Perfectionism: Can It Squelch Success?

Why it's time to abolish your perfectionist ways.

By Carrie Myers Smith
Jul 25, 2016

Hello. My name is Carrie, and I’m a recovering perfectionist.

My business has suffered from my perfectionism. Before I release anything new, I need to make sure it’s “perfect”—whether it’s a business card, an article, my website or a video. Although intellectually I know that “perfect” is an unreachable ideal, I procrastinate because I fear failure; after all, nothing is good enough. So ultimately, I’m stuck and my business isn’t moving forward.

Can you relate to this scenario?

What Is Perfectionism?

While perfectionism isn’t a diagnosable psychological disorder, according to a report (Benson 2003) published by the American Psychological Association it can be at the root of many mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and even suicide. Experts feel that the roots of perfectionism lie in both genetics and environment (Moser et al. 2012).

While certain perfectionist traits—for instance, paying close attention to detail—may seem to have benefits, perfectionism is mostly detrimental to business success.

“Perfectionists have an innate fear of failure,” explains licensed clinical psychologist Patricia Farrell, PhD, “and venturing into ‘the unknown,’ such as a new aspect of your business to help it grow, can be daunting. Failure looms larger than the positive possibilities do. For anyone who is rigidly perfectionistic, obsessing over the problems is likely easier than pursuing the opportunities.”

Trish McDermott, owner of Panic Media Training in San Francisco, observes, “Entrepreneurship is a lot about momentum and even more about risk. Perfectionists can be so risk-averse as they pursue a quest for the unattainable that it can be paralyzing. As you dig in, hoping to reach some unrealistically high standard, your competition is moving on, launching new ideas and becoming first-to-market, swallowing up brand share that might have been yours, securing funding you won’t get and changing the world you once hoped to change, while you’re stuck ‘polishing the metal’ of a product with little future.”

Liz Bywater, PhD, president of Bywater Consulting Group in Yardley, Pennsylvania, agrees. “More often than not,” she asserts, “perfectionism is the enemy of success. It can lead to burnout among business leaders and employees alike. Perfectionism engenders a frustrating and disheartening feeling that nothing is ever good enough. This can lead to a dramatic decrease in productivity, creativity, morale, openness and trust. It can also cause businesses to lose good people who simply run out of steam [because it is impossible for them to measure up to the perfectionist’s standards].”

Three Side Effects of Perfectionism, and How to Overcome Them

Perfectionism has many downsides, but the main ones that affect you as an entrepreneur are having an all-or-nothing mindset, believing that nothing is ever good enough (including yourself!) and procrastinating.

All-or-Nothing
As a health and fitness professional, you’ve probably encouraged your clients, if they don’t have time for a full workout, to simply use the time they’ve got. Or maybe you’ve suggested that they break their workouts into 10- to 15-minute chunks throughout the day. This approach goes completely against a perfectionist’s thinking.

Perfectionists are all about getting it done—but only if they can do it all, and do it all at once. Oh, and they have to do it all themselves; after all, if you’re going to get something done, and have it done right, you must do it yourself.

“Nothing needs to be all-or-nothing,” says Farrell. “Checking into the many tasks that can be accomplished via different routes is the optimum course. Then you gauge risks against benefits, as any good businessperson would. Businesses wither and die without movement relative to the current market. And people in business need to see that, or they become irrelevant.”

Author and business coach Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, explains the perfectionist’s all-or-nothing mindset in one of her Entrepreneur.com blog posts. It goes like this: “I haven’t figured out my logo yet. I can’t make business cards without a logo. I can’t go to a networking event without business cards. I guess I’ll just stay home” (Lombardo 2014).

Nothing Is Ever Good Enough
Perfectionists have an unrealistic ideal of what is good enough. They fret over details, they raise the bar so high that no one could ever come close to it, and ultimately they slow down progress.

