the problem with perfectionism

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In last week’s open thread, a commenter asked about perfectionism, writing in part: “I see so many job ads that stress the importance of attention to detail or say that they want someone who is detail oriented. I would think that a perfectionist would have an edge in that regard. But, a lot of those same ads also want someone who works well under pressure and can adhere to strict timelines. That seems like a bit of a contradiction to me. It’s hard to work fast without sacrificing quality and accuracy, at least for me. Any thoughts?”

Amazing regular commenter fposte responded with an answer so insightful that I wanted to share it here:

When your time is your own–when you’re an artisan–you can be the person who produces one exquisitely perfect chocolate teapot that’s ready when it’s ready and charge $1 million and have a waiting list. I get the idea of exploring the possibility if there’s a place that would find the narrow focus beneficial, but I think that really is rare.

Perfectionism is kind of like a dog’s predatory instinct. When curbed and restrained, it’s really useful–the border collie glories in chasing the sheep in the right direction rather than snacking on them, and the perfectionist produces profitable and elegant results. But you have to hit that sweet spot where it is curbed and restrained and valuable; as long as you’re working for somebody else’s money it has to include as much respect for the schedule as the task–the cherry-picking where it counts as perfectionism when you’re looking at the fold of the shirt but not at the time on the clock is actually not perfectionism but problematically narrow focus. Right and wrong really aren’t as binary as you’re making out: people can do something in less time and still not have to go back to correct it, and you’re not actually doing things perfectly anyway, so you too have an acceptable level of imperfection. So it’s not that you do things right and others do them wrong; it’s that your sweet spot–your restraining of your instinct and your acceptable level of imperfection–isn’t currently well calibrated for most workplaces because you’re letting yourself off the hook completely on a big imperfection rather than factoring that in to your measure of achievement.

I have perfectionist tendencies myself, and I work with a lot of people who do as well. It’s no coincidence that it’s often associated with procrastination and writer’s block, as a lot of it can be about fear of failure and correction and about protecting self-worth–that’s why people tend to focus on perfecting what they do well rather than risking something new (or counting their performance at something they’re not good at, like time-keeping) and why someone would cringe at an error that’s quite possibly trivial. And while I think your question of “Is there a way to use this as a strength?” is an interesting and sensible one, it also sounds to me like you feel that your way should be more valued than it is. And I think you might instead find it useful to experiment with moving your sweet spot around, with living with a greater possibility of error, with testing yourself by including timing in your goals as well. It won’t get you that artisanal teapot job that would sidestep the problem, but I think it will help you find a more comfortable niche in the workplace.

I love this answer. If you’d like to read the entire exchange, you can find it here. (And if you don’t generally read the open threads, let this be your motivation to! They’re full of smart comments like this one.)

{ 93 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Yup

    I agree, open threads are great discussions. I went back and read the original thread — very well put as usual, fposte. :)

    My two cents: the problem I’ve encountered with perfectionism is that it doesn’t prioritize. With perfectionism, every aspect of a particular task needs to meet the same level of quality. This can collide with business needs because there’s usually a hierarchy of importance to getting things done in a given day. To use the OP’s retail example: is hanging all the clothes correctly truly the most important thing to be done, versus unpacking new stock or staging the window display or helping customers check out? Hanging the clothes correctly may show attention to high quality, but it could be a problem if it’s happening at the expense of customers waiting in long lines.

    I’m very detail-oriented but I’m not perfectionist, so my bias is clear. I work from a mental hierarchy in which tasks have an “importance rating” that might supersede a certain level of quality. For example, in graduate school I would allocate a certain amount of time set to complete an assignment. At the end of that time, you’re getting the best paper I could write in four hours, not the best paper I could ever write on that topic. My colleague is a perfectionist and we occasionally bump heads about this. I’m willing to stay overtime in a meeting or do extra work to a point, but I’m just not willing to go far beyond my mental allocation on a given task at the expense of other important work unless that task is Organizational Priority Number One. As a perfectionist, she needs to go the full distance on everything.

    Reply
    1. Rob Aught

      I know what you mean. I never settle for “good enough” but perfect is a far off dream.

      Given proper priorities and requirements I can narrow down what a team can accomplish fairly minutely. I have a pretty good sense of what the quality is going to look like out the back end and knowing the priority does make it easier to decide what needs to be sacrificed.

      Since I’m talking software, my preference is to cut features rather than implement a bunch of features that may be prone to bugs. Not all customers see it that way but my preference is to make everything we can get done work great rather than doing a lot of mediocre work. Unfortunately, there may be some things you must have (Maybe the handle of your Chocolate Teapot isn’t the most elegant thing, but you can at least pick it up properly) and we simply do the best we can in the time allowed.

