• Hannah Ubl

Perfectionism Kills

Have you ever seen a headline like 10 Ways You’re a Perfectionist, and pridefully clicked on it just to prove that you’re not a perfectionist? But then you start reading and it’s like the article is speaking to your very soul. You feel exposed so you quickly exit the tab and tell yourself, “whatever, perfectionism is a gift!” Yeah, me neither. 😐

In corporate America, perfect is rebranded as flawless (no, not Beyoncés definition) and many long for a manager to give feedback like, “This is flawless. I’d do nothing differently.” If you’re “lucky enough” to receive this feedback then, puffed with pride, you hear that word has circled ‘round that you are the person to handle a certain task flawlessly. You are the one who knows how to do things the right way every time (including the first time, you gem, you). You are the one who continues to exceed expectations. You are the high-po rockstar rising talent that’s going to take the company by storm with your perfect track-record of excellence. That’s a pretty stellar reputation.

Soon, driven to uphold that reputation, you run yourself ragged doing everything in your power to protect your perfect persona from (gasp!) any slight mistake. But this quest to dress, talk, act, and perform in a manner no less than perfect has serious, harmful consequences.

Perfectionism Consequence #1: You suffer.

There is no such thing as perfect. But once you feel you’ve created the perception, you can’t stop yourself from chasing after that mirage. Ambitiously competing for the “perfect” label is exhausting, and in the back of your mind runs this never-ending script: “you’re not enough because you could always be better.” As a part of this toxic mental narrative, you agonize over a whole bunch of what if’s:

  • What if I make a mistake and everyone notices?

  • What if I send an email without the right people cc’ed?

  • What if I present in a meeting and speak incorrectly?

  • What if I’m found out, and people realize I’m not who they thought I was?

If you never cease trying to be “perfect” in the eyes of others, burnout is imminent (because you’re spending too much energy chasing an impossible standard), self-doubt will rise (“wait,” you’ll ask yourself, “did I really do well in that meeting or were they just complimenting me to be nice?”), and your sense of self will erode (if you’re constantly meeting others’ standards, how will you actually know what your own is?) Even worse… you’re feeding into a vicious cycle. Others will look to you as a role model, reflect on their own inadequacies, and then start chasing perfection themselves.

Perfectionism Consequence #2: Others suffer.

The truth of the matter is that the pressure to be perfect is only growing. And while the pressure can come from yourself or others around you, it also comes from society. Since 1989, researchers have been tracking perfectionism’s rise and—alarmingly—societal prescribed perfectionism has increased 3x more than self or other-oriented perfectionism. Aka, that device (read smartphone) we carry around all the time with those cool Insta and Facebook feeds are filling our heads with messages like:

  • “You don’t look like this and you should.”

  • “You don’t have the career like hers. And you should.”

  • “You could have done something different by the age of 40. But you didn’t.”

It should come as no surprise that the demographic most vulnerable are those who spend the most time on social media, Gen Z. If we don’t learn to chip away at our perfectionist ways, the next crop of talent is going to be woefully behind in banning this dangerous self-talk and wear themselves out seeking the unachievable goal of being perfect. Worse? They’ll stop taking risks for fear of failing or showing a weakness… and when risk-taking stops, so does innovation. Which leads me to the next consequence…

Perfectionism Consequence #3: Business suffers.

When we operate as our best version of ourselves, business thrives. When we’re trying to operate as someone we’re not, business hurts. It’s that simple. The foolhardy quest for perfectionism wastes so much energy, and ends up killing all sorts of valuable things like...

  • Curiosity “I could try to do this another more effective way, but the tried and true method is the safest and the most likely to be accurate, so I’ll just go with it.”

  • Collaboration “I’m just going to do this myself and make sure it’s all correct.”

  • Connection “I could go to the team outing, or I could revise this proposal one more time… there’s always room for improvement!”

  • Authenticity “If I’m not the professional, poised, polished work version of me, people might realize I’m a fraud.”

  • Productivity “I’ve spent an hour crafting this email, but I’m just gonna read it one… or maybe three more times.”

Growth, of all sorts, grinds to a halt when you’re hyper-focused on being perfect. Rather than benefitting from your perfect work, businesses are missing out on all sorts of other value you might bring to the table. Not to mention the fact that perfectionism is the fast-track to burnout, and a company full of exhausted, burned-out employees is precisely what no one needs.

So let’s put this creativity-killing, business-harming, self-worth murdering perfectionism where it belongs… in the trash! Because perfectionism is a goal that can never be reached, and, ironically, the harder you strive for it the more you suffer, those around you suffer, and even your work suffers. Instead, let’s shift the focus to learning, growing, embracing failure, celebrating imperfections, and building a work world with a sea of folks who are grounded, happy, and motivated to do their best, knowing their best doesn’t have to mean perfect.