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The Unbearable Burden of Perfectionism

By Mark Guterman and Dan King

Photo of man inspecting documentThe interview was going so well. Steve’s responses to even the most difficult questions, rolled off his tongue with ease. He knew he was the “perfect” candidate for the job.

So it came as no surprise, when asked about his weaknesses, he replied, “I’m a perfectionist.” I asked Steve how this weakness had been a problem in his work. He was somewhat dumbfounded. Then I asked, “How are you trying to be less perfect.” Now, completely dumbfounded.

“Nobody is perfect,” or so it is said, but like Steve, we somehow expect it of ourselves, continually striving for an ever-elusive goal. We try to be the “perfect” candidate for the “perfect” position – then become stunned when we’re not selected. Perfectionists pursue the perfect career, one that will fulfill all their hopes, needs, and dreams. When they fall short of their lofty expectations, as they often do, they try again. After all, “practice makes perfect.”

The pursuit of perfection makes the search for meaningful work more challenging than it needs to be. It creates a “nothing is good enough” frame of mind and instills a fear of failure, which often leads to unhealthy habits, low self-esteem and depression. Perfectionism imposes a narrow, “black and white,” way of thinking, with little room for the “shades of gray” that realistically exist in all successful careers. The work world is not absolute.

Meaning at work does not mean perfection at work.

The search for a meaningful career need not be burdened by a set of unachievable goals and expectations. As co-creators of our lives, we possess an inherent ability to achieve success, satisfaction and meaning at work, despite the imperfections in the process. Those who succeed at achieving a meaningful worklife, do so on their own terms, through a careful alignment of their strengths, values and interests. They embrace the positive aspects of perfectionism, like accomplishment and drive, while minimizing its darker features.

Here are some suggestions for freeing yourself of the judgmental aspects of perfectionism, some tips for being “less perfect.”

Suspend judgments about what is “right” or “best.” Perfection is relative. When you obstruct your career path with a prescribed set of “shoulds,” you sacrifice the opportunity to savor everyday moments, to appreciate others for who they are, and even lose your personal sense of worth. This “disability” makes it hard to articulate what meaningful work looks and feels like, and makes it much more challenging to identify a path to work satisfaction and success.

Embrace your imperfection. Meaningful work is not about the “perfect” or “ideal;” it is, instead, about doing your best with what you have. This means giving maximum effort, striving for excellence, experimenting, learning from mistakes and setbacks, and continuously moving forward. Without imperfection, there is no room for learning and growth.

Modulate and mitigate. Letting go of perfectionism doesn’t mean settling for less. It means doing the very best you can at any given moment. It requires mindfulness, an attentive awareness of the reality of things in the present moment as an antidote to delusion. When you choose a different way of seeing and behaving, you can discover creative ways to accomplish what really matters to you.

So be kind to yourself. Noted author Jodi Picoult wrote:

“You don’t love someone because they’re perfect; You love them in spite of the fact that they’re not.”

This bodes equally true to your relationship with yourself. Strive for excellence, not perfection. By shaking off the shackles of perfectionism, you’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish – and how meaningful your work and life can be.

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