Transcript of a talk given at Elevate Leaders 2018 in Sacramento, California.
Hi there, I’m Colin, I’m the Customer Support Manager at Pingboard – we build super cool interactive Org Charts and Directories that live on the web and your phones and I’m not here to advertise so I’m going to stop talking about that now.
Today, we’re going to talk about perfectionism, which is why I hope you all really enjoy my first slide and the title of my talk:
“Perfect” is a funny word – it’s a great word to describe things that we have absolutely no control over. Things like nature – the Grand Canyon, the sunrise over an untouched valley. And it really is the right word for those kinds of things – things we couldn’t make ourselves and can’t change and wouldn’t if we wanted to. What it’s NOT a good word to use as a description is literally anything in our life that we can and must control.
…because that’s perfectionism. Perfectionism is a complicated thing. It can manifest in a whole bunch of different ways, and sometimes it can even yield what might seem like positive results. Steve Jobs and Serena Williams, for instance, are perfectionists whose perfectionism is said to have fueled all their achievements. But if we boil it down, perfectionism is a deep, unyielding need to make something perfect – your body, your work, your family, your Instagram account, whatever. And since that’s impossible because “perfect” is generally a totally unattainable goal, perfectionism doesn’t usually yield positive results (and there are definitely negative sides to most famous perfectionists’ achievements or methods).
Perfectionism leads to a totally demoralizing inability to measure up. It makes everything harder. And most perfectionists I’ve ever met have been a lot less like Steve Jobs and a lot more like this guy:
If you’re not familiar with this gif, this is me in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
The psychological community tends to agree with me that perfectionism isn’t so great.
They’ve been looking into perfectionism, usually as a symptom of other issues or disorders, since the ’90s, and have noticed a definite upswing over the past few years especially in young people. And I suppose many of us here qualify in that demographic, one way or another. Anyway, over time they’ve outlined three different distinct types of perfectionism.
Self-Oriented Perfectionists set extremely high standards for themselves, by themselves. They tend to be high achievers, and their perfectionism is the most likely type to be viewed as “positive”. Sometimes it can be. But self-oriented perfectionists also usually take much longer to come back from failures, they’re prone to overwork, can struggle with close personal relationships, and tend not to take risks for fear of failing.
Socially Prescribed Perfectionists have similarly high standards as self-oriented perfectionists, but they’re all based on what we assume are people’s expectations for us. We worry constantly about letting people down, not measuring up, are similarly high-stress. We also tend not to take positive risks, since we’re so afraid of disappointing everyone else. And socially prescribed perfectionists are prone to isolation, since being around other people is exhausting when you’re constantly evaluating what everyone is probably thinking about you. Like, for instance, when you’re on stage giving a talk at a conference. Heh.
And finally, there are Other-Oriented Perfectionists, people who project their insecurities and unreasonably high standards onto others. They expect nothing less than the best from people they work with, tend to be very defensive (since they’re “never wrong”), and tend to lack empathy. These are your overbearing parents, your exacting teachers, your spirit-breaking jazz instructors and foul-mouthed master chefs.
You know, these guys.
You might have already noticed, but no matter what kind of perfectionist you are, there’s a lot of overlap – we all have similar tendencies. We waffle on decisions because we’re terrified of making the wrong ones. We struggle to finish projects because nothing is ever good enough, right enough to call “finished”. We misinterpret confidence, overconfident because we think we’re perfect or under-confident because we think measuring up is likely impossible. And we cling to broken tools and ideas, because we’re either scared that we might not be able to grasp new tools and ideas and they’ll make us look stupid, or because we think we already know the best way to do everything. Either way:
This should go without saying. But before we get into how this ties into leadership, I’d like to prove my cred as a card-carrying perfectionist with a quick story.
This is me in high school eating a hot-dog in stop-motion. Well, okay, technically not stop-motion – some of you might call it stop-motion or might even be more familiar with the term “claymation”, but when you do stop-motion with human actors as your puppets it’s technically called “pixiliation”, but whatever.
