At first glance, perfectionism can seem like a valuable trait. Demanding perfection from yourself and others feels like something good. And indeed, some of the most admired people in the world can properly be called perfectionists. Steve Jobs is perhaps one of the most famous examples of a perfectionist who changed the world. However, the truth is, for all the stories of Job’s perfectionist streak changing Apple into the giant we know today, many believe his perfectionism also stood as a huge wall to his progress and can be counted among the reasons for his untimely death. Malcom Gladwell, offering his insight into Job’s death said this about Job’s refusal to wear a simple facemask: “Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked…”. From this we get a hint of the debilitating paralysis that can come with perfectionism.
What it means to be a perfectionist most of all is to have incredibly high standards. Almost impossibly high. To some, this can be a source of great motivation. But to most, this can be a trap. It’s not as if trying very hard to achieve your best is an inherently bad motivation. Unfortunately, perfectionism keeps us from accepting the very possible outcome that we cannot at all times perfect our work to the best it can possibly be. Not everything can work out perfectly. A mindset of perfectionism will have us refuse even perfectly satisfactory work for the sake of a mythical perfection that remains out there somewhere. Eventually, there is only one path this road leads to—burnout.
To help you avoid falling into the perfectionist trap, here are five signs that you may be dangerously close:
1) Dangerously High Standards
It’s obviously important to have high standards for yourself. Everyone wants to do their best and having high standards is definitely a part of achieving your best. However, there is a difference between wanting to do your best and setting your sights so high that you couldn’t possibly hope to meet them. You may believe that in order to live your dream you have to work hard. And while this may be true, working hard doesn’t mean that everything has to be perfect. You want to avoid a situation where your high standards for yourself prevents you from even completing your work.
2) Too Critical of Yourself and Others
This trait is seen in many so-called perfectionists—Steve Jobs being a principle example. Being able to look at your work and the work of your peers critically is, like high standards, an admirable trait. However, also like high standards, it can be taken to an extreme. An extreme where you are constantly finding faults wherever you look. Like a person who sends their meal back to the chef many times without eating, your work will remain forever unfinished if you don’t ease on the gas a little.
3) Too Focused on Outcomes
Perfectionists are often far too focused on the outcome and less so on the effort it took to reach it. There are many things to be learned in the journey and oftentimes perfectionists, with their eyes placed firmly on the destination, will fail to learn some important lessons. This can cause a deadly feedback loop where you’re unsatisfied with the outcomes you’ve achieved but because you haven’t yet internalized what can be learned from the process, you will again fail to achieve the outcome you’re looking for.
4) Little to No Relaxation
If you’re often focusing all your attention firmly on work and finding little to no time to relax, there is a good chance you are entering a perfectionist streak. While initially it may seem like no problem to be spending a lot of time focused on work. However, without proper time to relax and de-stress, when it comes time to actually get back to work, the final project won’t be your best. It’s important to be able to leave time to relax so that when you are working, you can fully dedicate yourself to the job without latent stress keeping you from doing your best.
5) Severe Procrastination
Many of these tips revolve crucially around the job not getting done and these all come to a head in good old fashioned procrastination. Procrastination is not a trait unique to perfectionists. However, perfectionists often procrastinate for a very specific reason. That reason being, a fear of not doing their best work. And like stated above, this fear becomes a paralysis. Setting too high standards, being too critical, and being too focused on the outcome can all lead to you simply not doing the work. And that outcome is much worse than not doing it perfectly.
“Shoot for the moon even if you miss you’ll land amongst the stars.” This saying is often treated as an advertisement for perfectionism. Set your sights high because even if you miss, you’ll do something incredible. But as we can see from the signs above, perfectionism might keep you from even launching your rocket. You might not land amongst the stars if your rocket hasn’t launched yet. Perfectionists have seen great outcomes at times. However, it’s important to acknowledge that perfectionism is stunting your growth more than propelling you to the stars. This is because of the very simple fact that it is too focused on the outcome. As a perfectionist, you’ll rarely take the time to internalize the lessons of working through a project. While at times you may chance upon a genius outcome, it’s more likely you’ll frustrate yourself and others—leading to a worse outcome than your work not being perfect. The important thing is to practice. Practice taking your time with the process and accepting your work if it didn’t end up exactly how you imagined. With this you will be able to continually learn and improve until you can achieve something closer to perfect.