How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

Do You Really Need to Cure Your Perfectionism?

When to celebrate perfectionism and what to do when it’s a problem

Sure, perfectionism can be a problem, for example, if your job demands more speed than quality. But sometimes perfectionism is worth celebrating. After all:

  • Very high quality work is a rare gem, whether an elegant proposal, jump shot, or painting. Most of our greatest accomplishments—from the Sistine Chapel to the MRI machine to the SmartPhone—were created by perfectionists.
  • The process of striving for perfection can be enjoyable, relaxing, even meditative. For example, I derive pleasure from trying to perfectly grow tomato seeds into fruitful plants.
  • It can feel great to see your no-compromise, best-effort product. I feel that way even from such simple things as trying to make the perfect cup of coffee (2 tbps of fresh-ground Peet’s Mocha Java sprinkled with cinnamon then made in a Bodum French Press coffee maker.)

If your perfectionism is a problem

If your perfectionism is hurting more than helping, perhaps a tweak rather than a radical change might be enough. Might any of these tweaks be helpful to you?:

  • Make it easier to be perfect. If your perfectionism causes complaints about too slow work, might you switch to projects that are less complex and thus requiring little extra time to be done perfectly? For example, an attorney had worked on appellate cases, which are very complex, and her co-attorneys were frustrated with her. She moved to simpler cases and now her perfectionism takes little extra time and thus she’s praised for her perfectionism.
  • Change who you’re responsible to. If your boss, client, or friends can’t stand your deliberative approach, might you want to, for example, try to find a job with a boss who’d value your striving for perfection?
  • Make perfectionism a choice. Consciously decide if this is an instance in which  your perfectionism is desirable or at least tolerable, or whether it’s a time to put your perfectionism into your tool box for use when it’s appropriate.  For example, we often can be more perfectionistic in our hobbies, for example, as an amateur actor. After all, the word “amateur,” comes from the word, “love.” When we love something, we’re more likely to take the time to strive for perfection.
  • Realize you can probably survive imperfection. We usually survive even grievous errors but some perfectionists so fear failure that they procrastinate a task until it’s too late to get it done even acceptably.

Of course, it’s usually better to have given the task a shot than to not do it, which would guarantee failure. Failing on a single task rarely invalidates your overall worth. And if you fail consistently at a certain kind of task, perhaps that’s useful feedback that’s time to change the kind of work you do.

Do you need a break?

Even if your perfectionism serves you, some people would do well to take a break and do something where perfectionism isn’t an option: stare at nature or even at a mindless TV show, or my personal fave: get down on the floor and play with a toddler or doggie.

A word to non-perfectionists in dealing with perfectionists

Especially if we’re defensive about our own not-lofty standards, it’s easy to pathologize a perfectionist as someone with a problem. Let’s first ask ourselves if it really is. In some cases, we might be wiser to admire the perfectionist and to share that admiration. After all, it ain’t easy striving to be perfect.

Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to his articles here on PsychologyToday.com, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on www.martynemko.com. Of Nemko's seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. His bio is on Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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