This is from a short film that I co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in over a summer with my best friend when I was 16 or 17. Since it was in stop-motion, that meant that I spent several hours-long sessions over the course of several weeks moving extremely slowly while my best friend, the other weirdo in the public park we were shooting in, took photo after photo after photo of me. If you’ve ever watched Parks and Recreation and remember that episode where Ben loses his job and holes up in his apartment and starts making a claymation music-video to an REM song – that was basically us that summer.
We worked for weeks, and when we were done I was really excited about the results. Things turned out really well, the effect was cool, the story was cool, and because I’m a musician we decided that I should be the one to write the soundtrack.
I got to work right away and figured out an arrangement I liked a lot on an acoustic guitar and cello, but when I sat down to record it I had trouble. I didn’t have a good microphone or a lot of money, and I tried using my laptop mic but things sounded tinny, and my playing was always just a little off, and nothing I tried sounded right, and my friend kept asking me “hey, are you done with the music,” and I’d say “yeah, yeah, I’m almost there, it’s just not quite right,” and he’d say “cool, well get it to me as soon as you can,” and I’d say “yep.” And I’d try again and it still wasn’t right and I still didn’t have the right microphones and, well, you get it.
And pretty soon the entire summer had passed, we were back in school, and the project was forgotten. And now all I have left is pre-production test footage, which you’re seeing here. The film never saw the light of day. The film that could have gotten me scholarship funding when I wanted to keep going to film school but didn’t have the money, that could probably – in hindsight – have done decently well at smaller Chicago film festivals and given us some cool connections and opportunities, and in general could have been something I would continue to be really proud of…was lost.
If you’re hearing that story resonates with you even a little bit, then you’re probably a little bit of a perfectionist. And, as some of you may have experienced in the past in one way or another, perfectionists can make pretty garbage leaders.
We’ve already talked a decent amount today about things that make leadership in an organization thrive. Things like trust, drive, paying conscious attention to your company as an organism and the people in it as essential to its life. But perfectionism makes all of that much more difficult.
Perfectionists in leadership often struggle with trust, because they feel like the only person who’s able to get the job done right or worry about the credit others will receive if they do something better than the boss could. They’ll cause delays because of their tendency to waffle on decisions or their need for a product to be absolutely right before it ships. They struggle with acknowledging people’s successes and giving praise because they already expect excellence and don’t feel the need to praise someone just for meeting their standards. And they don’t take risks, so they certainly don’t encourage the kind of risk-taking that it often takes for someone or something to be truly great.
But worst of all, perfectionists in leadership roles spread their perfectionism to others.
I’m no psychologist, but I’ve seen this enough times to have coined a term I like to call “viral perfectionism”. It’s when a leader is a perfectionist, and because of the way they treat those following them, their team slowly starts to inherit their perfectionist tendencies. When they don’t feel trusted by your leader, most people will wonder whether or not their leader actually believes they’re competent or qualified enough to do their job. When a leader’s objections cause delays for a product, it motivates employees to obsess pre-emptively over every potential objection that their boss might make before they even present things to them. When successes go un-acknowledged, it makes a person wonder whether they’ve actually achieved success and pigeonholes them into mediocrity. And when positive risks aren’t encouraged, people learn not to take them, and all of the bad reasons why they’re not taking those risks get lodged in their brains until, eventually, they don’t even want to take them anymore.
this can’t be what we want for our companies and our teams. If you’re here at this conference, then that means you must want your company, your team, your people to thrive. We can’t want them to feel afraid to take risks, to not know how to bounce back from failures by learning from them. We can’t want our employees to constantly wonder why we hired them for the positions they’re in when we don’t seem willing to let them experiment and excel. We can’t want for our people to constantly wonder whether or not they’ve done something good, or wonder what kind of above-and-beyond nonsense it must take to get a “hey, good job” at their company. We can’t wait to create a chain of perfectionists that will quit their jobs because they’re suffocating, then go on to another company and start being a perfectionist at other people because we’ve already done the work to screw them up.
So what do we do?
Well, I hope you like Coldplay, because I’m about to try to fix you.
Just kidding, I don’t even like Coldplay.
