As part of Mental Health Day, The School of Life considers the complexities of perfectionism with strategies to harness its power without succumbing to its pressures.
Never before in the history of humanity have people expected so much from themselves – or from life more broadly.
In an age when mediocrities abound, and genuine talent is hard to come by, to hold oneself to the highest possible standard seems an admirable, even necessary stance. It also carries significant psychological risks.
Perfection is a tantalising goal. But with every pursuit, there’s a fine line between passion and obsession. As early career talent steps into the professional realm, the burden to produce perfect work can often weigh heavily.
The allure of perfection
The origins of perfectionism lie in the imagination, in the ease with which we can conjure up a picture of an ideal state of affairs, compared with the overwhelming difficulty we face in making this ideal a reality.
Obsessive perfectionism thrives in the gap between our noblest visions and our ever-frustrated efforts.
The quest for perfection is commendable. It’s a testament to human capacity, ambition, and the relentless drive for accomplishment.
At first glance, it may be confused with self-motivation; we may be impressed by the employee who consistently submits stellar work or never misses an email, even when they are on annual leave.
However, this becomes a problem when they perceive tasks to be simpler than they actually are, and interpret their struggles as a mark of their own ineptitude, rather than as an inevitable part of an entirely legitimate, lengthy journey.
External influences, especially media portrayals of success, exacerbate these tendencies. Careers seem to flourish seamlessly in the media spotlight, with stories of overnight success overshadowing the long, winding journey of ups and downs that most professionals experience.
This skewed representation can amplify perfectionist impulses, making extraordinary achievements seem like the norm.
Meanwhile, internal drivers play their part. The fear of inadequacy, the desire to prove oneself, and the aspiration to be worthy of one’s role can stoke the fires of perfectionism.
How to mitigate early career talent anxiety and manage perfectionists
Celebrate the flawed
Perfectionism often blinds us to the beauty of the flawed. Encourage your early career talent to appreciate the imperfect: a new product launch that failed to hit sales targets, or a new pitch process that didn’t win over the client.
These left-field ideas can be the jumping-off point for future success. In fact, some of the most innovative organisations take the motto ‘If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough’ to heart, often encouraging their employees to embrace what might be learned – and ultimately, gained – from failure.
The ‘good enough’ principle
While a well executed project can remain the objective, it’s essential to strike a balance.
Perfectionists may struggle to deliver their projects on time, obsessing over minutiae or feeling the sting of small failures too deeply. Help them recognise when to draw the line by asking them to pause and reflect on the broader picture. Will this detail significantly impact the outcome?
Identify and embrace the ‘good enough’ point. If you know that they will generally struggle with letting go once they reach the ‘good enough’ point, set hard deadlines in advance, and ask what they’re afraid of with regards to finishing their work once it is already ‘good enough’.
Give yourself an ‘A’
Draw inspiration from music professor Benjamin Zander’s transformative approach to boost his students’ morale. Zander guaranteed them an ‘A’ grade if they attended class and penned a letter about their learning experience.
This method remarkably improved their performance and willingness to embrace mistakes, empowering them to define their own standards of success.
3 insights to combat the pressures of perfectionism
Whenever you feel the stress of perfectionism creeping in, pause. Reflect on the driving forces. Are they external expectations or internal fears? Recognising these triggers can help in addressing them effectively.
2. Rational expectations
Engage in discussions about realistic expectations and standards, especially in relation to effort and resources. Such conversations can offer clarity and alleviate undue pressures.
3. Redefining success
Challenge traditional notions of success. Understand that success is multifaceted, and not solely determined by flawless outcomes. Celebrate small wins, learnings from failures, and personal growth.
Perfectionism, while a powerful motivator, needs to be navigated with care. It’s important to recognise its benefits – and, more crucially, its pitfalls – early.
Recognise the legitimate and necessary role of failure. Encourage early career talent to research the early frustrations of the writer who now wins prizes, and examine more closely the failures the entrepreneur had to endure. This will allow for a fuller picture of what lies behind a supposedly ‘spontaneous’ success.
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