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Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

For nearly 39 years of my life, I was a proud perfectionist. It was a core part of my identity and impacted pretty much everything I did every day.

And while it served me well enough, I am here to share for anyone who is still holding to that label – there is a better way!!!

In his recent book, Hidden Potential, Adam Grant dedicates an entire chapter to pitfalls of perfectionism. He states:

In their quest for flawless results, research suggests that perfectionists tend to get three things wrong. One: they obsess about details that don’t matter. They’re so busy finding the right solution to tiny problems that they lack the discipline to find the right problems to solve. They can’t see the forest for the trees. Two: they avoid unfamiliar situations and difficult tasks that might lead to failure. That leaves them refining a narrow set of existing skills rather than working to develop new ones. Three: they berate themselves for making mistakes, which makes it harder to learn from them. They fail to recognize that the purpose of reviewing your mistakes isn’t to shame your past self. It’s to educate your future self.

Grant’s words speak to me, both the me that was for 39 years and the me that is still recovering. I am still working on this shift, and here are a few takeaways (warnings?) so far:

I used to display my perfectionism like a badge of honor.

In the same way that it’s a status symbol to throw around how busy you are, proclaiming yourself as a perfectionist seems to be some sort of status symbol. And, in the same way that being “busy” shouldn’t be a status symbol, neither should being a perfectionist. Being busy often indicates poor boundaries or lack of time management or confusion regarding priorities and balance. Being a perfectionist indicates a value on product over process and an aversion to growth. How is any of that a status symbol?

I hid behind my perfectionism.

When I read what Brene Brown had to say about perfectionism as a type of armor, I felt she was speaking directly to me. For years, I refrained from doing things and trying new things and pushing myself beyond my comfort zone due to my fear that I wouldn’t be perfect. Hiding behind perfectionism certainly kept me safe and in my comfort zone. How is just doing the same things over and over again (but in a slightly different way) a way to live?

Being a perfectionist is emotionally draining and not all that fun.

Part of being a perfectionist is a tendency towards over-thinking and over-analysis, which takes a lot of mental bandwidth. It involves a lot of negative self-talk about what I can’t do and the ways in which I’ll fail if I try something new. It means that, generally, I do the same things over and over again because I know I’m good at them. Can you imagine what could be accomplished with all of that freed up bandwidth?

In reality, I know perfectionism was holding me back.

I teach students about the value of being a lifelong learner. I work with organizations to create a culture of innovation. I use language about growth mindset with my kids. And I wasn’t following any of that myself. I 100% believe in being a lifelong learner, fostering a culture of innovation, and adopting a growth mindset. I absolutely believe those are essential pieces for success. So, by holding to my perfectionism rather than what I, on an intellectual level, knew was most conducive to success, I was handcuffing myself. What unlocked potential might be waiting?

There is a better way.

In the book, Grant states, “Extensive evidence shows that it’s having high personal standards, not pursuing perfection, that fuels growth.” Turns out, I could achieve the same results that I was trying to achieve through perfectionism, but in a much more effective, efficient, and joyful way. Rather than calling myself a perfectionist now, I tell people I have a commitment to curiosity and excellence (two of my personal values!). What that looks like depends on the situation, but it means that I lean into high personal standards while striving every day to be better than the day before it.

I appreciate that Grant specifically discusses how the goal isn’t just to “do your best,” rather to continue pushing for growth and striving to be better each day. And, “better” is not “perfect.” And “better” leaves room for growth in a way that “perfect” just doesn’t. See the distinction there?

He encourages the asking of two questions each day:

  • Did you make yourself better today?

  • Did you make someone else better today?

So…did you make yourself better today? Did you make someone else better today?

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