Why You Might Need to Give Up Perfectionism

Sheryl Sandberg is quoted as saying that “done is better than perfect”. However, if that statement sits somewhat uncomfortably with you, then you could fall into the category of Perfectionism.

Derived from the Latin per + facere “to do something completely”, perfectionism has come to be synonymous with high achievement and A*s. It is as prevalent on graduate CVs as “team worker” and “driven”.

However, it isn’t the desirable employee trait you might think it is. Studies show perfectionists can be more stressed, be unable to multitask and become difficult to collaborate with. What's more, perfectionism can hurt your career because it will affect not just what you do, but what you want as well. 

In the world of work, employers love candidates with enthusiasm and commitment, but they can’t offer the perfect role for everyone and are wary of trying to futilely meet an employee’s unattainable expectations and create an unhappy situation for everyone. So, it’s important as a graduate to be realistic about what you can expect from a first role. You won’t be managing colleagues straight away, or pitching to CEOs, or even be free to choose your own work load. In fact, an awful lot of your day-to-day will be in the control of someone else, which for a perfectionist is a struggle. 

So, we’ve collated six tips for quitting the habit of perfectionism to not only help you succeed in a job application, but also help you achieve your best in the role once you’ve got it.

1. Understand your perfectionism

Understand the difference between a perfectionist and a high achiever. A high achiever is what every Bright Network member is: bursting with brains and top academics. A perfectionist on the other hand mistakes achievement with the completion of a task. A perfectionist wants to write a perfect essay and will miss the deadline to get it right, a high achiever will do everything in their power to submit on time and get an A*. 

2. Who’s the judge?

Accept others’ opinions of your work. Perfectionists in their stress will lose sight of the end goal of the task they are trying to undertake, because they are completing that task to their own personal arbitrary standard. Do you consider your judgement to be the only success that matters? Does your boss’ praise mean little to you, if you know you could have done better? This Lent, try completing one task which is only finished when a friend or colleague says it is, not when you think it is. It’ll be a useful exercise to step outside the standards your brain creates, and measure with someone else’s yardstick.

3. What’s the point?

Separate results from judgement. You need to ask yourself whether you are confusing the actual outcome of your work with your own judgement of it. The point of that essay you’re writing is to achieve a good grade for your degree, not write a PhD-standard thesis. You’re collating a PowerPoint presentation to impress a boss who might make your internship permanent, not creating a TED talk. Next time you’re stressed with a piece of work, take a step back and ask yourself if you’re failing in your goals, not the task.

Try to admire the chaos and imperfections around you. The spring daffodils in this blog are no less beautiful for growing in ill-ordered clumps

4. Not all those who wander are lost

Start a project this Lent which you don’t know where to finish. You can base it on a hobby, so you’ll enjoy doing it, not perfecting it. For example, you could go travelling and not know the destination, or write prose without a plan. The aim is to see how it feels to be doing an action which doesn’t have a prescribed end, something you can’t perfect, but which you still love doing.

5. Create a mistakes laboratory

Perfectionists fear critique from others and feel that they have to put on a perfect front at all times. Therefore, try creating a space private to the outside world, in which you can do things free from others’ eyes and judgements. In that space, try to do one new thing every week, something you’ve never tried before and what’s more, something you might be bad at. If you can become familiar with how it feels to complete a task without fearing the world will judge you for it, you might be able to replicate that in public too.

6. Imperfection is beautiful

This Lent, try to admire the chaos and imperfections around you. The spring daffodils in this blog are no less beautiful for growing in ill-ordered clumps, nor a pancake on Pancake Day less tasty for having ragged edges. Elgin's Marbles are no less impressive for their worn patinas, nor Shakespeare less truthful for his spelling mistakes.

So, go on, have a go, try giving up perfectionism for Lent. It's much more productive than giving up chocolate.