Many high achievers fall into one of two camps: Perfectionists or completists. I fall into the latter, meaning that when I start something, I can become bothered, if not obsessed with seeing it through. It has a unique set of issues - which is why Seth Godin's seminal book on quitting, The Dip, completely changed my take on my career. It all falls into a classic theory I've talked about in previous columns.
Perfectionists, though, need to have everything just so. I can't relate, but another favorite entrepreneur and author, Peter Sims, can. He talked about it on the Whitney Johnson's Disrupt Yourself podcast in regards to his excellent book, Little Bets:
Healthy perfectionism is internally driven in the sense that it's motivated by strong personal values for things like quality and excellence. Conversely, unhealthy perfectionism is externally driven... Healthy perfectionists exhibit a low concern for these outside factors.
I have empathy for perfectionists, as, unlike us completists, they get a truly bad rap. It is often used as a pejorative - which is why Sims' distinction is so vital to having a positive view of your traits.
Unhealthy perfectionism arises from using others as a measuring stick. Some call this "compare and despair". Others call it "don't compare your life to someone else's highlight reel". Entrepreneur coach Marie Forleo shared a great perspective on this in a previous column:
One of the ways people really screw themselves up is going on social media and comparing themselves to others, or comparing themselves to others in general. You're going to be off your game for at least three or four days , you're going to feel like s**t, you're going to get obsessed with their Instagram and their Facebook. You're going to think, "I'm never going to get there! They've been there before! There's no room for me!
Social media is a blatant example, but this comparison can happen in everyday life, too. As the modern classic The Daily Stoic emphasizes, external factors are too volatile to be used as a personal gauge for success.
Do this instead
Think of the worst-case scenario: It is counterintuitive, but looking at the worst that can happen can actually help you realize how small the gap is between a decent job and a "perfect" job. It also reminds you that, in most cases, you'll recover fine.
Do little tests before you go all in: Sims' book is based on this entire premise. Perfectionism is more likely to appear when a lot is on the line. Take a more incremental view at success, whether you are taking on something as a side hustle (as Chris Guillebeau shows in the aptly-titled Side Hustle) or as a slow build towards bigger success (hence my own book, The Ultimate Bite-Sized Entrepreneur).
Take time to strategize: Perfectionism often is an obsession with granular details that, in the end, are often non-consequential. Pausing for a moment during the process can help you see the forest for the trees.