The perils of ‘perfectionism’

A ploy overused by interviewees, over countless job interviews and employee appraisals, has been to disguise a strength as a weakness. As the interviewer asks the candidate to share his or her greatest weakness, pat comes the reply, ‘I am a perfectionist’. While the interviewee hopes to convey the impression of a meticulous go-getter, it has dawned on me over the years that ‘perfectionism’ can indeed be a serious derailer to people’s careers and life trajectories. This is a roadblock that can be overcome; however, what makes it difficult is that society and work environments often actually laud this trait.
The early years of a person’s career are usually shaped by a focus on achievement and individual contribution. The emphasis is on being reliable, on being down in the trenches, on dotting the I’s and crossing the t’s. ‘Perfectionists’ usually thrive in this environment. But as they get promoted and rewarded, and their responsibilities expand, they need to evolve to lead through impacting and influencing others, rather than through individual contribution alone. Many ‘perfectionist’ managers struggle to make this transition as they are forced to navigate an imperfect world. Using terms from McClelland’s Human Motivation Theory, those whose deep underlying motives are achievement-driven rather than power-driven, find this transformation particularly difficult. ‘Perfectionists’ are also often very harsh on themselves and their teams, setting themselves up for burn-out.
Another phenomenon which often afflicts perfectionists is that of ‘analysis paralysis’. A drive to get everything perfect often translates into a deterministic view of the universe, less tolerant of grey areas, and of ambiguity or uncertainty. This comes in the way of decision-making. I have seen this at close quarters during my years in the investment world, where fund managers would sometimes obsess over getting inconsequential details right in a spreadsheet, while not wanting to ‘bite the bullet’ and come to terms with the inherent unpredictability of investments. As the saying goes, “it is better to be imperfectly right than perfectly wrong”. The rapidly-evolving world that we face today often requires decisions to be made based on emergent patterns rather than perfectly mapped-out parameters.
I often come across budding writers who lament that they have gotten nowhere with their manuscript because each aborted writing session ends with the realization that they have fallen short of the lofty standards they have set for themselves. This mirrors my own experience from my early writing days. While the quest for perfection can spur people on to excellence, more often than not, it instead ends up becoming a noose around the neck. As the feeling of dissatisfaction and being ‘not okay’ becomes progressively shrill, we end up procrastinating and often abandoning the creative pursuit altogether.
Our creative instincts thrive in a free-flowing non-judgmental environment. The harsh glare of criticism and perfectionism serve as an unwelcome ‘censor’, chilling the creative drive and often killing it altogether. It is actually the fear of failure that masquerades as ‘perfectionism’, the lofty standards a convenient excuse to delay having the rubber hit the road.
None of the above is meant to be apologia for shoddy work, or for not striving for excellence. However, to quote British politician Rishi Sunak, “It’s getting that balance right between understanding every aspect of something and then realizing I have done as much as I need to on that and my time is better spent elsewhere”.
What then is the way forward for someone who has the traits for a perfectionist?
At a practical level, whether it is writing a book or preparing a work presentation, we need to be okay with imperfect beginnings, and stop putting pressure on ourselves to get it right the first time. While writing, for instance, till I finish the first draft of my book, I try to switch off my ‘inner critic’. As the saying goes, ‘don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’.
At a deeper level, it involves a true acceptance of oneself; recognizing one’s strengths and capabilities, but also accepting oneself as a person with flaws, as someone who is bound to encounter failures and make mistakes. In this process of accepting ourselves, we accept others too, and pave the way for deep, lasting connections. Shedding the illusion of perfection is a small price to pay for this reward.
S.Venkatesh is the bestselling author of AgniBaan and KaalKoot, a leadership coach and an investor who has held key positions with JP Morgan, Credit Suisse and Macquarie. He writes about mindfulness and its link to creativity, business and wealth.

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