For many years, my perfectionism served me well. At school and at university, I measured my success by getting the highest marks I could, and I am still proud of what I achieved in those days. (I had time for fun too, which is another story!)
But once I left university, I learned pretty quickly that perfection is not only virtually impossible to achieve in the real world, it’s not even desirable in most cases. A few months into my first job as a copy editor, my first boss put it a bit like this –
“If you spend too long ensuring every page of an issue is perfect, you will miss your slot at the printers, which means our customers receive it late and we bill them late. If you add it together over a year, it may also mean we produce fewer issues than we had planned, which means we bill our customers less that year.”
Wow, what an insight! All that extra time I spent labouring over my proofs with a red pen (this was before digital publishing had really hit), trying to ensure every page was ‘perfect’, wasn’t actually adding value to the product I was responsible for. The company would prefer I get the issue out on schedule (with a couple of typos or formatting errors) rather than spend the extra time I’d need to be sure I’d found every single error, and end up sending it to the printers late.
Seems obvious now, but that realisation was a game changer for me.
I’ve been more aware of the impact of my perfectionist tendencies on my working life ever since. I’ve learned a lot along the way about how they can negatively impact me, particularly as a leader, so (in case there are more of you out there like me) I’m sharing some of my learnings:
- I can procrastinate: Do you know that feeling? The feeling when you have a tough task to tackle, and you find it impossible even to begin in case it’s not perfect when it’s done? Being able to start doing something, getting it done most of the way and out there for feedback, and moving onto the next thing, has been a big breakthrough for me as a leader.
- I can be too hard on myself: There’s a particular typo I fretted about for a while in one of the books I edited in my publishing days – which is silly, because most readers probably never noticed it! I’ve learned not to be hard on myself, or my team, when we make mistakes – to recognise that we’re human, that mistakes are a part of life, and that we can learn from them.
- I can be afraid to fail: As a perfectionist, the fear of doing something wrong can really hold me back. As I’ve worked my way up the career ladder, I’ve had to learn that, as a leader, sometimes doing the wrong thing is actually the right thing to do. I like the idea of ‘failing forward’ with my team – we test something out and, if it doesn’t work, we improve next time.
“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Voltaire
I’ll keep doing my best every day as a leader, because that’s who I am. But I’ve also learned enough to know that Voltaire knew what he was talking about!
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