Merriam-Webster defines perfectionism as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.”
What’s wrong with this definition?
It almost makes perfectionism sound admirable.
It sounds like someone unwilling to settle. A perfectionist refuses to accept something with flaws, and this drives them to be better and better. Right?
Isn’t that the classic job interview answer when asked about your weakness?
‘I’m too much of a perfectionist. I’ll work long hours making sure everything on a project is perfect. I can’t help it.’
This is supposed to signal to the employer that the person will bend themselves backward to produce perfect work. Let’s set aside the fact that this is a generic answer crafted specially to answer the question about weakness, while really talking about strength. Let’s set aside the fact this is not an honest answer to the interviewer’s question. Instead, let’s talk about whether being a perfectionist is actually a good thing.
I argue that it is not.
I believe giving that answer actually accidentally reveals a severe weakness. My preferred definition of a perfectionist is one by Harold Taylor (shown to me via a professional organizer friend):
“A perfectionist is someone who spends more time on a task then it merits.”
Taylor, while writing about time management, is pointing out that perfectionism is actually wasting our time. We spend too much time on little details or continue working on a project when it’s already been completed.
Perfectionists are those who lose sight of their goals. I can see this happening in two ways, though there are probably more.
The first is that they spend time intensely focusing on details that don’t have much of an effect on the overall product. It’s like having a conversation with someone about whether they like a certain restaurant and having them go off on how the napkins there are folded. You would stop them and say something like, “but how’s the food?” The perfectionist has a goal (hopefully) but has been sidetracked.
Sometimes they are too far gone to find their way back.
The second way perfectionists lose sight of their goals is by pushing past them. By this I mean they have accomplished the goal, but they continue working on it anyway. In the restaurant conversation, this would be the moment where you have both agreed to go to the restaurant, but they continue to extol its virtues. The stage of ‘good enough’ has been reached. This wastes valuable time that could be spent identifying the next goal and moving toward it.
It can be stressful to know that something is not perfect and to move on from it anyway. But it could be better, you might think. I would point out that, usually, the marginal utility of each more minute you spend on it is getting lower and lower. Your time may be better spent elsewhere.
The best advice that I’ve thought of when I find myself in that moment of anxiety— between publishing a post or rereading and rewriting it one more time—is this: “Don’t be a perfectionist, but pay attention to the choices that you are making.”
If you have made your choices deliberately and mindfully, then there is no real reason to worry. Whether you’ve done this is easy to think about and check. Afterwards you just have to let go and trust your work. Your goals will have been accomplished if you have made the right choices.
So set a goal and keep it in mind, but also remember that goals are fluid. Compare your work to its goals often. Are they a match? If not, maybe you do need to work on the project more. Or if you’ve switched directions you may need to re-think your goals. Both of those are better than nitpicking your work until all you see are problems.
Psychology today talks about perfectionism being toxic: “What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation.” This negative feeling has the potential to endlessly expand and take over more and more of your work and life.
We need to squeeze out the toxicity of perfectionism and allow ourselves to appreciate and revel in successfully reaching goals. Then you will be able to make peace with the project and move on.
Author: Rae Ensor
Assistant Editor: JoJo Rowden / Editor: Renee Picard
Photo: Emanuele Maria Bonafiglia