No More Ms. Perfect

By Robin Madell (San Francisco)

“I have a note on my refrigerator that says, ‘If you’re not f***ing up, you’re not in the game.’ This is my constant reminder to be OK with making mistakes and that it’s better to try new things and fail than to do nothing.”

–Ruth Carter, Owner/Attorney, Carter Law Firm, PLLC

The new year is a great time to work on fighting perfectionist tendencies. When else do we have so many goals and plans? There’s nothing like an impossible list of expectations to throw a perfectionist into overdrive.

A tendency toward perfectionism can prevent women from trying new things or taking career risks. But it can also drive women to excel and achieve at the highest levels. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater — so how can professional women maintain the drive that comes from a quest for perfection, while gaining the flexibility that comes with letting themselves fail?

Choose Your Battles

No matter how talented we are at specific things, we can’t excel in every area. One of the downfalls of perfectionists is that they bite off more than they — or anyone else — can chew. When you strive to be equally good at everything and allow yourself no areas of less than top performance, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment from unrealistic expectations.

“Many executives who are driven toward perfectionism are terrified of failure, and see nothing in between,” says psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig. “These women would do better to decide how much they want to excel in certain areas, not have perfectionism be in charge of them.”

As an example, Koenig suggests that women may want to provide a superior job on a presentation for a new client, but put comparatively less effort into paperwork that no one is going to read. “We all have aspects of our job in which we can get away with doing an adequate rather than a stellar job,” says Koenig. “Unfortunately, many women have what I call an ‘enough disorder’ and don’t know when enough is enough in many areas of their lives.”

Anna Ranieri, PhD, who teaches classes on managing perfectionism, agrees that it’s important for women to be selective about when they use their perfectionist tendencies, suggesting that it’s difficult and not desirable to completely eliminate them. “If a professional project is important, then it should be given the attention required for a perfect outcome,” says Ranieri. “There are not enough hours in the day, however, to become a perfect manager, athlete, chef, and gardener.”

Learn to Fail

Learning how to fail is a crucial life skill, according to Koenig. She says that many successful women are driven by fear of failure and don’t see it as a natural learning experience. Instead, they do anything to avoid feeling its sting — which can be a mistake. “Mental health means being comfortable with both success and failure,” says Koenig. “Women can maintain a drive to succeed because they enjoy excelling or doing the work they do rather than hanging their egos on every success.”

Sheryl Connelly, CEO of Marketing Media Management, adds, “One way I battle that perfectionism bug is to look at everything as the perfect experiment. That gives me the flexibility to fail and not beat myself up.”

Senior Analyst Jessica Timmerman of Sun Mergers & Acquisitions believes that perfection and flexibility go hand in hand — as does the anticipation of failing in order to achieve success. “Perfection is a result of trial and error and striving to overcome missed efforts in order to be the best at a job or skill,” says Timmerman. “If you get it right all the time, there must be something wrong.” She states that many women have a hard time coming to terms with realizing that the word “no” is not always a bad thing. “Just because you’re told no today, does not mean it will be no tomorrow — and sometimes it’s the no’s that spark the fire to figure out how to get that yes.”

Practice “Perspectionism”

Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness, says that perfectionism is based on an underlying sense of conditional worth that tells some women, “I am OK if only I achieve this.” “Because of this, when you tell a perfectionist to ‘just let it go,’ she may agree with you rationally, but in her heart she says ‘no way.’”

This type of thinking leads to the trap of perfectionism. To combat this tendency, John Brubaker, author of Leadership: Helping Others to Succeed, suggests “perspectionism” as an antidote to perfectionism. “Many people tend to beat themselves up over mistakes and failures; consequently their negative thoughts turn them into catastrophists,” explains Brubaker. “Thoughts like, ‘This is awful; this problem is unsolvable; this is the worst thing ever.’ The remedy is changing our perspective.”

Brubaker recommends that when adversity strikes, you ask yourself: Compared to what? “We tell ourselves this is awful when we make a mistake at work,” says Brubaker. “Compared to what? Chemotherapy, being deployed in Iraq, being homeless? No, this is not awful. It is a reality check reminding us that failure is feedback. Events are not good or bad; they are good and bad.”

Know When to Move On

One way to move beyond perfectionism is to ask, ‘What is the worst reasonable outcome if I make a mistake on this project?’” says Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, LLC. “Someone chuckles in a meeting? Someone asks you to correct it and send them a new copy? The rocket will fail to launch the payload? It’s worth being concerned about the latter one, but not the first two. The first two are minor consequences that aren’t worth damaging coworker relationships or spending an inordinate time on relatively insignificant documents.”

As a woman who owns her own law firm and an attorney who has practiced for over 25 years, Donna Ballman has learned the truth in the saying “perfection is the enemy of the good.” Ballman, who is author of Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired, says that too many employees get so bogged down in trying to be perfect that they can miss the forest for the trees.

“While it’s great to strive to be as perfect as possible, perfection is ultimately unattainable,” says Ballman. “Therefore, you must know when the assignment or project is done and it’s time to move on to something else. It’s way more important to turn things in on time than it is to be absolutely perfect. In law, missing a deadline can cost your client their case.”

2 Responses

  1. Avatar
    Deborah Gray-Young

    What a great article. Thank you for the reminder and the insight. I definitely started out the year with that “gotta get it perfect” mindset. I think I’ll take a breath and approach it with a more controlled urgency vs. sheer panic.

    Thanks again.
    Deborah Gray-Young
    Professional Life and Career Transition Coach
    Chicago, IL