      What do perfectionists do when they are not given time to do a project right, much less perfect? That must inspire sheer despair in them.

      Reply
      1. Jessa

        I agree except that the most important part to me is to make sure I know what the end user priority is. If the priority is pick up the teapot but have a really well done spout that controls flow very well, that’s good. If the priority is we don’t care if the spout splashes a little but the aesthetic is TOP make that darned handle gorgeous the client is weird that way. Then by gods we need a good handle. And even if the software is a little buggy if the client needs x function then x function needs to be there.

        Reply
      2. Ruffingit

        It does inspire despair, anger, and depression. I am not a perfectionist by any means, but I have known many people who are. When they are not given the time to do a project perfectly, they sometimes won’t do it at all thinking that if perfect is not an option, then there’s no point to the project at all.

        A lot of perfectionistic people are in therapy for depression and anxiety. They also have a lot of issues in relationships for obvious reasons. It’s difficult to deal with people who can’t let go of something and just accept “good enough.”

        Reply
        1. Jazzy Red

          I read a blog written by the daughter of a hoarder, and her father was that kind of perfectionist. For example, her father couldn’t install the free water heater someone gave him because they didn’t have the right kind of pipes, and all the pipes in the house must be replaced before any other work could be done. And no one could force him to replumb his house, so they had no hot water *for years*. He was also uber “demand resistant”.

          The happiest day for a perfectionist is when she or he realizes that not everything needs to be perfect. Sometimes “good enough” IS good enough.

          Reply
  2. EngineerGirl

    “Perfect” is the evil twin of “Good Enough”

    That said, some industries require almost perfect – brain surgery, rocket launches, replacing nuclear fuel rods, disarming bombs.

    Unfortunately many people are not self aware enough to realize that they should never engage in such activities. They complain against binding procedures, slowness of operations, standards that are “too high”. Please, if this is you, you might be happier in a different industry.

    Reply
    1. Kelly L.

      This is precisely why I don’t want to be in those kinds of industries. It’s not for me.

      Years ago, I was working at a sub shop and the owner said (in response, I think, to someone freaking out about something): “Relax. We’re not making nuclear bombs here. We’re making sandwiches.” It stuck with me and it’s something I remind myself of when I’m freaking out about, say, copies getting messed up.

      Reply
      1. quietone

        A former boss would calm folks down by stating “we’re just selling bras and knickers!” (yes, lingerie company).

        Reply
    2. Not So NewReader

      “That said, some industries require almost perfect – brain surgery, rocket launches, replacing nuclear fuel rods, disarming bombs. ”
      Great point, Engineer Girl.

      I think we tend to idealize what is going on in other industries, too.

      Take brain surgery. Just recently, I read that malpractice insurance costs a doctor around $400K per year. Even the “perfectionists” are having a tough time.

      A mistake at NASA is not just newspaper headlines, it is also becomes a story that goes into history books.

      My point is that these industries that seem to be demanding in extracting perfectionism from their employees, STILL do not get that perfectionism.

      Perfection, if it indeed exists, still escapes from even the most demanding fields. One who is chasing perfection almost seems to be doomed for failure at some point.

      However, even seeing this for what it is, I would still not chose to work in any of those type of industries. I want to work in a place where my chances of succeeding are good and I don’t have to carry a $400K insurance policy or worry about what the history books will say. That is more job than I want.

      Reply
      1. Manda

        Yes, there are definitely times when a typo can have major consequences, but others when it’s not such a problem and people can figure out what it should say.

        Reply
  3. EngineerGirl

    Oh, and detail oriented is not, not, NOT the same as perfectionism. I’m both. Detail oriented means you notice the tiniest of changes. Perfectionism is when you want those itty bitty things to be exactly right. Two different things.

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    1. Nicole

      So true, EngineerGirl, and well put! I used to suffer from perfectionism and I’m also detail-orientated, but I’ve loosened up regarding the former. I still notice the tiniest of details but most things aren’t ever going to be perfect so I’ve learned to not let it stress me out (as much).

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    2. R

      That is an important distinction. I am detail oriented but tend to use the Pareto principle liberally.

      Reply
    3. Jazzy Red

      “Perfectionism is when you want those itty bitty things to be exactly right. ”

      Perfectionism is when you NEED those itty bitty things to be exactly right.

