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You’ve heard it before: You shouldn’t let perfection get in the way of progress. But you also want to excel at work and perfection may seem like the best pathway for career growth. But perfection can be a barrier to getting ahead—in some surprising ways. It’s to your advantage to let go of the pursuit of perfection and find ways to be excellent without being ideal.
If you try to be perfect, you’re in good company. A study of over 41,000 people published in Psychological Bulletin found perfectionism has increased over time, partly because of the comparisons people do with each other on social media, and partly because of the competitive environments that colleges and employers are increasingly creating.
Some aspects of perfectionism—setting high standards and working toward goals proactively can be good for your career—but perfectionism has a significant downside. Obsessing about making mistakes or letting others down or holding yourself to impossibly high standards can have negative consequences. According to research examining 43 different studies over 20 years by York St. John University, perfectionism is linked to burnout as well as depression, anxiety and even mortality.
How Perfectionism Holds You Back
Part of getting out of the perfectionist trap is understanding how it holds you back. Here’s what you need to know. And keep reading for how to reduce your perfectionism.
Perfectionism is Demotivating
By seeking to be perfect, you’ll ultimately demotivate yourself. Striving for excellence and pushing yourself are wonderful motivators, but you’ll reduce your engagement if you carry these too far. With ideals which are unattainable, you’ll never feel like you’re good enough and you’ll miss out on rewards of accomplishment. When you’re down or disheartened, it will be tough to put your energy into your work and you’ll detract from your own effectiveness.
You’ll get farther if you embrace your limits and do your best. With this alternative, you’ll be able to invest energy in your responsibilities and relationships, and in turn people will feel good about working with you (read: your career will benefit).
Perfectionism Distances You from Others
Another drawback of perfectionism is the way it distances you from colleagues. People may not want to work with you because they sense your impossibly high expectations and know they won’t measure up. Or they will want to avoid the overwork or overthinking which become your hallmark. If you fall into the trap of believing you’re close to perfect, you also run the risk of intimidating others who know they aren’t all that. In addition, if you avoid admitting mistakes, you’ll come across as inauthentic. People won’t trust you—because they know your Teflon exterior isn’t the real you.
Of course you want to be professional, and you won’t share your imperfections with everyone, but you’ll also want to achieve the necessary balance where you have the professional courage to express where you need help and where you don’t have everything figured out. This authenticity will deepen relationships and build your credibility.
Perfectionism Reduces Your Effectiveness
Another reason perfectionism is a barrier to your career growth is because it reduces your ability to do brilliant work. If you’re unable to move ahead or can’t get anything done, you’ll limit your ability to contribute to the project or earn kudos for your great results. If you can’t admit mistakes, you won’t be able to learn about what’s missing or what went wrong in order to improve. Striving to do great work is good for your career, but carried too far, you’ll spin and stagnate as you try—fruitlessly—to achieve an unrealistic standard.
Know when enough is enough, and be satisfied with delivering on a project where you’ve performed well, if not flawlessly. Rather than waiting to release your work until it’s perfect, get comfortable with incremental improvement over time, and the career benefits of continuous learning.
How to Be Less Perfectionistic
So how might you shift from your perfectionist tendencies? Whether you’re a confirmed perfectionist or a personality who is always driving for too much, you can change. Here are some suggestions.
- Change your mind. The old adage is true, “Change your thinking, change your life.” Recognize that you’re limiting yourself and seek to think differently—taking the pressure off of yourself to be all things to all people all the time. Know you can’t possibly do it all and reassure yourself that whatever you do well is a contribution to the community and to your colleagues. When you realize you can’t do everything, and can’t do it perfectly, you actually liberate yourself to focus. You can choose what you’ll prioritize and where you’ll invest your energy, rather than spreading yourself so thin that you fail to feel good about anything.
- Find a Friend. Change is always easier when you go through it with a buddy. Find a trusted colleague with whom you can compare notes and who can give you feedback and validate your efforts, as well as challenge you when you’re getting stuck. Check in regularly and share how things are going. The process of reflecting with a friend, and feeling known and understood can help you make progress.
- Be Selective. Another way to manage perfection is by assessing what’s most important for your performance and growth. There may be tasks which are less important or less consequential—and you can put less into those—while other tasks demand a higher level of effort. Consider the way pilots fly: They use autopilot for the more mundane aspects of a flight, but they are hands-on for maneuvers which are more complex such as take off and landing. You’ll want to do quality work in everything, but you can be intentional about which elements of your work get the highest levels of exertion.
- Set Deadlines. It is true that, “Work expands to fit available time,” so set deadlines for your projects. Give yourself a timeframe for your work, and when you hit the limit, call the outcome good enough. Strive to do your best and be ready to say something is good enough when it’s time to complete the task.
- Adopt a Mantra. Sometimes it can be helpful to adopt a saying which will help you stay focused on your goal. Pick something that works for you and use it to reinforce the new behavior you want to adopt. For example, tell yourself, “Done is better than perfect.” Or, “Don’t confuse excellence with perfection.” Keep these in mind as you seek to change your beliefs and your behaviors.
Excellence is certainly linked with career advancement, but perfection is not. For all kinds of reasons, perfection can limit you—in terms of your performance, relationships, happiness and wellbeing. No human is perfect, but you can reimagine “perfect” as embracing your imperfections. Be truly you—own it—your talents and strengths as well as your limitations.