Anyone who wants to succeed--like you--tries hard to achieve more. You’re not just trying to be great. You’re striving for perfection.
But maybe perfection really shouldn’t be your goal.
Here’s a guest post from Ryan Robinson, an entrepreneur and marketer who teaches people how to create meaningful, self-employed careers. (His online courses “Launching a Business While Working” and “Writing a Winning Freelance Proposal” can teach you how to start and grow your own business while working a full-time job.)
To some, attaining a state of perfection is the ultimate accomplishment in life. Such people continually strive to be perfect at whatever they do. Of course, they will often fail at this goal, which fuels the ambition to be "even more perfect" next time.
Still, if perfectionism means shooting for the moon and landing amongst the stars, placing you somewhere just shy of greatness…it must be a good thing, right?
Actually, no. It's nowhere near as simple as that, and there are many factors that should be considered before striving for perfectionism. That’s why I advocate for being very selective about the opportunities you pursue, and instead finding balance between done and perfect.
Attempts at perfectionism can be very harmful, and will likely lead to failure for your business. Perfectionism is a form of OCD, and as such, it can actually be considered a mental health condition.
Remember that the next time you think about complaining to someone that they haven't done a perfect job.
Before we look at the pitfalls of perfectionism, I should recognize that there are some major points in its favor. There are a number of great business leaders who've triumphed with perfectionist ideals.
If you strive to be perfect, which, of course, you never will be, it does mean that you are always attempting to improve on what you are doing. That attitude creates the opportunity for you to come up with truly impressive innovations, as you move toward the state of nirvana you crave--and in theory, since you will be continually improving, you should eventually become an expert in your field.
Perfectionism can help overachievers to continually chase higher standards and expanded visions.
Some of society's most innovative people have been perfectionists. Steve Jobs, Apple's late, lamented leader, was once an adamant perfectionist. His obsession with detail, however, meant that the company took more than three years to develop the original Macintosh.
Jobs managed to temper his perfectionism as time progressed and hire people he trusted. This helped Apple to become more capable of tackling the mass market and less of a niche product company.
Society values perfectionism. While few people manage to achieve the state, many people (even those naturally, chronically disorganized) have high beliefs in the positivity of perfectionism.
I'd argue that pursuing excellence does not require perfection. There are enormous benefits for businesses that seek excellence, yet stop short of requiring unreasonably perfect results. There are many ways to build a culture of excellence other than an expectation that every staff member needs to deliver flawless results on a regular basis.
The reality is that for most people, perfectionism is an impossible goal. There is a near certainty that they will fail at whatever they are trying to do if they are determined to be a perfectionist.
There is also a real danger that they will suffer other side effects due to this obsession. All of these are likely to be harmful to your business success.
1. The Psychological Burden of Needing Everything to Be Perfect
If you honestly believe that you need everything to be perfect, that is quite a psychological burden to saddle yourself with.
People may love watching Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, laughing at his OCD and perfectionism, but few people would actually want to be him.
Perfectionists set impossibly high standards for themselves. As a result, they are not happy even when they have achieved success, because there is always more that could have been accomplished. Many perfectionists are held back from ever achieving success in the first place, simply because of their anxiety over making mistakes.
Perfectionism can quickly become a lose-lose proposition.
2. Unhealthy Stress
One of the most common types of perfectionism is self-oriented perfectionism, in which people impose high standards on themselves. Some people, like Martha Stewart, thrive in this situation. However, many people cannot live up to their self-imposed expectations, and suffer extreme stress as a result.
Thankfully for Apple's sake, when Steve Jobs returned to the company after a lengthy absence, he had moderated his perfectionist streak and learned the importance of relying on a brilliant team to share the workload. This change meant that neither Jobs nor his talented team had to suffer (as much) from the stress of his perfectionism as they had.
Another problem that perfectionists face is they frequently feel others expect them to be perfect, and this creates an enormous sense of pressure. Of course, the reality is there is most likely not much actual pressure being directed their way, but a perfectionist cannot see that.
There is also the flip side of this equation, where perfectionists place high levels of pressure on others by setting ridiculous expectations. Cleverly dubbed "constructive sniping" by career coach Liz Ryan, this tendency by many managers to not acknowledge successes as often as picking out flaws can very easily create a negative culture in your company, and is the quickest way to lose talent.
You would never want a perfectionist as your boss…unless you too suffered from the same obsession.
There is no doubt that Steve Jobs left an enormous legacy at Apple. However, his quest for perfection was at times extremely expensive.
To quote The New Yorker, "Jobs's vision required Apple to control every part of the user experience, and to make everything it possibly could itself. Its hardware was proprietary: the company had its own Mac factory and favored unique cables, disk drives, and power cords, rather than standardized ones. Its software was proprietary, too: if you wanted to run Apple software, you needed to own an Apple computer. This made Apple's computers more expensive than the competition."
There is always a trade-off between being perfect and being cheap. Somewhere in the middle lies the combination found by many of the world's most successful business leaders.
Let's say you have an important task that needs to be completed to ensure your business succeeds. Maybe it’s launching your first major marketing campaign, building out a new core feature on your website, or getting your new product prototypes finished.
Now imagine you have two employees you could entrust with this task.
Employee A is an efficient and capable worker who tries to perform her job to the best of her abilities. If you delegate the task to this person, you know that it will be done, but the performance is unlikely to be groundbreaking.
Employee B is an obsessive perfectionist who will promise to perform the task at a level that will be outstanding. Experience, however, suggests that this employee will oversell her abilities, and if she finishes the job at all, it will take twice as long to complete as Employee A would take.
Which employee would you choose to take on this important task?
I know whom I'd choose.