      Reply
  4. EM

    Yes! I call myself a “recovering perfectionist”. I really hate how career and interview books gleefully advise job applicants to state “perfectionism” as their weakness. Perfectionism isn’t merely attention to detail. It’s the unreasonable (and impossible!) expectation that one’s output is literally perfect, and if it isn’t, then the perfectionist feels a sense of shame and beats themselves up over their “failure”. It’s actually pretty unpleasant and painful to go through life with this attitude.

    Life fposte stated, perfectionistic tendencies CAN be an asset, if they aren’t taken too far. I’m known in my office for my incredible attention to detail, and I am usually the top pick for editing tasks where there really is no room for error. I have also seen how it can work against you. A person who used to work at my company would spend hours upon hours researching and preparing for projects when literally an hour, maybe two, were sufficient. They killed the budget on every single project they worked on.

    It’s very difficult to find the balance, but if you do, it improves your job performance as well as improving your mental outlook. I’ve even started engaging in what I call “intentional imperfections” in my daily life. For example, I’ll leave a few bites of food on my plate when I could easily have eaten them (a clean plate = perfect, but it doesn’t help with one’s waistline), or I’ll decide it’s okay to arrive at the staff meeting a minute late. I know that these intentional imperfections sound laughable to most normal people, and it really is silly. Arriving at a meeting slightly late is considered “on time” to most people, but walking in late can feel shameful to a perfectionist. It really can be that bad.

    Reply
    1. Joey

      For you Gen Xers out there, you know the guy from Journey-Steve Perry. He’s a great example of a true perfectionist. Although he desperately wants to, he hasn’t released an album in more than 15 years eventhough he’s written dozens of songs that he can’t quite accept as finished. He sees flaws in what others percieve as perfect.

      Reply
    2. QualityControlFreak

      Hello, my name is QualityControlFreak, and I am a perfectionist.

      I have actually used that as a response to the dreaded “Tell me your weakness” question. Because it’s true. However, I amplified that statement to specify exactly how it was a weakness (reluctance to “let go” of a project until every detail was exactly right, stress over tight deadlines, etc.) and what I did to overcome those negative effects (prioritizing the elements of projects appropriately was huge – I wasn’t making nuclear bombs, but I did work in an industry where we made things that go boom in a big way, so some details really had to be exactly right).

      There is a fine line between “perfectionist” and “extremely detail oriented” and learning to tread on the right side of that line has boosted both my career and my peace of mind.

      But like you, I’m a recovering perfectionist taking it one day at a time.

      Reply
      1. EM

        I’ve done the same in interviews. It seems to work well, as I have a pretty good track record in terms of getting the job when I have an interview. (Until 2008, I had never been rejected for a job that I had reached the interview stage.)

        Reply
    3. Jazzy Red

      I *cannot* be late for anything, ever. I’ve always been this way. If I’m 5 minutes early for something, I feel like I’m late. No one at my company gets to meetings even 5 minutes early, so I’m usually sitting there by myself. I’ve been forcing myself to wait until the meeting start time to actually enter the meeting room, and it’s not easy. Laughable, but not easy.

      Reply
  5. Anonymous

    Randy Pausche’s Last Lecture included a quote along the lines of, “In life, most things are pass or fail, that’s why we have ‘good enough.’”

    I used to hate merely doing a “good enough” job on anything, but that quote has helped me realize that a lot of things really are either pass or fail and that “good enough” can often be fine. If a task or project needs to be done only at a pass or fail level, than do just good enough to pass. If it’s more complex than pass or fail, then it warrants going above “good enough.”

    Reply
    1. Chinook

      I think we also have to recognize that “good enough” is not the same as “bare minimum.” I realize that the “bare minimum” is what I need to do to consider have done anything but “good enough” is what I consider anything I want to have my name associated with. I can knit you a scarf in plain stitch that is long enough to go around your neck, has dropped stitches that don’t unravel when pulled and keeps you warm when used. Perfection is that same scarf with uniform stitches at the right length and width to look good on you and probably had to be restarted 10 times so that the cast-on line is just right. Good enough is that scarf that has no dropped stitches, the tension is more or less the same through out (but not noticeably bad to anyone but a knitter) and was finished in time for you to have it for Christmas.

      Reply
      1. KellyK

        I love this analogy! Perfectionism is things like going back over the whole scarf for any messed up stitches before you bind off, and ripping back if you find a single goof, even if it means doing half the scarf over.

        Reply
        1. Chinook

          I learned how to do beadwork one summer from a couple of Cree elders. They told me that it is their tradition to always have one miscoloured bead in their patterns as a reminder that nothing is perfect. I liked it because I could always say that what looked like a mistake was actually intentional (yupp, that’s it) and have kept that idea in all my handicrafts.

