The Cost of “Perfectionism”

“If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself…”

Ahhh, the Perfectionist’s Creed. I love these words because I can predict with almost 100%-accuracy how many leaders and entrepreneurs and high-achievers and change-makers (like you!) have them playing in a loop in their heads pretty much all day long. (I know I would need to call on some high-order math if I wanted to count the number of times I’ve said or thought that.)

No one can close a sale as effectively as I can. No one can negotiate as well as I can. No one can market as well as I can. No one can pitch as well as I can. And you know what else? No one can make doctor’s appointments for our family as well as I can. No one can order groceries as well as I can. No one can tidy up as well as I can. And no one can take out the rubbish as well as I can, either!

Isn’t it amazing that I can do so many varied tasks better than any other of the 8-billion-plus humans who live on this planet or the few hundred thousand who live in my immediate vicinity or the tens of thousands who specialise in each one of these discreet tasks, or the other adults in my family? Gosh, I really must be amazing!

Right?

Now hopefully you see what I’m doing here. Hopefully you’ve had a little chuckle while reading the preceding lines not just because of how ridiculous they are when you see them written down but because maybe you recognize some of that silliness in your own way of thinking.

I get it. We love to be in control. We love to get things done. We love having things done our way. And we are really, really, really good at some things, maybe even a lot of things. But perfect at all things? Is that even possible?

The more I think about it, the more I hear it from my clients, and the more I try to train myself out of it, the more I see self-proclaimed perfectionism as something quite different: laziness and anxiety in disguise.

Let me explain.

First of all, I think we can agree that doing anything “perfectly” is basically impossible because “perfect” is subjective. What I think is perfect, others might think sucks, and what they think is perfect, I might find seriously flawed. Perfect is a standard that we define and our definition will inevitably be different to someone else’s.

Secondly, perfectionism is often used as an excuse for not doing something — “Oh, that website, will never be as perfect as I want it to be, so I may as well not build it”; “My business will never be as big as I want it to be, so I’m not going to start it”; “This marketing campaign will never capture everything I want to convey, so why bother planning it” — OR perfectionism is used as an excuse to keep doing everything yourself because you can’t be bothered to TRY to delegate to someone else or TRY to find someone who might be able to do it at least as well as (or maybe even better than… gasp!) as you can or TRY to have a difficult conversation with a colleague or a partner about how they can contribute or improve.

Perfectionism maintains the status quo — you either don’t do something or you keep doing everything — and the status quo is, well, lazy.

And perfectionism keeps you from addressing your (often baseless) anxieties. “It has to be perfect or people will never buy it”; “No one will execute my vision as perfectly as I can”; “If I don’t do it, it won’t ever get done”; etc, etc, etc. Do you see how these perfectionist anxieties can hold you and your life/career/relationships/health/everything back?

Do you think Richard Branson comes up with new business ideas AND does the marketing plan AND does the pricing AND chooses the words for each ad AND makes the coffee? No!

Do you think Sara Blakely turned her product into a billion-dollar business by sewing each item of Spanx herself AND building her website AND shipping her products AND ordering the paper clips for the office? Hell no!

So why do we? Why do we think we can grow a business or a career or a life while doing everything ourselves? Why do we hold ourselves back by deluding ourselves that we are the exception to every rule of success — and sanity! (delegate, leverage, focus on what you’re good at, test and iterate…)?

Are we really perfectionists? Or are we being lazy? Are we really perfectionists? Or are we just anxious?

Done is better than perfect. Trying is better than worrying. An imperfect reality is better than a perfect theory. Get something out there and improve, iterate, and — dare I say it! — perfect it, later.

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Ex-CIA, current CEO, writer, international speaker, and deep thinker who helps others become unstoppable. Check out my book at: https://bit.ly/CIAtoCEO.

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Rupal Y. Patel

Ex-CIA, current CEO, writer, international speaker, and deep thinker who helps others become unstoppable. Check out my book at: https://bit.ly/CIAtoCEO.