Note: Upon her indictment on federal money laundering charges and her arrest February 8, 2022, Inc. dismissed Heather Morgan as a contributing columnist. As is our practice, we do not unpublish editorial content, and rather have added this note for full transparency.
So many smart and talented people strive for "perfect."
And the scariest thing is that very few even realize this a problem.
You see this a lot in job interviews with ambitious young people. The kids who took all the Advanced Placement honors classes and always got A's are a perfect example. When asked what their biggest flaw is, they'll smugly reply, "perfectionism," as if it's some kind of cheat answer that saves them from saying anything negative about themselves, since they truly do strive for perfect.
Being a perfectionist is often like a badge of honor for neurotic people, but it's not healthy. Just as workplaces that celebrate an overworking culture often have frequent mental health issues such as burnout, perfectionism is a path to unhappiness and self-loathing.
I know this because I used to be one of these miserable "perfect" people.
While my ambition drove me to work hard and rapidly build a company in a short amount of time, it was chasing perfection that sabotaged scaling and led me to burnout hard. I won't even list all the other times it hurt my personal relationships or held me back on a professional or artistic level.
Whether you're an entrepreneur or just someone looking to advance their career or passion project to the next level, trying to be perfect can actually hold you back.
Here are some reasons why perfection is one of your worst enemies:
1. Diminishing marginal returns
There's a big distinction between great and garbage, but the difference in quality between "pretty good" and "great" isn't often noticeable. Extra time and energy we spend striving for perfection may not actually give us much more, if any, better results.
2. Perfect has an opportunity cost
Just as perfection can have diminishing marginal returns, we have to think about what we might be doing instead if we weren't busy chasing perfect. What else could we be accomplishing if those efforts were used elsewhere? It's usually a lot better to finish a dozen things proficiently than to obsess with one thing that you never finish. (And stressing over perfection also has its cost on your health and creative energy.)
3. Perfection is procrastination in disguise
No matter what your profession is--whether you're developing software, an artist striving to create something amazing, or a writer working on a piece of content-- nothing is more important than "shipping" out your work regularly. It's easy to procrastinate by obsessing over little details that probably won't really matter--maybe you keep changing the color of a widget five times or endlessly rewriting the same sentence over and over. This kind of over-analysis and second guiding sabotages us from making progress and actually completing our projects.
4. You'll never be happy
The problem with perfectionists is that no matter how much they accomplish, they are never satisfied with themselves of their effort. I know because I was raised in a culture where every imperfection was scrutinized and criticized. It took me a long time to appreciate myself for who I am and what I have done, and start to finally let go of the things that I didn't do as well as I had hoped. While it's good to recognize how you can improve in the future, you shouldn't beat yourself up for past mistakes you can't change.
5. Perfect is relative
We all have different preferences, and what is awful to one person is wonderful to another. While you may have great insights and abilities in your profession, you are not necessarily the end customer or user. A detail that you might think is really important may actually not matter much to someone else. Likewise, what you may perceive as a flaw may actually be a benefit to someone else.
My next article will discuss proven tactics and strategies for overcoming neurotic perfectionist tendencies.
In the meanwhile, I'd love to hear questions you have about dealing with perfectionism or self-sabotage.