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            1. Rana

              View this as a learning opportunity! I figured out all kinds of neat ways of retrieving dropped stitches without “frogging” because I was too lazy to reknit things.

              (I’m what’s called a “product” knitter rather than a “process” knitter – I knit to get things, rather than knit because I like making stitches. So re-doing stuff sucks.)

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                1. KellyK

                  Ooh, good idea.

                  A couple other things that have helped me are to try to relax and make sure I’m not knitting really tight (because the tension makes the stitches more likely to pop off the needles and to “ladder” more), and to use wood or bamboo needles rather than metal. I’m happy with any material now, but as a beginning knitter, I dropped a lot fewer stitches if my needles were a little bit “grippy.”

              1. Loose Seal

                I’m a process knitter. I can re-do stuff all day as long as I’m learning from it and so that I can always have something in my hands to knit. So I don’t have a lot of products to give people or to wear.

                I’ve heard the difference between product and process knitter explained like this: If a product knitter was stuck on a desert island with one skein of yarn and a set of needles, they would quickly make up that skein into something and then have nothing else to do while a process knitter would have knitting available to them forever (thru frogging and re-knitting).

                Reply
          1. KellyK

            I like that tradition. I think it’s common across a lot of handcrafts. (Off the top of my head, I think weavers of Persian rugs do, or at least used to do, the same.)

            Reply
          2. Jazzy Red

            I used to do counted cross stitch embroidery, and I stitched a sampler that read “As ye sew, so shall ye rip.” Yeah, I’ve had to rip (carefully remove, actually) many rows of stitiching to correct a mistake. It’s funny, but the whole process relaxed me.

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      2. Rana

        I have to admit that this is part of why I’ve stopped being as perfectionist as I once was: I’m detail-oriented and too aware of mistakes, but I am also lazy. So I’ve had to learn how to live with minor imperfections – and also develop ways of avoiding mistakes in the first place.

        (That last one is really key – a dysfunctional form of that is to not start or attempt new things, but if you can translate it into taking your time at the beginning to figure out possible pitfalls and things that encourage error, then you can have something that’s better than “good enough” while not freaking out over it. Plus I’ve also learned that the more new things I try, and make beginners’ mistakes with, the less stressed I am about subsequent newbie mistakes.)

        Reply
  6. Anonymous

    I had a job interview for an admin position at The Big C University in New York and was told that the most important quality for the job was perfectionism, or as close to it as humanly possible.

    Reply
      1. Kelly L.

        The version I’ve heard is that there are three kinds of jobs: Fast, Cheap, and Good. Pick two.

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        1. Esra

          That is my most favourite-est saying. I’m sure my manager is sick of hearing me wax poetic about it.

          Mostly I just push really hard that one of the two is “Good.”

          Reply
      1. Anonymous

        Errors apparently torpedoed the person who previously held that post. I’m out of the running.

        Reply
  7. Gene

    I’m sure someone in the open thread quoted Voltaire, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. ”
    “The best is the enemy of the good.”

    Though he did (IIRC) ascribe the aphorism to an old Italian Woman.

    Reply
    1. Jazzy Red

      People in my generation grew up with this:

      Good, better, best.
      Never let it rest
      Until the good is better
      And the better is the best!

      Reply
  8. Michael Rochelle

    This is something I struggle with when writing (personal), but I don’t struggle with it as much at my job (acciounting). With my writing, I realized that I would spend three weeks revising a paragraph until I thought it was perfect, but then all I’d have was a completed paragraph. Or, when I was content with it being “perfect,” someone else would come along and tell me why it wasn’t perfect–for them. LOL.

    Perfection is in the eye of the beholder. At work, I realize that I could spend 20 minutes making sure that everything is “perfect,” but my manager may not even care about the extra effort and would have accepted–and preferred–I turned it in 20 minutes ago before I started making sure everything was aligned, centered, etc. When you work for someone else, you have to toss your idea of perfection out the door and strive for whats “perfect” for the requestor of your service. In many cases, if your boss or customer doesn’t think something you turned in is perfect, they really won’t care that you think it is.

    Reply
  9. FD

    Like many perfectionists in this thread, this is something that I’ve really struggled with.

    Something my father used to tell me over and over and that helps sometimes is that “Perfection is a range.”

    Reply
  10. Jubilance

    I generally love fposte’s comments :-) That was another great one.

