakes, errors or flaws cannot be overlooked and should not be accepted. That work is wrong and must be made right. And that is not about perfection. Error-free is not perfect. It just meets with established rules and best practices for that job. And there is nothing wrong with something that was changed to be different. Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken items with gold, is based on the belief that it is our flaws that make us who we are and they treat breakage as the history of an object rather than something to be fixed. People make mistakes, which is why they put erasers on pencils.
Then there is work that doesn’t align with the vision or purpose. For example, a decision-maker might reject work that is right but simply not what they want. If a buyer commissions an artist to paint a sunflower, there are many ways an artist could paint that sunflower. Monet painted them in a soft blur as he saw them in his mind. While Vincent Van Gogh started out painting sunflowers that were withered and dead; not neatly arranged in a vase, but lying separately on a table. Then he went on to paint sunflowers against blue backgrounds, from pale greenish-blue to royal blue with increased contrast. Then he painted the yellow flowers on a yellow background; what he called ‘light on light’.
Van Gogh wasn’t the first to paint sunflowers, but he was one of the first who gave the flower the leading role in a number of floral still lifes. Georgia O’Keefe painted a sunflower that was hyper large. None were wrong. Just different versions of right.
However, if an artist who is commissioned to paint a sunflower paints a purple sunflower, then that work – while it might be beautiful – may not align with the traditional concept of a sunflower. Or if Pablo Picasso was commissioned to paint a sunflower and then painted one with an eye in the center, then while it would be typical of his style and probably worth a lot of money it might not align with the request for a “sunflower”. It is not about perfection. It is about the work being on point. In that situation, the onus is on the person requesting the work to explain clearly what is wanted. The better the communication, the more likely the worker will hit the target.
Then there is question of quality. Not all work is created equal. Van Gogh was a notorious perfectionist, who was constantly experimenting with his art. He painted many sunflowers, experimenting with light and color. In time, his work improved and evolved. But was it ever perfect? In that regard, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. From a painting to a novel to a tax return, can any work ever be considered perfect?
The truth is that there isn’t is a perfect sunflower. There is only work that aligns best with the vision of the creator or requestor of that work. But perfect work doesn’t exist… and neither are there any perfect people. And shooting for perfection is a formula for frustration and disappointment for the one reviewing the work and a recipe for disaster for the one doing it. Striving for perfect is diminishing. So for a manager critiquing the work of an employer who struggles with perfectionism, it is better to indicate where the job differs or deviates from what was discussed than to say it is imperfect. In this way, it demonstrates that perfection was never the goal and that aiming for perfection is just a limiting belief that lowers confidence and self-worth. Maybe the goal for anyone doing any work is to shoot for the person approving the work to say “it is perfect for me”.
Quote of the Week
“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”
Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
© 2021, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.