Perfectionism: Is It Good, Or Bad?

The sleek, white case is alluring, smooth and cool to the touch. My brand new iPhone 4S sits comfortably in my hand, and draws admiration from all sides.

Its bright, colorful display makes doing mundane tasks feel like fun to me. And I love how much room it has for my music and videos.

And did I mention Siri? Now, without touching a button, using only my voice, I can send text messages, respond to emails, or find a nearby restaurant. It feels like it was designed just for me.

And it was… by a perfectionist.

Only A Perfectionist Could Get Something So Right

Perfectionism is a way that some people, like me, tend to approach their work. Non-perfectionists tend to think of a job as merely something that has to be done. Something to be completed as soon as possible. But perfectionists approach a job quite differently.

For a perfectionist, a job is a way to shine. A way to stand out. Maybe even a way to validate oneself. A perfectionist will take as much time as the job needs, no matter what other plans must get derailed. A perfectionist tries his very best to remove any possibility of criticism. And the good thing is, when it’s successful, a perfectionist’s work is wonderful to behold.

Steve Jobs Was A Perfectionist

Jobs paid attention to every minute detail of his Apple products. The size of a font was important to him. The particular screws holding an iPhone together were a big deal for him. Nothing was too small to be overlooked.

He wanted the overall experience of using one of his products to be totally amazing from beginning to end. And in many ways he succeeded.

In Fact, Perfectionism Is A Really Good Thing

I love that Steve Jobs was a perfectionist about the computers I have used for years. I also really appreciate the fact that airplane mechanics are perfectionists. And bridge engineers for that matter. I love the fact that my doctor is a perfectionist. And I’m very glad that Ansel Adams, and other photographers that I admire are perfectionists as well.

Perfectionism brings amazing products, amazing works of art, amazing books, and lots of wows. Perfectionism is fantastic when you’re on the receiving end of things. And it can be a joy for the perfectionist as well.

But There’s A Problem With Perfectionism

It can drive you nuts when you’re trying to do things perfectly. And you can end up driving everyone around you nuts as well. Look at Steve Jobs again. He produced amazing products, but he often made life hell for himself, and others, in the process.

It’s great to do an amazing job at things. It’s wonderful to really nail it. But when perfectionism drives us out of balance, then it no longer serves. When it makes us stay up all night, and forgo time with family and friends week after week, it no longer works. When it ruins our health, our relationships, and our sense of balance in life, perfectionism is no longer a friend.

And the telltale sign that perfectionism has gotten out of balance is the experience of stress.

Do You Feel Stressed When You’re Being A Perfectionist?

Sometimes being a perfectionist feels great. You’re simply doing a great job. But sometimes it’s stressful. Notice how it’s different for different jobs. On one job you may not care much about being perfect.

Yet for another job you’d rather avoid the job completely rather than show up with even one hair out of place, or one pixel out of place, or one "t" that wasn’t crossed. Notice how these are the jobs that are tied up with your identity.

For Example, I Used To See Myself As A Photographer

That was my identity. And as a result I became very picky about my photos. I didn’t let people see the shots that were not outstanding. I spent endless hours editing, and tweaking, and polishing in Photoshop. I made adjustments that no one but me would notice. And I hesitated accepting new jobs because of how much work I would make for myself to get it perfect.

My photos were excellent, but the pressure inside me was tremendous.

What If We Could Perform Good Work Without All The Pressure?

Athletes call it the zone. Peak performance without the pressure. Saints call it humility. Performing up to the highest standards of what is needed without a need to take credit for it.

You could also call it freedom.

So How Can We Live This Way?

The secret to freedom lies in finding balance. And for me, nothing helps me find balance in stressful situations better than The Work of Byron Katie. When I start to feel stressed-out by a job where I’m being a perfectionist, I stop and do The Work. I write down what I am believing about the job and use The Work to do self-inquiry.

For example, a few weeks ago when I announced my new sales page on my website, I was starting to get stressed about getting it perfect. I was starting to think, "It has to be a big deal. It has to wow people."

And I watched myself start shifting my priorities in my mind away from having fun on the weekend and relaxing in the evenings towards slaving away all week before the deadline.

So I Did The Work On It

I worked the concepts, "There’s not enough time to get it all done," and "I have to do it perfectly." I found that there was plenty of time to get all the important things done. After doing The Work, I actually was free to prioritize, and cut out jobs that were not necessary.

And I started to see the product I was creating as being simply Version 1.0. There was no need to get it perfect from day one. It’s much more fun to let things evolve naturally anyway. And as a result of that insight, I was able to enjoy my weekend and my evenings instead of slaving away.

But Won’t The Work Make You Complacent?

You might think that doing The Work will make you stop trying. You might think that you need that pressure to perform. But that’s not my experience. The less stressed out I am about a job, the more my enthusiasm soars, and the more creative and productive I become.

Isn’t it just as possible that an unstressed, happy mind might actually lead to an even more perfect product? And who says that it has to be finished right away? Sometimes slow and steady wins the race.

Oops. I gotta go. My iPhone is ringing. No time left to obsess over getting this article perfect. You’ll have to flesh out the rest of the details on your own.

Here’s An Invitation To Do The Work

Look around your life and notice where perfectionism has become stressful for you. Find an example where this has happened, or is happening. Maybe it was your wedding planning. Maybe it’s your hair. Maybe it’s your next report. Maybe it’s dinner you’re planning to make for your friends next week.

When you’ve found the situation, make a list of stressful thoughts by completing the following sentence, "I have to do it perfectly because…" Write down all the reasons why you think you have to do it perfectly. Then do The Work on each item on the list, as well as for the original concept, "I have to do it perfectly."

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