    Working in a manufacturing environment cured me of my perfectionism. In my role previous, I had all the time in the world to re-run analysis, do journal searches, etc. In my manufacturing role, I was pulled in many different directions and often was seen as the person who could sign off on results or give the answer to a problem. When the line has been shut down and every minute is costing the company $, you have to learn to make decisions with limited information and prioritize. I didn’t have all the time in the world to run 10 tests to make sure I was right, sometimes I could only run 1 or 2 and then make a judgement call and hope it was right.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      A manufacturing environment will teach a person a lot about perfectionism. In order to survive a person has to learn about margin of error or tolerances. You have to learn where there is wiggle room and where there is no forgiveness. A surprising number of aspects have some wiggle room. Conversely, some things are created with amazing accuracy- each one is right on the money- no one worries about those things.
      One of the coolest things I learned about decision making- when in doubt pick the most conservative answer. Pick the answer that if it wrong it is the easiest one to fix. I did not use this advice all the time, but I found it helpful in some situations that were really tough. Sometimes you have -oh -two, maybe three minutes to make a decision that causes results you have to live with for MONTHS.

      After a while, it dawned on me that not only am I guessing but so is everyone else. Time and experience can help make people better at guessing. Some people are strong guessers- they become the “go-to” people.

      Reply
  11. ChristineSW

    Oh I definitely have perfectionist tendencies!! Everyone loves it when I spot errors or discrepancies that most others didn’t notice (thank you Previous Job that dinged people for minute errors because it involved transplantable human tissue). Yet, I tend to feel a little guilty when I’m reviewing grant proposals; I sometimes get so hung up on those tiny details that I forget to look at the bigger picture. Plus, I have had people kindly tell me not to worry so much about little details. Even outside of work, I cringe when I see things not sorted correctly at a store or if directions are missing/unclear on a product. Reading through some of the posts on this thread, I see how perfectionism can be both beneficial and disadvantageous. Finding that balance is certainly a challenge!

    Even beyond dealing with details, I am a perfectionist in many other ways that have, unfortunately, has had an impact on my career. I *hate* making mistakes, often to the point of beating myself if I do make an error or say something the wrong way to someone.

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    1. Gene

      My wife slapped my hand away from a display at a store on Saturday because I started puting the packs of items that had been mixed up back together. She’s used to that, but when I started rearranging them in alphabetical order was when she intervened.

      Reply
      1. Rana

        Heh. I’ve done that. I will also pick up fallen shirts, refold display items, and move signs so that they’re properly aligned. I try to limit myself to one item per store, at least…

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        1. Ruffingit

          Also guilty of this. I hate to see things out of order in stores. It’s less about perfectionism for me though and more about my dislike of people who take things off shelves and ignore the five cans they’ve shoved out of order to do so. It’s rude and although they have people working at the store who will come and place things back in order, I see it as helping them out a bit to put those things back in place because there’s no reason someone should have to straighten a shelf 15 times a shift simply because customers can be thoughtless jerks.

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          1. Manda

            When I see things out of place or dropped on the floor in a store I almost instinctively want to fix it, just because that was my job and it kinda became second nature. When I’m shopping I have to tell myself, no, I’m not working here. Although I’ll pick something up if I would have otherwise ended up stepping on it. And I clean up after myself of course. If I pick up an item and then don’t want it, I put it back where it came from. It’s very inconsiderate when people trash a store because their attitude is that it’s somebody’s job. Thank you for being courteous and realizing this.

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            1. Ruffingit

              Manda,

              I really feel badly for store employees because people are so rude with trashing the place. One of the worst examples I saw of that was after-school shopping. Holy heck was that crazy! I went to a store about three days after the school supplies section had been set up. I have never seen such a mess in my life. Folders, paper, pencils, everything just thrown all over the place. They practically needed to put up crime scene tape, it was such a scene.

              Of course, Black Friday is probably worse, but then I don’t go shopping that day so I wouldn’t know. I can’t imagine the anger that store employees must feel when people act like animals who have been let out of a cage after a lifetime of being cooped up.

              Just a note for everyone – yes, stores have employees who straighten shelves and stock items. That does not give you license to rampage through the place. There are cleaning crews as well, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to pee on the floor in Aisle 7. Have some respect!

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              1. Rana

                Speaking as a former retail clerk, thank you!

                The two worst departments were shoes and kids’ clothing. Oh my god, the tons and tons of little shirts on the floor, wtf.

                And we weren’t allowed to leave until everything was tidy again, too.

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              2. Manda

                Just a note for everyone – yes, stores have employees who straighten shelves and stock items. That does not give you license to rampage through the place. There are cleaning crews as well, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to pee on the floor in Aisle 7. Have some respect!

