See What Sticks: Recovering from Perfectionism


Hi everyone, Amma Marfo here. Two quick things about me that you’ll need to know before we begin: (1) I am a reader. I am a library-loving, constant tome-carrying, unapologetic bibliophile. (2) If there’s anyone you will meet who can connect what she’s reading to the world around her, it’s me. As such, I want to dedicate my time in this space to sharing with you what I’m reading, and how it could inform a budding professional’s daily life.

Starting this post with yet another confession shouted out into the void: I am a recovering perfectionist. It's easy to see how we come to the notion that perfection is the only acceptable option; we're graded for sixteen years of our lives with the goal of getting 100%, we wear braces to fix the flaws in our smiles, and are bombarded with images of what we could be doing better. I bought into that for a long time (and, as the title implies, still do at times). But a few years back, I took a long hard look at the life I was leading because of it; it was a stress-riddled, anxiety-driven, hard to enjoy mess. So when I read Elizabeth Grace Saunders' "Letting Go of Perfectionism," an essay from 99U's Manage Your Day to Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind, it sang to me a little louder than several of the essays around it.

She defines perfectionism in her piece, but I'd prefer to share the work conditions under which a perfectionist works with you; if this sounds like you, you may want to consider reading on:

From a perfectionist's point of view, if you manage to force yourself into producing at the level you envisioned in your head, you feel on top of the world. If you can't measure up to those standards, you're crushed [...] At best, it can make you hesitate to immerse yourself in a new project. At worst, it can lead to you abandoning your creative pursuits because of the toll they take on you physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Does this sound like you? If so, you're in good and plentiful company. And as I continue to take my own recovery one day at a time, I found myself really appreciating Saunders' approach for managing the fear and pride that she believes are the root of all aspirations toward perfectionism. That creeping pair of emotions can attack at any stage of our work, but she gives great advice on how to thoughtfully fight back.

Stuck at the Start According to Saunders, the perfectionist gets stuck at the start because of a mindset that shouts, "I can't start until the ideal moment, meaning I have a large uninterrupted block of time, no other distractions, a strong level of motivation to work on the project, and the ideal plan for how to optimize the entire process." I'll grant, these are not altogether impossible conditions to reach in unison. seems pretty unlikely, doesn't it?

This can be true of any pursuit that inherently holds uncertainty: applying for a job ("I don't know how to do all the things they're asking, should I go for it?"), leaving a job you don't like ("I don't have the perfect opportunity lined up yet, so I should probably stay put."), or asking for a new challenge ("I've never done this before, am I sure I'm ready?"). The paralysis of being presented with ideal conditions kills more dreams than actual criticism from those that surround us.

Saunders encourages the recovering perfectionist to replace the statement above with "I know there will never be an ideal time to begin so I set aside time to get started on one part of the process [...] I get started on what I can do now." The storied Google 80/20 rule (in which employees were given freedom to use 20% of their time at work just to create and design based on their own ideas and inclinations, is an example of the value of scheduled ideation time.

It can also be helpful to remember that ideas don't come out fully formed. Taking some of that time to determine what you already have to be successful and what you still need can help you fight the perfectionism. Identifying "known unknowns" helps us focus time appropriately and direct efforts toward elements of our process that could be better. Between setting aside time and acknowledging points of weakness with the goal of improvement (that "goal of improvement" piece is what prevents despondence), we can break the cycle of giving up on something that lacks perfect conditions.

Lost in the Middle

Saunders voices this worry in this way: "I must obsess over every detail of the piece, regardless of whether anyone else will notice. This leads me to revise and edit myself at every step instead of giving myself permission to bang out an imperfect first draft." When I was working on my book, I spent a long time avoiding a complete first draft. I wrote in disconnected tidbits, I researched obsessively, I strung together those shorter passages into chapters, and then finally put them together consecutively to create a 140 page first draft...that I was terrified to read. I had no idea if this version of the final product would make sense, or even be good or helpful to anyone who read it. But sometimes we forget that first drafts are designed for precisely that.

One of my favorite writers, Paul Jarvis, is a tremendous advocate for "sharing your messy process," or shying away from the instinct we all have to hide when something isn't going perfectly. He believes that people appreciate final products more when they know what went into making it. Share your messy process with people you trust to be honest with you- close coworkers, family members, or even friends that have no idea what you do- their uninformed opinion can be the most valuable when you're deep in the weeds on a project. It's scary at times, but the freedom it affords you to work toward a better final product is invaluable. Paul shares his ugly process often, as does Austin Kleon, a writer I've written about here previously. Follow them for great examples of what other messy processes entail; it can be comforting to know that even successful people struggle!

Refusal to Finish

"If the work hasn't attained the ideal set in my head at the start, it's inaccurate to say it's complete." We all have goals in our minds that occasionally, if often, fail to live up to the final product that our hands, voices, or other contributing parties have created. This can be demoralizing for some, pushing them to keep working without "shipping," writer and consultant Seth Godin's term for releasing a final product to the public.

But squirreling away our talent for fear it won't meet our high standards ignores the needs of those who could benefit from it. You could be a great fit for a proposed job, but not applying for a lack of a "perfect fit" could leave them with someone far less effective. Perfect is the enemy of great. And being prepared to ship doesn't mean that you can't go back to the project at a later date; Saunders is quick to point out, "Saying something is complete doesn't mean that it can't be improved upon or elaborated on in the future. It just means that I can submit it and move on to other work." Other projects that require your greatness could suffer for your lack of attention to them; don't let a goal of perfection on one task hinder your effectiveness on others.

Dread of Feedback

So you've made it through all the other steps prior to this, and found yourself (mostly) comfortable with delivering a less than perfect product. Congratulations! That's a task in itself that you should be commended for. How do you handle any feedback that you get from it? By this, I mean "constructive criticism" that may come from a coworker, mentor, headhunter, or other person overseeing your work. The perfectionist struggles to incorporate this additional information, seeing it not as an assessment of their work, but of them. Saunders voices this worry well: "I worry that my expertise and respect is in question and that others will think I'm incompetent and an impostor." 

Consider, instead, this counterpoint: "I appreciate feedback because it helps me to test and refine my work." A colleague of mine, speaker and consultant Winni Paul, feels that feedback is a gift. As she puts it, "Accepting feedback is about looking beyond your own reality and seeing a bigger picture." Unless you're in a performance review (whole other scenario that I won't address here), the product being critiqued is not you; accept any ideas for change accordingly. See feedback as a question or concern voiced that a consumer of your product or idea won't present to you as nicely, and find ways to address the concern if you find it valid; acknowledge it gracefully if you don't. Practical gifts are designed to make your life easier and you better; think of feedback as a practical gift from someone with your best interests in mind.

As with any addiction or bad habit, it can take a lot of time and practice to unlearn the rituals that brought you to your perfectionist state. But abandoning perfectionist inclinations for your "realistic best" unlocks possibilities to be more efficient and less anxious when pursuing opportunities. I encourage you to challenge the perfectionist tendencies you've cultivated for so many years; you'll be surprised how good "just being great" can feel.