No one ever achieved great things by mellowing out and going with the flow (unless we count peace of mind as a great achievement, which, come to think of it, maybe we should). But if you want to build a great company, excel in your career, or change the world in any other way, you're going to need to aim high and hold yourself to account.

Ambition, in other words, is pretty much a prerequisite for success. But where do big dreams and high standards end and impossible perfectionism begin? When are you pushing yourself to achieve your full potential and when are you only burning yourself out aiming for an impossible standard?

"Perfectionism is a virtue to be extolled definitely," Prem Fry, a psychology professor at Trinity Western University in Canada has said. "But beyond a certain threshold, it backfires and becomes an impediment." Too much of a focus on perfection, stops you from taking necessary risks, can cause procrastination, and generally makes you miserable.

York University psychology Professor Gordon Flett thinks he can help you get a grip on whether you're a healthy striver or a pathological perfectionist. Together with colleagues, Flett developed a "perfectionist scale," or a set of ten characteristics that can help you tell if your standards are healthy but high or totally unrealistic. The more of the traits on his "Ten Top Signs Your a Perfectionist" list below that you recognize in yourself, the more you should worry.

  1. You can't stop thinking about a mistake you made.
  2. You are intensely competitive and can't stand doing worse than others.
  3. You either want to do something "just right" or not at all.
  4. You demand perfection from other people.
  5. You won't ask for help if asking can be perceived as a flaw or weakness.
  6. You will persist at a task long after other people have quit.
  7. You are a fault-finder who must correct other people when they are wrong.
  8. You are highly aware of other people's demands and expectations.
  9. You are very self-conscious about making mistakes in front of other people.
  10. You noticed the error in the title of this list.

If this inventory has you concerned that you might be taking your obsession with perfection too far, it's important to note that Flett further subdivides perfectionists into three sub-categories. So you also need to consider which of these sounds most like you: 

  • Self-oriented perfectionists strive for perfection for themselves and set their own high standards.
  • Socially prescribed perfectionists strive for perfection because it is important to other people.
  • 'Other-focused' perfectionists expect others to be perfect and are extremely critical if they do not meet these high standards.

"The worst type of perfectionists are those who expect others to match their own impossibly high standards," notes PsyBlog in its write-up of Flett's research, so be particularly worried if your perfectionist tendencies are often directed at others, not just yourself.

How many of these signs did you recognize in yourself?