                Exactly. I wouldn’t expect someone to take a can or a box off the shelf and bring the next one forward, but I would hope that if you try on a pair of shoes and don’t want them you won’t leave them in the middle of the aisle where someone might trip over them. The staff are there to tidy but they aren’t there to follow each person around cleaning up their mess. It’s not just a courtesy to the staff, but also the other customers who come in after.

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          2. ChristineSW

            It’s less about perfectionism for me though and more about my dislike of people who take things off shelves and ignore the five cans they’ve shoved out of order to do so.

            Oh yes, this too!!!

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        1. Jazzy Red

          There’s a website for Things Organized Neatly (hint hint) which I go to when I get stressed at work. It’s very calming, and I so “get” these people.

          A submission from Nov 27, 2012 shows a young man who organized one of those giant candy dumps in a store. I want to do that.

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  12. PEBCAK

    Related to this is the question around “are you a details person or a big-picture person?” I think we talked about it here before, but FALSE DICHOTOMY.

    Reply
    1. Rana

      Oh, god, yes. My (mis)fortune is to be great at big-picture, abstract thinking and strategy, and great at tracking and managing little details, but I stink at the middle ground where you have to combine details (but not all of them!) with larger-context (but not too large! but not too abstract!) concerns.

      This makes me a great person for editing or indexing complicated scholarly manuscripts (where you need to grasp a complex whole while keeping track of things like consistent spelling and page ranges) but not so good for things that require a more casual approach.

      Reply
      1. JMegan

        Oh, interesting – that sounds a lot like me! I’m good at the big picture, creating policies and large scale-plans and so on. And at the same time, I am also the person copy-editing the first draft to make sure all the bullet points line up the same way.

        But the middle part, the “how do we put this strategy into action” part, is a lot harder for me. I’ve never articulated it to myself like this, but it’s a great way of looking at things. Thanks for the lightbulb!

        Reply
  13. Contessa

    There’s a huge difference between “detail-oriented” and “perfectionism,” definitely. I am not detail-oriented (which I have only recently learned, because I had previously conflated it with being a perfectionist), because I get tunnel vision on certain aspects of a project as a coping mechanism to the fact that my job involves such broad practice areas, and then miss details in other aspects of the project. I am, however, a perfectionist–so I get tunnel vision, miss something, and then FREAK THE HECK OUT about having made a mistake and not being perfect. Because this only just came to a head, I haven’t had much time to practice taking a step back to make sure I’m not missing anything (but still prioritizing tasks so I don’t switch into spending way too much time going over everything), but having the same panic attack for two months straight is not something I want to repeat. My goal is to find another job with a more narrow area of practice, which hopefully will solve the problem altogether. Also, no panic attacks. That is a major goal.

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  14. Aida

    This is a huge problem for me at the moment. I’ve been at my job a couple of months now and we’re strictly monitored on accuracy and output. My accuracy is outstanding, however my output scores are lagging behind, and my recent performance review I was told if I don’t improve over the next few weeks I’ll be terminated as I’m still in the probation period.

    It’s difficult for me because I thought I was doing the right thing by doing my work correctly and to a high standard. However I’ve now got the message and am cutting as many corners as possible, my productivity is improving, but it still feels very wrong to me.

    There’s still a real chance I’ll be let go though, before finishing probation. I’m terrified. How do you even move on from that? Surely it’s a huge red flag for future employers? To be honest, I’m shocked to be in this position because I’ve always considered myself to be a reasonably competent person.

    Reply
    1. EngineerGirl

      Ask them what they want you to focus on. Are you going for perfect on things they don’t care about? That is effort wasted.

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      1. Not So NewReader

        This. Jobs are all about what the boss thinks is important, and have very little to do with what we think is important.
        I find that once in a while I ask WHY A is more important than B. It helps me to get a feel for what the company wants and how they approach things.

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  15. T (no longer in construction)

    Perfectionism is only positive as long as it’s enhancing the job, not when it’s detrimental to the job.

    Example : in college, my partner and I were working on a media class presentation where 10% of the grade was the audiovisual material, 20% was the oral presentation, and 70% was the research paper. We decided to spend an entire weekend working on it for Monday. My partner was a total perfectionist, and we spent ALL of Satuday and Sunday morning working on the damn audiovisual, which was the relatively least important factor of the grade. Finally, at 5pm Sunday, I had to just give up and write the research paper and develop the presentation by myself for our 9am Monday deadline because she couldn’t quit until the audiovisual was “perfect.”

