When does striving go too far? - Michelle Gibbings

When does striving go too far?

We are often told to set Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. To strive for the best. To get it right. To not make mistakes. In short, to be perfect.

Perfection. It’s an interesting concept because what’s perfect depends on perspective. We also hold different opinions on the merits of striving for perfectionism. As a concept, it has both positive and negative elements. It can be a motivator and a driver to perform and exceed expectations. It can also be a demotivator and lead to procrastination, self-criticism, and anxiety.

Of course, there are times when we want perfection or something that is as error-free as possible.

Take planes, for example. With about 16000 jets in the air every day, even if you had what on paper looks like a low error rate of 0.5%, that would equate to about 80 plane crashes daily. Whereas the likelihood of a plane crashing is far lower – there’s almost a one in 4.8 million chance of an aircraft crashing.

The drive for perfectionism has also pushed (and will continue to push) many fields of society and human endeavours to new levels of progress – securing goals that once seemed unattainable.

However, on a personal level, the never-ending quest for perfectionism can be a demon of destruction in how we think and act. We see images of what’s deemed ‘perfect’ in the press and social media, yet the ideal is often unrealistic and manufactured.

Andre Agassi, one of the world’s best tennis players, was plagued by perfectionism. Throughout his career, he had some fantastic highs with spectacularly good tennis days, and then he would come crashing down with not-so-good tennis days.

In his autobiography, Open (which is well worth reading), he recounts the conversation with his new coach Brad. This was at a time when his game was faltering. His coach told him that his problem was ‘perfectionism’. He said, “You always try to be perfect, and you always fall short, and it fucks with your head. Your confidence is shot, and perfectionism is the reason. You try to hit a winner on every ball when just being steady, consistent, meat and potatoes, would be enough to win ninety per cent of the time”.

One school of thought is that there are different ways of looking at perfectionism. There are the so-called ‘Healthy Perfectionist’ and the ‘Maladaptive Perfectionist’. People in the former category, challenge themselves, set high goals and standards and can learn when things go wrong. In contrast, the maladaptive perfectionist sets unrealistic goals and then doesn’t learn from what happened when they fail to secure the desired outcome. Instead, they either become obsessed with achieving the goal or stop doing the activity.

Dr Andrew P Hill from St John University and Dr Thomas Curran from the London School of Economics are experts in perfectionism. In one study, they reviewed 43 prior studies on perfectionism to see if there was a link between it and burnout.

They found that striving to achieve and setting high standards (an element of perfectionism) doesn’t necessarily lead to burnout. Instead, perfectionism that focuses on concerns about making mistakes and involves negative self-evaluation and feelings of inadequacy when one’s standard doesn’t meet one’s expectations is a concern. This latter form of perfectionism more readily leads to burnout and is more maladaptive in the workplace.

Dr Hill, quoted in a BBC article, said, “Working hard, being committed, diligent, and so on – these are all desirable features. But for a perfectionist, those are really a symptom, or a side product, of what perfectionism is. Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards. Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.”

Margaret Atwood, a fantastic writer and the author of The Handmaid’s Tale (and other books, once again worth reading), said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word”.

We all have an inner voice that tells us not to do something. Our inner critic can shout out ‘You’re not worthy’, ‘You’re not good enough’ or other unhelpful comments.

I remember when I sent the final manuscript for my first book (Step Up – How to Build Your Influence at Work) to my publisher. She asked me how I felt, thinking I’d be elated. I wasn’t. Oddly enough, I felt nauseous because I was worried about how people would react and that my writing efforts would be judged and found to be wanting.

It happens to all of us. It can be easy to let your inner critic – the voice that tells you that you have to be perfect and never fail – hold you back from making progress.

You may be holding back posting your first LinkedIn article, waiting for the perfect words to appear on the page. Perhaps you are holding back having a conversation with a friend or colleague that you need to have, waiting for the perfect time. You may be holding back from speaking up in a meeting, waiting for the ideal time to have your voice heard. You might be delaying making that career leap, waiting to feel like you have 100 per cent of all the skills required.

There is never a ‘perfect time’. There’s just time – and the time is now.

It’s not about being perfect; instead, it’s about continuous improvement. Being happy with your achievements, but not complacent. It’s a process of regular reflection so you can learn and progress in the areas in your life that matter to you.

There’s nothing wrong with ambition and stretch goals. However, when being perfect is the outcome or goal, it becomes limiting. It’s essential, therefore, to recognise at what point your perfectionism becomes a hindrance rather than an enabler. Find out where there are diminishing returns from your efforts.

Consider where you need to be perfect, where near enough is good enough and where you can ‘fly by the seat of your pants’. Recognise when you are ruminating rather than reflecting (as I’ve written about before) and how this is shifting your feelings and approach. If you’d like more ideas, then check out these resources from Western Australia’s Centre for Clinical Interventions.

As the American author and journalist, Anna Quindlen said, “The thing that is really hard and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself”.  Now, that sounds like a great place to start.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s little missive. I’ll be taking a winter break for the next couple of weeks, so the next edition will be Friday 5 August.

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is bringing back the happy to workplace culture. The award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker, she’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.

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