If someone you care deeply about is having brain surgery, do you want a surgical team that says, “Done is better than perfect,” in the operating room? We don’t!
Too often, people focus only on the downside of perfectionism. Perfectionism, like almost all other character traits, is not inherently desirable or undesirable. It is not something people should work to overcome. Furthermore, even if you want to overcome it, that’s extremely difficult to do because, like introversion, it’s a character trait.
If you are a perfectionist, we encourage you to embrace it as a strength, not curse it as a flaw. Instead of investing your time trying to shake off your perfectionism, you should seek situations in which being a perfectionist is a good fit. Look for an organization that is passionate about excellence, one that sets high standards for quality and aggressively strives for continuous improvement.
Maribel Cruz, Ph.D.
One of our favorite perfectionists, Maribel Cruz, offers this advice, “Don’t be satisfied with simply finding organizations that accept or tolerate your perfectionism. Make a point of actively seeking out roles that utilize perfection. Think about the forensic accountant who lives for the moment when he finds that missing thousand dollars, or the editor who relishes her peers who embrace the Oxford comma.”
In Social Situations
In some situations, perfectionism can create stress, both for the perfectionist and for those around her. Social situations often come to mind first. As a perfectionist attending a dinner party, you might well notice several flaws in the way the hostess executes the event. Success in that situation requires that you acknowledge those flaws (just in your head, of course), but don’t allow them to diminish your enjoyment of the evening. (And for goodness sake, don’t share them with the host – not even later!) Your perfectionism goes to work with you, too. When a person or a team at work has created a great success, there were almost certainly flaws in their performance. Be conscious and intentional about celebrating the success instead of leaping immediately to focus on the flaws. Leave that to another time if you think bringing up the flaws could help that person or team have greater future success.
You don’t have to give up your perfectionism, but when it comes to the shortcomings of people you care about, accept them as they are. Consciously and intentionally focus on what’s right about them rather than what’s wrong. Also, keep in mind that not everyone shares your love for perfection.
Here’s Maribel’s advice for navigating social situations as a perfectionist: “I don’t judge other people (well, except when it comes to hygiene/cleanliness because I will not eat off dirty dishes). It’s far easier to accept others’ flaws than it is my own. I’m much harder on myself than anyone else would be.”
In fact, Maribel tells this story about a former roommate, “I can live with slobs as long as they don’t mess up my personal space or any shared space. I had a housemate in grad school who literally did not notice a 40-pound bag of dirt I left in his room purposely. It sat there all year!”
Work situations can also be complicated for perfectionists, especially when it’s not brain surgery, and success really is defined more by “done” than by “perfect.” When a project has a hard deadline, make the work as close to perfect as possible, but meet the deadline. It’s ok to acknowledge that the product is not perfect, and it’s ok for that to bother you. The “bothering” part is just a feeling. You don’t have to allow that feeling to control you. And you don’t have to try to stop being a perfectionist either. Instead of trying to change this character trait, Maribel suggests that you should work on managing the situation and consider how your perfectionism can serve you well.
For many perfectionists, including Maribel, perfectionism is a way to maintain control in a chaotic world. She explains, “It soothes me to polish my windows until no spots are left. Your run of the mill perfectionist gets a charge out of creasing the pants or knotting a tie just so. It’s about asserting personal agency in the world and enjoying the feeling of being in charge.” If doing something perfectly motivates you and provides a sense of satisfaction, by all means, do it!
Maribel also notes that “re-living my ‘perfect’ moments helps me re-experience the moments where that perfection has been attained so I can recapture the elements of that perfect performance to make it repeatable.” She uses past perfection to drive future perfection
Perfectionism is not a flaw. If you are reading this and you’re a perfectionist, embrace it! Perfectionists can add great value to any organization, provided it is harnessed in the right way.
Larry Sternberg and Kim Turnage are authors of Managing to Make a Difference (Wiley), a handbook for hitting the sweet spot of middle management. Maribel Cruz, Ph.D. is Director/Senior Leadership Consultant at Talent Plus, and her perfectionism creates excellence every day.
This is Part One in a two-part series on perfection. Check back next week for Part Two.