No, this is not a trick question. But it is certainly a tricky one! Take just a second to consider it in relation to how you work. Where does seeking excellence in all that we do turn to perfectionism? Is perfectionism even a “bad” character trait?
We often hear that “done is better than perfect”, and “80% will also get you there” but that can actually rankle a little bit, especially when we’re dealing with financial models for billions in funding, or the minutia in a legal contract for a merger transaction. I don’t know about you, but when I was in investment banking I always felt that there were many things that required intense attention to detail, and 80% was certainly not sufficient!
So lets take a closer look at what the two words actually mean – a simple dictionary definition sheds an interesting light on the matter:
Perfectionism: “Refusal to accept any standard short of perfection” (Oxford Dictionary)
Excellence: “The quality of being excellent” (Cambridge Dictionary)
There is a distinctly negative connotation to perfectionism, an unwavering need to have everything exactly right, and nothing less shall suffice, which can be a fast and enduring track to unhappiness. Interestingly, the clincher with perfectionism is that a perfectionist is most focused on avoiding failure or harsh judgement, rather than desiring success.
A perfectionist puts themselves under a lot of internal pressure, and sets unrealistically high expectations for themselves, and for others. They may find fault quickly, finding themselves being overly critical of any mistakes made, and can even tend to procrastinate in order to avoid their fear of failure. Feelings of unworthiness, low self-esteem and anxiety can then come up for these individuals.
Excellence, on the other hand, is a more expansive and supportive concept; its about setting lofty goals, having high standards, and working hard for success. The focus of this is achievement, personal growth, and overcoming interesting challenges, rather than avoiding failure like a perfectionist might do. This is seen as a more “adaptive” form of perfectionism, because if something doesn’t go according to plan, they are able to maintain a healthy self-esteem, regroup and try again. The attitude here is more along of the lines of the saying “shoot for the moon, because even if you miss, you’ll land in the stars”.
So if you find yourself tending towards perfectionism (hey, we’ve all been there, this is a judgement free zone!) the key is to try to realise that any endeavour can be worthwhile, even if it isn’t perfect.
Ask yourself: If you reduce by 10% the standards that you set for yourself, what would happen? This is less about doing everything to 90%, and more about getting really curious about your answers. Would anyone really notice and judge you for pausing in your presentation to glance at your notes? Does that matter? And most importantly, how does that make you feel? What would actually happen if there was a grammatical error in your report? If anyone noticed it, what would they actually say / think? If anything? What would be going through your mind as it was discovered? Abject failure and embarrassment, or “whoops, where’s the Tipp-Ex?”
As humans we tend to make assumptions and interpretations all the time – “the story that I’m telling myself is…”. Really dig into the assumptions you are making about what needs to be perfect, and be honest with yourself – is it coming from a place of fear, or from the joy of achievement?
Assumptions and interpretations are a Coach’s bread and butter – we love digging into these with our clients! So often it’s us holding ourselves back, and I would just love to explore this further with you. Book in now for a free 45 minute consult and get started on your pathway to excellence.