“Perfectionism can lead to inaction because of your insecurity regarding the effort not being good enough,” says Farrell. “‘Good enough’ is relative, and if it’s not viewed from that perspective, it can be a means of hogtying yourself into inaction.”

“When I worked at Match.com, our parent company, IAC, was run by Barry Diller,” recounts McDermott. “I remember at one meeting hearing Mr. Diller say that we should ‘pull the trigger’ at 90%—[that is, a level that’s still uncertain, but worth the risk]. It was a race to market, and you could easily lose the race by tinkering endlessly on something insignificant. There really is such a thing as ‘good enough.’”

Procrastination
What the perfectionist mindset mostly leads to is procrastination. If you never sit down to do a project because you don’t have time to do it all now, and if it’s never going to be good enough anyway, then it doesn’t get done, or at least not in a timely manner.

Sometimes procrastination isn’t caused by your avoiding the project, but rather by your being consumed with the details and the continuous revisions that you require as you attempt to make it perfect.

Wes Higbee, owner of Full City Tech Co. in New York, points out that sometimes the first draft is just fine. “But you’re too busy perfecting it to accept that. All the revisions don’t necessarily add any value that matters. For example, just about every company has a set of guidelines for using PowerPoint, while almost no one has guidelines for drawing on a whiteboard. Both media work to convey a diagram. I guarantee you’ll toil endlessly about the aesthetics of the PowerPoint, without giving a second thought to crooked lines on a whiteboard.”

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

As with anything else, changing a fixed state of mind takes practice.

If you struggle with an all-or-nothing mindset, try the cognitive behavioral therapy technique called Exposure Therapy. Choose to not completely finish a task, or choose to do it in small chunks (as opposed to having to sit down and do it all at once). Purposely make mistakes. (If you feel as if you’re reliving the episode of Big Bang Theory where Sheldon was encouraged to engage in changing these behaviors, you’re right!) Start a new habit in the middle of the week (since most people start at the beginning of the week, month or year).

Another CBT technique is to learn to recognize when you’re being overly conscientious; then weigh the pros and cons of doing so, and prioritize what’s really important about this particular situation or project.

Or apply this version of the 80/20 Rule: Rather than taking a project to 100% completion before launch (your website, for instance), finish it 80%, send it out and then add the final 20%—the finishing touches. Remember, done is better than perfect, especially if perfect means it never gets done!

Because perfectionism is rigid, part of breaking a perfectionist mindset is to become more flexible. “Take an example from nature,” suggests Farrell. “If a tree in the forest cannot bend with the wind, it snaps and dies. So, too, do businesses and careers.”

Sometimes, being flexible also embodies letting go of an original idea and taking your business in another direction. This is called pivoting. McDermott strongly advises that to experience success it’s important to be able to give up on an early direction and move in another. For instance, before Twitter was called Twitter, it was a podcast subscription service called Odeo. When iTunes broke into the podcasting realm, Odeo’s developers knew they needed to go in a different direction. They decided to focus on microblogging, and they changed the company name to Twitter. The rest, as they say, is history.

“One thing I learned from my days at Match.com,” concludes McDermott, “is that to most people, being perfect is a lot less attractive than being genuine, open, vulnerable, funny, kind or even just a little bit quirky. Perfectionists tend to be very nervous, as they have a lot to get right in order to satisfy their own needs. That nervousness tends to lead to carefulness and a kind of deliberateness that can be read as awkward, controlling or inflexible.” None of these is a quality that will draw business.


References

Benson, E. 2003. The many faces of perfectionism. Monitor on Psychology, 34 (10), 18.
Lombardo, E. 2014. How to overcome perfectionism to succeed in business. Entrepreneur. Accessed Jun. 30, 2016. www.entrepreneur.com/article/238268.
Moser, J.S., et al. 2012. Etilogic relationships between anxiety and dimensions of maladaptive perfectionism in young adult female twins. Depression and Anxiety, 29 (1), 47ÔÇô53.

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Carrie Myers Smith

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