Striving for excellence is essential to your success as a leader in your workplace, family and community. Having high standards motivates you to exceed the expectations of your clients, bring out the best in yourself and others, and create positive change for the people you work with, live with and serve.
Being great at what you do comes as a result of a daily commitment to continuously improve in all areas of your life. As Aristotle said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit."
However, the moment striving to do your best turns into the pursuit of perfection, your work, your relationships and your health will suffer. There are benefits to being a perfectionist, but the person who chooses this path and the people around them pay a huge price.
If you're not a perfectionist or don't have the desire to help someone who is, there is no need for you to read any further. The rest of this article is for the leaders of today and tomorrow who want to reduce their perfectionistic tendencies while improving the quality of their work and life. This message is longer than usual. It will take about 7 minutes to read.
What Elana Miller, MD, wrote about perfectionism touched me in a profound way. I related to her story on many levels and she has inspired me to continue to work on my issues with this subject. I hope it does the same for you.
"Perfectionism has been that 'frenemy' who's tagged along with me my entire life. On the surface she's helped me get stuff done right. But underneath she was always there at the worst moments to whisper cruel criticisms in my ear no matter how hard I'd worked or how well I'd done.
Perfectionism helped me get straight A's all through school, helped me get into Harvard, helped me graduate from medical school with highest honors. But she was also there to tell me that each of these accomplishments was not sufficient, that I should try hard, do more, be better. Perfectionism never let me enjoy any of my successes.
Perhaps the biggest problem with perfectionism, though, is that no one will ever tell you that you have a problem. No one is ever going to say...can you stop being so organized, so conscientious, so disciplined? Can you stop making my life easier?
Sure, people give lip service to me needing to chill out. They'd say, 'Hey Elana, you need to relax. Take the night off and have some fun.' I didn't know what they were talking about. As soon as I learned what alcohol was, I knew I could have a drink or two to help shut off my ruminating mind, or maybe three to help me lose my inhibitions, but I didn't have fun.
Their lips said one thing, but I could see the truth in their eyes. I could see it on their faces when they smiled at my accomplishments. I could hear it in their voices when they bragged about me to other people. My parents, teachers, bosses...I validated them. My success helped them feel they were good at what they did. They didn't want to see the other side of me...the part of me that felt insecure and weak, the part of me that was exhausted from working so hard, the part of me that was struggling desperately to keep it together. Perfectionism stems from a dissatisfaction with where you are and who you are and, because of that, nothing is ever good enough."
When happiness lives on the other side of perfection, you will always be frustrated regardless of the results you produce. Even if others feel you did something perfectly, you believe the results were not good enough. You sometimes feel like a fraud when others praise you because, in a perfect world, you know you could have done better. So you continue to run a race that has a finish line you'll never cross. No matter how fast or far you go, the thrill of victory is unattainable, and the agony of defeat shows up daily.
If you manage a team or have children, it's also important to know that people can't reach their full potential when a leader or parent expects everything to be flawless.
"Perfectionism never happens in a vacuum. It touches everyone around us. We pass it down to our children, we infect our workplaces with impossible expectations, and it's suffocating for our friends and families." ~ Bene Brown ~
Early in my career I worked with the founder and CEO of a billion-dollar business. He was a remarkable man capable of achieving goals others thought were impossible. He had the respect of everyone in his industry, but during a private lunch with his son (the past president of the company) he told me, "No matter what I ever accomplished, it was never good enough for my Dad." He ended his relationship with the company and his father.
If you want to end your relationship with perfection or at least reduce the time you feel "not good enough," I encourage you to do an experiment for the next 7 days.
Take The Imperfection Challenge:
Pick one positive thing you know you're not good at doing. This should be an activity that is important to you, but one that has no real risk to you or your clients. Make a commitment to do that activity every day for the next 7 days, even if you don't feel like doing it. Then praise yourself immediately for your imperfect effort.
For example, most leaders I know admit they don't spend as much time as they should on building better relationships. They know positive relationships are critical to their success and yet they don't proactively pursue improving them.
Many leaders will tell you they just don't have the time, but the real reason is they're perfectionists. As a result, they procrastinate until they can share a perfect message at the perfect time. Their desire to appear flawless when they pick up the phone or attend a networking event prevents them from making the effort to get better at an activity they know would improve the quality of their work and life.
If you choose to do this experiment, I suggest you invest 10 minutes today and call...not text or email... one person that might need your service. Don't spend more than a couple minutes thinking of who to contact. Just ask yourself, "Who should I call?" then dial that name and start a conversation. If you get their voicemail, leave a message and make another call. Contact as many people as you can during the 10 minutes and then stop. Reflect on what you accomplished and then celebrate your imperfect efforts regardless of the results you produced. Repeat that process for the next 7 days. (The weekend is a great time to reconnect with friends from school or in your community that you've not talked with in a long time.)
You and I know that extreme perfectionism is a progressive disease that has to be dealt with one day at a time. It's also one of the major causes of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and even suicide among smart, hard-working individuals. Research has proven that perfectionists are very skilled at hiding their pain.
You may not have a serious problem with perfectionism now but someone in your workplace or family may be suffering in silence because they are under the illusion that you're perfect and they're not good enough.