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When Perfectionism Becomes Self-Defeating

Intro

In a previous series, I briefly discussed the idea that “Perfection is the enemy of good.” In today’s post, I want to spend some time exploring what that statement really means.

One of the great things about being a perfectionist is the knowledge that if I experience failure, it won’t be due to a lack of effort or investment on my part. Over the years, I’ve devoted more hours than I care to think about to my pursuit of the best…the best test scores, the best essays, the best work deliverables, etc. With that degree of commitment, it makes sense that the majority of those endeavors were successful. What’s less immediately apparent is the cost.

The Cost

As human beings, we operate with finite mental/physical/emotional resources that have to be restored. One of the primary issues with perfectionism is that it tends to consume those resources at an (ultimately) unsustainable rate. While holding ourselves to the impossible standard of perfection can certainly push us to accomplish great things, it can also be demoralizing and self-defeating when we inevitably falter. As we manage our expectations for ourselves, sufficient consideration must be given to our inherent limitations.

What is Perfection?

As a perfectionist, one of the things I’ve struggled with most is a tendency to presuppose the existence of a single, “best” course of action…the idea that, for any given endeavor, there is a “perfect” way to go about making it happen. There are a couple of problems with this perspective:

1. Execution vs. Outcomes

The first issue is that this approach over-emphasizes execution while de-emphasizing outcomes. Though execution is certainly important (and can even carry value in and of itself), it derives purpose from the outcome it’s meant to accomplish. Given that an outcome can often be achieved through a variety of means, operating as if there’s only one “right” course of action is (i) unrealistic and (ii) misses the point.

2. Objective vs. Subjective

A second issue is that to presume the existence of a single, “best” course of action is to presume the existence of an objective standard of “perfect.” Without devolving into the larger philosophical debate surrounding the (non)existence of absolutes, I would argue that not all things lend themselves to judgment against an objective standard. My purpose is not to say that there are no objective goals/outcomes that we should strive to accomplish; if that were the case, we could abandon the idea of meaningful success metrics. However, as requirements analysts, we do engage in a variety of subjective activities that don’t present any obvious right choices. Some examples include our work with elicitation sessions, the aesthetics of models and slide decks, and even something as simple as basic conversations with our coworkers. Without a doubt, there are obvious wrong choices for each of those activities. There are wrong things to say, and we all know a clunky visual presentation when we see one. That said, the abundance of “right” things to say/ “right” ways to display information means that measuring success requires a holistic examination of the outcomes and any external factors in addition to an analysis of the execution itself.

Conclusion

When perfection becomes its own end, we tend to lose sight of what we’re actually trying to accomplish. As we strive for excellence, it’s important that we maintain our focus on what we should realistically expect for ourselves. Doing something “perfectly” is only useful as long as it drives the right outcome, does so in the right timeframe, and doesn’t cost us our sanity.

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