There is nothing to be ashamed of in doing your work well. But when the drive to do your best devolves into a need to do things flawlessly, it can quickly take a mental, physical, and professional toll.
The fear of not doing something well enough—by your or your superiors’ standards—can cripple you to the point of being unable to start or finish a task. Perfectionism is not the same as endeavoring for your best. By asking yourself what you’re really trying to achieve, use your desire for excellence to help you succeed rather than stall your progress.
Separate Your Worth from Your Work
Psychotherapist James Ullrich writes in Psychology Today that the “tendency for perfectionists to yoke their sense of worth to the success of a project can be a prime driver of procrastination. It’s that fear of failure (and the ego crushing that would inevitably result) that is powerful motivation for avoiding the situation altogether.”
Recognizing that what you do is not who you are means that you can take more risks without damaging your personal sense of value and belonging. That can be tough in an environment where the first thing a new acquaintance often asks is, "So, what do you do?" Rehearsing a standby answer that identifies who you are as a person more than your profession can help both you and your audience appreciate the multifaceted woman you are.
Embrace the Blank Page
A few years ago, I attended an interview with two-time Newbery Medal winner and former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Katherine Paterson. An enormously successful author of children’s books, Paterson penned Bridge to Terabithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins, and Jacob Have I Loved, among others. I was shocked when she admitted that every time she sat down to write another novel, she met with a case of serious doubt that she’d ever write something of value again.
At the time, I was just starting to consider making something of my love of literature. If Paterson wasn’t confident she could write something worth reading, how in the world did I expect to do it?
But then she made another interesting point: “You can’t edit a blank page.” Every writer knows that the real work is done in editing, revising, reconsidering, challenging, ripping apart, and putting back together the ideas and language you want to express. It can take courage—especially for a chronic overachiever—to complete a draft of something you know will not be perfect.
I took this wisdom to heart when I signed up to participate in National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. I quickly found that if I wanted to make word count, I couldn’t delete anything. I had to just keep writing. When I wasn’t trying to make it perfect, I was able to get it done. By the end, as Paterson suggested, I had something to edit (plus a dragon-slaying victory T-shirt).
Most of the time, “good enough” really is enough, particularly for the aforementioned overachievers. Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, writes in the Harvard Business Review, “Overachievers have such high expectations of themselves that their ‘average’ might be another person’s ‘really good.’” McKeown encourages neither pridefulness nor subpar work; rather he recommends a reality check. He notes that we’ve warped the word “perfect” from its Latin root—which means “made well,” “done thoroughly,” or “complete”—to “flawless.” Is it more important that the task at hand is done impeccably or that it is done?
Not every task requires the same measure of your energy. Applying the appropriate amount of effort to each will allow you to accomplish more—and still do it well—in the long term.
Brené Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, writes for CNN, “The truth is that we are actually drawn to people who are real and down-to-earth. We love authenticity, and we know that life is messy and imperfect.” So if we want to be productive and happy, let’s please stop trying to be perfect.
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