Top of Today's To-Do List: Be Average
Are you looking for a goal for today -- something to circle in bright red pen at the top of your to-do list? If so, Harvard Business Review has an intriguing suggestion. Here it is:
Wait, what? Why on earth would a driven entrepreneur aim for average? Doesn’t succeeding in a cutthroat business climate demand we shoot for perfection, or at least as close to it as we can humanly manage? Shouldn’t we continually strive to better ourselves?
Nope, argues that post by Greg McKeown based on an interview with David Burns, author of Feeling Good. If you’re reading this (or HBR) and have already started a business, chances are you already have ambition and drive in spaces, McKeown writes. What’s holding you back from greater achievement probably isn’t the scope of your dreams or the quality of your work. Chances are it’s your perfectionism:
"Overachievers have such high expectations of themselves that their 'average' might be another person’s 'really good.' So instead of pushing yourself to give 100% (or 110%, whatever that means) you can go for giving 75% or 50% of what you usually might offer," McKeown notes.
But, you might reply, so what if I’m a high achiever? Shouldn’t I still aim to perform at the absolute top of my ability? The problem with that, McKeown reports, is that such an obsession with quality often dents the quantity of work we produce, and can lead to unhappiness and anxiety as well. So today, he suggests, instead of telling yourself you need to do your best, why not tell yourself to aim for average?
If you are a perfectionist, overachiever or workaholic you are probably used to taking on big challenges. The nature of the obsession makes it easy to do what is hard. Paradoxically, it may be harder at first to try to be average…
Here’s how Burns put it: "There are two doors to enlightenment. One is marked, 'Perfection' and the other is marked, 'Average.' The 'Perfection' door is ornate, fancy, and seductive… So you try to go through the ‘Perfection’ door and always discover a brick wall on the other side… On the other side of the 'Average' door, in contrast, there’s a magic garden. But it may have never occurred to you to open the door to take a look.” As he wrote in a recent entry on his blog, "Much of our suffering derives from our perfectionism, and our belief that we should be 'special.' But…[w]hen you don’t have to be special, life becomes special."
If Burns’ diagnosis of perfectionism and its pitfalls sounds painfully familiar, have a read of the complete post. And once it convinces you to tackle your perfectionism, your next stop is this great talk by therapist Brene Brown on what drives us to be so controlling and how to start overcoming an unhealthy obsession with perfection.
Are you sabotaging your productivity and happiness by aiming for perfect?
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.