The odds of being dealt the perfect hand in poker (royal straight flush) happens on average every 649,739 hands. In baseball, a perfect game (no base-runners allowed) occurs once every 18,192 games. In bowling an adult male will need approximately 11,500 opportunities to attain a perfect score (300). While the odds of nailing a work presentation, achieving a wildly successful sales call, or acing an exam at school are far less daunting, the realization of perfection is often elusive and fleeting.
Long odds and low probabilities often don’t matter to those seeking absolute perfection because many individuals operate under the unrealistic presumption that perfection is not only possible, but expected. The flawless quest can both energize and debilitate motivation. For some, perfectionism increases effort when targets are obtainable and reached through methodical and extensive planning and practice supported by coaching and feedback. However, for others, the drive for perfection is wrought with anxiety and angst, and often associated with obsessive behavior and negative results because performers can never reach their own lofty expectations.
Which perfectionist type are you?
People can be categorized into two types of perfectionists. Beneficial perfectionism occurs when individuals aspire to goals that are possible and realistic. This type of person sets stretch goals, but measures success based on improving upon one’s previous performance and not by comparing oneself to others. In their study of perfectionism, psychologists Joachim Stoeber and Kathleen Otto concluded that when people focused on their own continuous improvement, this focus promoted heightened self-awareness, an extroverted personality, and fostered positive emotions including feelings of self-satisfaction. In addition, continuous improvement garners high levels of social support from the performer’s family, teammates, and peers.
On the other side, individuals mired in the dark side of perfection are highly self-critical. This type of person ascribes blame to themselves regardless of what is accomplished or what obstacles were overcome in their perfectionist quest. Dysfunctional perfectionists have an unjustified fear of mistakes and excessive preoccupation with negative evaluations from peers, partners and coaches. They often act defensive when receiving even minor criticism or improvement suggestions. The disillusioned performer often unjustly compares themselves to superlative others who may have many more years of experience or skill. In the worst case, maladjusted perfectionists are neurotic and compulsive, ruminating on their weaknesses. The negative emotions result in higher levels of irrational behavior, social anxiety, and perpetual doubts of worthlessness.
The consequences of reaching perfection
Sometimes we do experience flawless performance! Despite the appropriate feelings of accomplishment and likely recognition from others, negative motivational consequences can also follow from achieving relative perfection. Regardless of the outcome, the perfectionist may not be content and satisfied, resulting in feelings of guilt or anxiety because the individual believes they could have done better. Even in the absence of dysfunctional perfectionist strivings, unrealistic performance evaluations can result in several unproductive future behaviors.
Poor calibration - Inaccuracy related to projecting future task difficulty can sometimes result from success. In other words, when we experience positive outcomes on one task, we may inappropriately believe we will perform similarly on a different, yet unrelated task. Such an overestimation of personal effectiveness can result in lower drive, minimal planning, or inattention to important tasks and aspects that are critical for success.
Withholding future effort - One of the worst consequences of unbridled success is the perception that exerting less effort can achieve the same results. After all, why bust your butt if you can avoid it? Investing less task effort often diminishes progress and produces potentially inferior results because the individual believes they are performing better than they are. Surprisingly, underestimation of ability also has motivationally damaging consequences because when a person doubts their capability, they may falsely believe that exerting more effort won't actually produce better results.
Development is thought to be unnecessary – Habitual success can give false impressions of expertise and interfere with the desire to improve skill sets. A diminished focus on improvement can create an aura of complacency where the individual seems oblivious to changing circumstances, including the need to upgrade technology skills. Feelings of perfection may result in resting on one’s laurels, while the rest of the world upgrades their skills and slowly leaves the gloating performer in the dust.
Narcissism may develop – The perception of perpetual success may give the person a false sense of security, unjustified self-importance, and embellished accomplishment. Narcissists often see themselves as superior to their competitors and are known to demonstrate selfish behavior, evaluate their accomplishments as comparatively superior to others, and have recognition obsessions. The narcissist will exhibit a resilient ego in the face of criticism, but be unaware that just like everyone else, they can always improve.
If you are concerned that you might be a dysfunctional perfectionist, or you know someone who is, there are some simple remedies to correct the problem. My new book “Hack Your Motivation: Over 50 Science-Based Strategies to Improve Performance,” is now available at many online retailers. The book transforms the latest scientific evidence from psychology, education, and business into easy-to-understand and quick-to-use strategies that quickly solve most motivational challenges. If you prefer free information and want daily updates and original content on motivation, leadership, learning, and peak performance follow me on Twitter @ifoundmo. #HackYourMotivation