    Tl;dr – perfection is great as a final touch/review (quality), but not at the expense of the project as a whole

    Reply
    1. Anon

      Ohh, this. If you know you’re a perfectionist in the above-described way, at least stop self- (and other-) sabotaging to the extent possible by STARTING with the most important thing. You’ll also feel like a rock star for knocking it out.

      Reply
  16. Realistic

    I was lucky enough early on to have a mentor who helped break me of my perfectionist tendencies. He’d give me a task, and a target amount of time. He’d ask me to do my best job in X hours and then check back in. At that point, he’d either say “good enough!” or “how much longer will it take to do ABC?” I’d give my range of time, and he’d decide if it was worth doing or not. He really helped me to see the “Time to Task Ratio” was an important part of the process. I’ve used TTR theory with people I’ve managed, and it really helps with both the discussion and freeing us all up to say “if it takes more than an hour, you’ve spent too much time for what the task is worth in value to us”….

    Reply
    1. Emily K

      Yes, that’s really the key! It’s not that the high level of quality is unimportant or has *no* value. It’s that its value is somewhere below the *cost* of achieving it, and resources (money, labor costs, time) are finite. First class is pretty clearly better than coach–but it may only be worth $100 to some people, worth $300 to others, and it may even be theoretically worth $300 to someone who just doesn’t have an extra $300 to spend on this flight. Perfect work might be better than imperfect work, but your boss might not think it’s worth the amount of your time that you think it is, or even if she does, she might simply not have the ability to give you that much time or pay you to spend so long on it.

      Reply
  17. PuppyKat

    I always tell my staff: “Shoot for perfection—settle for excellence.”

    But then I also tell them that excellence is a sliding scale, depending upon the project.

    Reply
  18. AB

    Thank you, AAM for reposting this! I would have missed fposte’s brilliant comment otherwise (and having it in a separate post also makes it much easier to share the link).

    The best employees I know are people capable of “zooming in” and “zooming out” — knowing when something matters in the grand scheme of things and thus needs to be near perfection, and when “good enough” is what will provide more business value. An internal document with a short life span, that will be seen only by a couple of colleagues, doesn’t need the same level of care with spelling, grammar and consistency of formatting that a document being sent to customers do. I know people who will apply their perfectionist tendencies to both indiscriminately, and that’s when the problem starts.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      I totally agree with your comment about zooming in and zooming out. Having this ability is a big deal, I believe it is something one has to deliberately develop. Very seldom is it a natural ability.

      Reply
  19. Pamela G

    I too struggle with perfectionism – when I was in my first year of teaching, I would spend hours making a perfect worksheet for my younger students when I had more important work waiting to be done for my graduating students.

    Instead of photocopying a page of information from a book and handing that to the students, I would then cut around the section with words and carefully glue it onto a new, white sheet, then photocopy it again, then carefully white-out all the lines around the edges of the words until it was pristine (and THEN copy it for the kids). It was exactly the same information going out to the students, and no-one except me cared how it looked, but it took me 40 minutes instead of 2 minutes. I had real issues with time management that first year, and unfortunately no-one to really help me fix the problem (I gradually learnt through sheer panic and too many late nights how to prioritise important tasks first)!

    So even though AAM generally says to avoid the cliche of “My biggest weakness is perfectionism”, it really is true in my case, but at least I can give examples of how it used to be a problem and how I’ve worked to overcome it.

    Reply
  20. Amanda

    I have a colleague who simply cannot let go of a project, and will work until late in the night to perfect something – then complain to everyone that she doesn’t get the support she needs.

    The problem is, no one gets the support we need – we’re a tiny NFP and don’t have the resources to do everything we want to do, to the standard we want to do it. We ALL need to learn to allocate a certain amount of time to a task and move on to the next thing once that time is over, otherwise we would all be here until 8pm/9pm every night!

    She just can’t seem to grasp that concept though, and her bitterness at the hours she’s working really makes the environment a toxic one, no matter how much people try to help her to manage her time better.

    Reply
  21. Anonymous

    Good post – I once had an interviewer ask me a question that really stumped – she asked, what’s more important, finishing a project with imperfections but meeting the deadline, or finishing the project late, but is perfect. Stupid question, which annoyed me. I told her no such thing as perfection, but in matters related to business meeting timeframes are important, otherwise you have anarchy, and nothing gets done. there’s really no right or wrong, unless of course you are a brain surgeon, then you need to do both!

    Reply
    1. Anonymous

      I agree–stupid question. Sometimes it’s better to finish a project with imperfections but meet a deadline, and sometimes it’s better to finish a project late to make it perfect. It depends on the situtation.