First off, we’ve got to learn to surrender control. Control is great, and it’s a good thing to be in control of your company and your team in a positive way. But the truth is, we cannot and should not control everything. Sometimes you need to delegate things to people who, when it comes down to it, will get the job done better than you would. Sometimes we need to trust people’s hunches, and let others be the bright and shining star for a while. And if you’re the person responsible for allowing that star to shine, well, it’s gonna make you look good, too.
We’ve got to own our own standards. We have to start setting our own boundaries and judging ourselves and our work fairly. And we have to re-evaluate those standards often to make sure they’re not getting too rigid or too lax. If you start to feel choked by your own standards or frustrated that others never seem to meet them, chances are it’s time for a re-evaluation.
Start congratulating your team members on their successes regularly. There’s this magical thing that happens when you start actively recognizing others for their good work and congratulating them – oftentimes it opens up a little space inside ourselves to be better at recognizing our own successes, too. Being kinder to others really does help you be kinder to yourself.
If you know you’re a perfectionist, get feedback from people all the time to keep yourself in check. Be honest about the problem, and be open to constructive criticism when it comes at you. Seek advice and accountability from other perfectionists that you know, even ones on your team. This isn’t something that you just fix overnight, you’re going to need help.
Speaking of help, ask for it. Perfectionists are terrible at this, but again, delegate things. Trust others with their work. Ask for help when you’ve taken too much on and you’re drowning. People won’t look down on you for it, they’ll respect you for knowing your limits and knowing the strengths of the people on your team well enough to know who to hand things off to.
If you screw something up and it fails, write it down – and don’t just write down what you learned, write down how you failed. It’s great to be able to look back and apply what we’ve learned from failed projects, but sometimes remembering how we failed can be a phenomenal reminder that it’s okay to fail and it’s not going to ruin us.
I encourage you to fail well. Failing well means being able to lead well after a failure. We have to be able to try something risky, have it blow up in our faces, and pick ourselves back up and apply what we’ve learned without completely crumbling under the weight of what didn’t work. We have to be able to be the CEO of a company and have something go very wrong very publicly, and still handle it gracefully and calmly.
Ok, bad example, maybe, but I couldn’t resist.
And just because perfectionism is usually negative doesn’t mean that it always has to be. Ever since I started digging into this tendency I have, I’ve experimented with using my perfectionism to fight my perfectionism. The same obsessive tendencies that can keep us stubborn, nervous, and unapproachable can be targeted on the more positive behaviors I just mentioned to keep yourself in check. It may sound bizarre to use your perfectionism to make sure that you’re surrendering control, but it does work sometimes when things get dire.
Lastly, we talked a little bit ago about the word “perfect”. Again, “perfect” is a great word for describing things like nature, non-made-made beauty, etcetera. But when it comes to us, our lives, our jobs, and anything else we have any amount of control over or day-to-day responsibility to, I prefer the term “excellent”. “Excellent”, by definition, means “extremely good”, and while I will probably never get to perfect, I can get to “extremely good” at least three out of five days of the week.
Before I go, I’d like to tell you all one last story:
This is the tile in the shower in my home.
I know. I know.
But here’s the thing…I did this. And that’s a good thing.
When my wife and I first moved into our built-in-1946 house, there was no shower, just a tub. So I got a little bit of help and instruction and got to work. I’m the exact opposite of a handyman, but I spent a week waterproofing, tiling, and sealing this shower, and when I was done I looked at these lines and cringed. But then I thought about how this project had been so intimidating to me, and it had been so miserable not being able to shower in my own house, and I was just so happy to have done it and accomplished and, sure, I will probably do a much better job next time knowing what I do after having done it once, but that’s the point. I did it. It’s done. So every time I look at those crooked grout lines, I don’t see mistakes, I see achievement. I see growth. I see a finished project, and I see myself not stinking after not showering for three days because I haven’t had time to make it to the gym and I don’t “do” baths.
And I hope that my crooked, unsightly shower-grout-lines inspire you, too, to get out there and stop worrying about who’s measuring up and how, to lead with confidence in yourself and your team members, and to trade “perfect” for “excellent”. If you’d like to talk more about this or have questions, I’d love to chat with you and give you any advice I can. Thanks for listening, be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes.