The Perils of Perfectionism

There was a discussion this past week with a number of others looking at data comparing performance data from one company with others (e.g., benchmarking).  They were looking at probably 20 – 30 metrics.  In some cases, one company compared very favorably with others, while faring poorly in others.  The discussion in the room eventually came down to this, “What is needed to do to turn all of these metrics to ‘green’?”  In other words, there was a feeling that to be considered “top quartile” or “best-in-class”, they needed to perform at the top of the scale in every metric.  However, fortunately, another view was eventually voiced that essentially stated, “Why do you think you need to be ‘green’ in every category?  You haven’t even decided yet which of these metrics truly adds value.  First, decide which elements, if done well, would make a difference and add value to what you do.”  Presto!  This was a perfect example of “the perils of perfectionism” — that feeling that we will never measure up unless we do everything perfectly, regardless of whether it adds value to us as an organization or us as individuals.

Perfectionism can also be a plague for us as individuals.  We can never, as human beings, achieve perfection.  Yet, many individuals spend their entire lives striving for that impossibility.  I have included several quotes below on perfectionism that describe these perils much better than I ever could, so please take the time to read them.  Certainly, we should strive for continuous improvement.  And, we should endeavor to be the very best that we are capable of being.  This applies to us as individuals and to our efforts as teammates.  However, we can reach the point of diminishing returns.  Let me illustrate…  Let’s say that you can achieve the 95% level of performance for $100.  However, it will cost you $1,000,000 to move to 96% and $10,000,000 to move to 98%.  Thus, you need to determine whether the value of moving from 95% performance to 98% performance is worth the additional cost.  The pursuit of perfection can paralyze us into inaction, indecision, or the feeling of inferiority.

Many individuals never experience a level of satisfaction in their work or lives because they never feel able to achieve the level of perfection they believe is necessary.  The questions we need to ask ourselves are, “Will the effort required to achieve perfection for this activity be value-added?  By spending extra time and effort on this activity, am I forfeiting the opportunity to complete other tasks or spend time with my family or friends?  What level of perfection is actually needed?  If I don’t know, perhaps it would be time well spent to ask that question.  How can I make the most of the time and resources available without compromising or getting things out of balance?”

This probably does not apply to everyone, but, for some of you, the quotes below may challenge you to view your approach in a different way.  Have a fabulous day!


Quotes on Perfectionism

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a crappy first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life


“But I am learning that perfection isn’t what matters. In fact, it’s the very thing that can destroy you if you let it.”
Emily Giffin, Something Borrowed


“Perfectionism is a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”
Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are


“Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?  Perfectionism is a hustle.”
Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are


“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.”
Michael Law


“Good enough is good enough. Perfect will make you a big fat mess every time.”
Rebecca Wells, The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder





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