the problem with perfectionism

In last week’s open thread, a commenter asked about perfectionism, writing in part: “I see so many job ads that stress the importance of attention to detail or say that they want someone who is detail oriented. I would think that a perfectionist would have an edge in that regard. But, a lot of those same ads also want someone who works well under pressure and can adhere to strict timelines. That seems like a bit of a contradiction to me. It’s hard to work fast without sacrificing quality and accuracy, at least for me. Any thoughts?”

Amazing regular commenter fposte responded with an answer so insightful that I wanted to share it here:

When your time is your own–when you’re an artisan–you can be the person who produces one exquisitely perfect chocolate teapot that’s ready when it’s ready and charge $1 million and have a waiting list. I get the idea of exploring the possibility if there’s a place that would find the narrow focus beneficial, but I think that really is rare.

Perfectionism is kind of like a dog’s predatory instinct. When curbed and restrained, it’s really useful–the border collie glories in chasing the sheep in the right direction rather than snacking on them, and the perfectionist produces profitable and elegant results. But you have to hit that sweet spot where it is curbed and restrained and valuable; as long as you’re working for somebody else’s money it has to include as much respect for the schedule as the task–the cherry-picking where it counts as perfectionism when you’re looking at the fold of the shirt but not at the time on the clock is actually not perfectionism but problematically narrow focus. Right and wrong really aren’t as binary as you’re making out: people can do something in less time and still not have to go back to correct it, and you’re not actually doing things perfectly anyway, so you too have an acceptable level of imperfection. So it’s not that you do things right and others do them wrong; it’s that your sweet spot–your restraining of your instinct and your acceptable level of imperfection–isn’t currently well calibrated for most workplaces because you’re letting yourself off the hook completely on a big imperfection rather than factoring that in to your measure of achievement.

I have perfectionist tendencies myself, and I work with a lot of people who do as well. It’s no coincidence that it’s often associated with procrastination and writer’s block, as a lot of it can be about fear of failure and correction and about protecting self-worth–that’s why people tend to focus on perfecting what they do well rather than risking something new (or counting their performance at something they’re not good at, like time-keeping) and why someone would cringe at an error that’s quite possibly trivial. And while I think your question of “Is there a way to use this as a strength?” is an interesting and sensible one, it also sounds to me like you feel that your way should be more valued than it is. And I think you might instead find it useful to experiment with moving your sweet spot around, with living with a greater possibility of error, with testing yourself by including timing in your goals as well. It won’t get you that artisanal teapot job that would sidestep the problem, but I think it will help you find a more comfortable niche in the workplace.

I love this answer. If you’d like to read the entire exchange, you can find it here. (And if you don’t generally read the open threads, let this be your motivation to! They’re full of smart comments like this one.)

This entry was posted in HR, Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.