“Chase perfection and settle for excellence.”
“Mediocrity will never do.”
“Shoot for the stars.”
Those sayings sound pretty good. And they look good printed on motivational posters.
However, I suspect that these axioms about striving for perfection are most useful for the unmotivated, careless, or sloppy. As a highly motivated, ambitious, and hardworking perfectionist, I’ve found that talking myself down from the ledge of sky-high standards to be far more useful. Ironically, abandoning the pursuit of perfection has played a critical role in helping me succeed and excel.
Because if you’re a perfectionist like me—desperately shooting for the stars—you might be unknowingly snuffing out some of your best ideas.
Accept the truth about quantity vs. quality
Quick, what’s more important: quantity or quality? If you’re a self-proclaimed perfectionist, you’ll instinctively answer, “Quality!” But evidence suggests that might not be the case (cue perfectionist angst).
In his book “Art and Fear,” David Bayles recounts an anecdote about the difference between quality and quantity. In it, a ceramics teacher divides students into two groups. He grades one group on the quality of their work. He grades the other on the quantity of their work. He asks the first group to submit only one piece of pristine work for an A grade. The second group simply needs to produce 50 pounds of pottery projects.
At the end of the semester, the instructor evaluated each project—without knowing which came from each group. The results? Predictably, the students who focused on creating one perfect pot produced good results. The students who focused on quantity were the real surprise. Ultimately, those students came away with one or two pots that were higher quality than pots from the group that focused on perfection.
Accept that your best ideas will have some ugly siblings
After hearing Bayle’s story about the pottery students, the image that stuck in my head was a big pile of ugly pots. Pots full of mistakes. Experiments gone wrong. Iterations that didn’t quite make the cut. And straight-up failures that broke or flopped.
Those mistakes, iterations, and not-quite-there efforts weren’t wasted. On the contrary, they helped produce the ultimate outcome of excellence more effectively than a focus on perfection.
It’s no different in life or business. Your very best ideas are very seldom your very best ideas. Especially at first, when they seem to drop out of the clear blue sky. And even when that rare golden inspiration strikes, your efforts to produce and perfect those ideas will require mistakes, messes, setbacks, failures, and duds. Get your hands dirty in that clay and explore the possibilities. And when you hit dead ends—or produce some lackluster results—just remember that a pile of ugly pots is actually a good thing.
Get comfortable with mediocrity
I can practically hear the groans of business gurus everywhere: “Get comfortable with mediocrity? This lady probably lives in her sweatpants and thinks nachos are fine dining.” And they would be totally correct on both counts. However, I’m telling you that lowering the bar has done more to help me succeed than the pursuit of perfection ever did.
Remember, we’re talking about perfectionism here. And the notion of perfection is as intimidating as it is alluring (especially to a self-proclaimed perfectionist). Sometimes, I psych myself out so successfully by the towering standards I’ve set for myself that I don’t do anything at all. Or I procrastinate so long that I “run out of time,” and an opportunity passes me by. And as it turns out, I’m not alone. A study of 10,000 university professors found perfectionism was “self-defeating” and strongly correlated with lower productivity levels in research and publishing.
That’s why I’ve learned to get really comfortable with the idea of mediocrity. When I begin a new project, I give myself permission to be solidly mediocre. Especially if that project intimidates me—e.g., designing a cool new shirt or writing an important email. It removes all of the pressure. And 9 times out of 10, I actually end up with something good or even amazing. But when I start with the goal of 10/10 STELLAR, I often end up freezing or procrastinating.
Let it go, let it go
I’ve learned that another key way I snuff out my best ideas is by staying so busy I don’t have time to think, iterate, and strategize. Most perfectionists (myself included) have a hard time delegating and outsourcing less important tasks. I find that to be especially true when I’m trying to find a reason to procrastinate those intimidating, important tasks that seem to demand perfection. I cling to and prioritize tasks I should (and could) outsource. That way, I can rationalize procrastinating that important blog post or new design.
Since I’m a parent, the theme song from “Frozen” is already stuck in my head 99% of the time. So I’ve made it one of my mantras: “Let it go.” I noticed that my best ideas were coming to me while I was in the shower, drifting off to sleep, or stuck without Wi-Fi. I was way too busy cramming menial and low-importance tasks into my workday. Which meant that I was missing out on the opportunity to slow down, think, and let the muse strike.
Just do it
There’s only one ground rule I set for myself when I gear up for a project or task that intimidates me. It’s that classic Nike admonition: Just do it.
Here’s how it works in practice: When I feel pressured to achieve perfection, I adopt a “just do it” mindset. The only requirement for success involves sitting in front of a blank document, notebook, or canvas for the time I’ve allotted. No phone, no “breaks” to tab over to Facebook. I have to keep my hands on the keyboard or pen and produce something. That’s it. It can be total garbage. But of course, it never seems to produce total garbage. The act of doing, without the pressure, is both liberating and productive.
Challenge yourself by all means. Get outside your comfort zone. Make sure your skills are honed and take pride in the incredible, high-quality work you achieve. But if you’re a perfectionist, you’ll achieve excellence far more often if you give yourself permission to get average results. Get comfortable with the idea of making a mess or even failing in the process. Whatever you do, just do it. Let the small stuff go. Snuggle up with all the ugly siblings in your family of ideas. And start throwing clay around like crazy.
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