Why Your Need for Perfection is Killing Your Career

If you're anything like me, you've probably thought that doing everything "right" at work meant that you were a star-performer.  It meant that you were excelling and would progress quickly along your career path, right?  Wrong.  This need for perfection has probably hindered you in more ways than one.  Consider the following: 

You play it safe

Feeding into perfectionism means that you’re afraid to take a risk, because it could result in failure.  You stick to the humdrum status quo and don’t reach beyond it because you know that you can always get a stellar outcome when you stick to what you know.  Who ever grew as a person or moved an organization forward without taking a risk?  No one.  Growth, both of your team and yourself, requires that you step outside of your comfort zone to face a fear of the unknown.

You apologize for failures

Sure when we’ve unintentionally made an error, we should own it and apologize.  But I’m talking about mistakes or failures that come from trying something new and taking that risk.  If you did attempt to step outside of your comfort zone, you quickly retreat when the outcome isn’t pretty.  Taking risks is part of career advancement, so honor that, even when things don’t work out the way you hoped.  Every failure or mistake from trying something new is a lesson learned that will help you know how to try again differently next time.  Make bold moves without apologizing each time you hit a roadblock.  There’s usually something positive that you can take away. 

You miss opportunities

It takes you forever to finish a project because you want to edit and tweak every little thing until it is just so.  You expect the stars to perfectly align at just the right time, when you have all the right information and expertise to make your next move.  In reality, the right move at exactly the right time rarely happens.  We meet new people, learn about new opportunities, or get thrust into new challenges or projects all the time.  We don’t always know how to handle them, but we figure it out.  Getting comfortable with the idea of flying by the seat of your pants requires letting go of the unattainable ideal.  Don’t wait for yourself or anyone else to tell you that you are ready. Jump in with both feet and know that you will figure things out as you go.

You don’t feel fulfilled by your work

Yes, it is work and it’s not always fulfilling.  But many of us hope that the forty+ hours we dedicate to an organization each week would bring at least some sense of satisfaction.  When you expect perfection from yourself at work, you often steal that sense of satisfaction.  You don’t let yourself get too excited about a new project or opportunity because if you did, it would mean that you would feel sadness if things don’t go perfectly as planned.  You expect nothing less from yourself than accomplishing the nearly impossible, so when you do finally complete a project, you feel relief instead of joy or a sense of accomplishment.  When you stop holding yourself to these over-the-top standards, you allow yourself the freedom to feel excitement, joy, and fulfillment when you achieve something new.

So how can you begin to let go to move forward? Strive for excellence, not perfection.  The two are very different ideas, as perfection is an impossible, untouchable goal that exists only in our imagination.  Excellence, on the other hand, is meeting high standards or goals while leaving room for mistakes. People who pursue excellence over perfection:

  • Try new things, even without knowing what’s down the road
  • Learn from mistakes or failures rather than dwell on them
  • View criticism as a constructive way to learn
  • Feel satisfied in knowing that they tried their hardest

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As Brené Brown writes in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life.” 

So stop fearing what you don’t know and what people think of you. Pick up your life and try new things. Take risks, speak your mind, and make mistakes. Living this way is how we learn to become our true selves and feel comfortable showing this to others-colleagues, supervisors, and clients included.  Chances are that people are not watching for you to slip up or make a mistake like you think they are.  They really are looking for someone to push the envelope and get things done.  And to do that, you’ve got to release the unattainable idea of perfection and embrace excellence instead.  In doing so, you’ll begin to see yourself move forward in more ways than you could have imagined.