      Reply
      1. EngineerGirl

        Wrong. If the project has so many imperfections that it is technically incorrect it will need to be reworked. And you’ll have to go through the release process a second time, resulting in more total work than if you were late. It is a matter of maturity and content. Sometimes it’s better to be late and only deliver once.

        Reply
      2. KellyK

        I would have trouble answering this question too. To me, it depends largely on the level of imperfections. In a document, are we talking subtle grammar issues that only copy editors and English teachers will notice, or multiple misspelled words and screwy formatting? In a software application, are we talking about an intermittent glitch that goes away if you restart, or about a key feature that doesn’t work, or about a major security vulnerability?

        It also depends on how possible it is to do both. Can I borrow a coworker from another project with a later deadline to give something a once-over? Is there a quick fix that will make it acceptable if not perfect in the time allotted?

        Reply
    2. Pamela G

      How annoying! Yes I would have said it depends on my manager’s preferences, as it is ultimately their call!

      Reply
  22. Rebecca

    One of the things I enjoy about my field (architecture) is that it is generally accepted that perfection is not a thing that is possible, and therefore there are procedures for dealing with inevitable imperfections. We know that it is basically guaranteed that something we draw won’t work in the field- that’s why there’s a process for the contractor ask us to fix it!

    Obviously, you try to get things figured out as well as possible, but perfect isn’t anywhere near the realm of possible. See also “field verify” and “construction tolerances,”

    Reply
  23. Not So NewReader

    I really hate ads like this that ask for perfection, detail oriented and still meet deadlines. It really does not tell the reader that much about the job, either.

    I tend to think the ad was crafted to filter out most people. I picture a company that has a tough time hiring people, because they don’t know how.

    Really, any good employee does a thorough job, pays attention to details and gets the job done on time.

    Alison, what is your take on an ad like that? Do you see red flags?

    Reply
    1. EngineerGirl

      That’s not true. Some people think that they are paying attention to details but in reality don’t see all of them. It’s a skill only some people possess. You can be trained to get better in it, but the really good people do it naturally (kind of how a top tier athlete is just naturally better than the pack).

      Some people can be perfectionistic, detail oriented, AND meet deadlines. Some companies just put it in their job descriptions because it sounds good. But some jobs really need this combination (air traffic controller for example). Many of these jobs are high stress with high burnout rates.

      Reply
      1. Rana

        Yes. Indexing is like this. It’s done under a significant time crunch, usually with hard deadlines, and you’re expected to submit clean copy without any mistakes. They do happen – we’re human – but it is best to avoid making them in the first place, and to catch them during a second pass if they slip through anyway. A lot of it is learning to be efficient, so you have more time to be careful, and to anticipate your usual weak spots so that you can compensate for them. It’s not just being fast and accurate; planning and practice are essential.

        It’s not a job for everyone, but I enjoy it.

        Reply
  24. Katy

    I am a recovering perfectionist, so I sympathize with the original commenter in the open thread and I wholeheartedly agree with the advice she got. Some ways I changed the way I thought about things:

    I started asking myself “can I stand behind it?” instead of “Is it perfect?” They are two different things. Rarely does my day to day work meet my highest standards, but I can always stand behind it as a great effort, and one that my supervisors will likely be pleased with.

    I remind myself that Picasso always said that the first brush stroke on the canvas is always a mistake, and the art comes in when you fill in the rest around it. I am often paralyzed by the daunting task of beginning something (and therefore inevitably screwing it up), but once I get over that and begin, I can cook along. Helps tremendously to acknowledge that you won’t flawlessly execute everything as you work toward a finished product, and that’s ok. Sometimes it’s better!

    I have dropped the attitude that I am a detail-oriented perfectionist and therefore somehow superior. Yes, I used to fall into that trap and I’m not always perfect at staying out of it (ha! see what I did there?). But it’s no fun to work with someone like that and especially when you manage others, as I did, it is a morale-kill like no other. Learned that lesson the hard way.

    It IS possible to do excellent work within constraints. It’s even fun, once you let go of a lot of the fear of screwing up!

    Reply
  25. JMegan

    The other thing I’ve learned is to always ask if I’m meant to be working on a first draft or a final product. I can’t tell you how many times I have taken my manager’s instructions, created a beautful package with ALL the details and ALL the pretty bows on it, and taken it back to her, only to be told “That’s great, now we just need to revise here, here, and here, add this, take this part out, move this over here, and then I’ll take another look at it.”

    Of course, my current manager actually does want to see a close-to-finished product the first time, so YMMV, but either way it’s definitely worth asking the question.

    Reply

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