The Deadly Sin of Perfectionism

Deadly Perfectionism

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Thomas Edison

When it comes to my work I probably land more towards the perfectionist side of the spectrum.

Of course I’m far from perfect… but I still try to be. Oddly enough, the more I reflect about it the more I realize this attitude is probably more counter-productive than productive.

First, let’s look at a definition of perfectionism. Here’s what we find on Wikipedia.

Perfectionism, in psychology, is a belief that perfection can and should be attained. In its pathological form, perfectionism is a belief that work or output that is anything less than perfect is unacceptable. At such levels, this is considered an unhealthy belief, and psychologists typically refer to such individuals as maladaptive perfectionists.

So, besides being called maladaptive… here are some reasons I think perfectionism can be dangerous.

1. You’re scared to try new things.

A perfectionist may plan and plan and plan the improvement idea, or new business, or new anything… only to find themselves frozen with fear in such a way as to never actually give it a try.

2. You may lose focus of what really matters – long term perfection.

Some of you may have read Dr. James Womack’s good work. If this is the case you probably know his fifth step of lean implementation is to pursue perfection.

So, does this mean he’s saying we should all become short term perfectionists? I don’t think so.

Instead, I think Womack is saying to keep our eyes down field. He’s saying that the “ideal state” we’re all aiming for doesn’t really exist since better is always possible which, in this case, makes it the perfect target for us continuous improvement practitioners.

3. You may just lose your mind.

If nothing but perfection is acceptable you may end up losing your mind. You may read and re-read every email, document, or blog entry hundreds of times only to skip over the fact that you meant to say “morale” and not “moral.” And when someone calls you on it, in front of thousands of others, you may feel like curling up into the fetal position and dying. Of course I’m not speaking from actual experience here or anything.

What to do?

So, if short term perfectionism is bad, what’s a person aiming for long term perfection to do?

Simply put, my advice, and something I’m trying to do myself, is to not worry about short term perfectionism as much as I used to. Instead, I think it’s best to obviously plan and think about things… but once you have some ideas give them a try.

In some cases you’ll fail. So what. Try again and fail better.  To be sure, this takes courage. But if people like Thomas Edison didn’t exude this type of courage who knows where we’d be?

So, while it’s a great thing to aim for long term perfection… short term perfectionism, in my opinion, is not the way to get there.

Do you agree?

10 Comments

  1. Erin Stewart

    October 13, 2008 - 1:02 pm

    Initially I was not seeing it the same way as you. But then the more I read the more I came to see your point. I’ve never looked at it from this view point but I too tend to be a perfectionist which, in hindsight, has probably hurt me more than helped me. Great post. It’s really gotten me to think.

  2. Jeremy Garner

    October 14, 2008 - 8:13 am

    I think regardless of how high anyone’s standards are you have to develop some level of adaptive qualities. Life will break you if you can’t ever bend. With the mindset of continuous improvement there is always hope for something better, instead of the anxiety that what we plan won’t be the exact outcome. I agree perfectionism is a heavy weight. Despite what great advances are made, perfectionists never seem to have the capacity to enjoy a sense of accomplishment.

  3. Henry Loo

    October 14, 2008 - 10:22 am

    Ron,
    Without short term perfectionism, how can we achieve long term perfectionism? I see improvement as a continuous and life long process. Perfectionism is also addressing the short term problem that may have a long term solution implication. In life, it is rare to get quantum leap improvement but a lot easier to keep building on improvement after improvement. The other essential ingredient of improvement is collectivisation thro’ the group – the very bottom line of Japanese culture of improvement as a group.

  4. Ron Pereira

    October 14, 2008 - 10:42 am

    Thanks for the great comments everyone.

    @ Henry – We may be saying the same things with different words. The point I was attempting to make is that a short term perfectionist may never actually try something until he or she is absolutely certain it will work. In other words, they are afraid to even try… meaning things will be the same tomorrow as they are today.

  5. David B Katague

    October 14, 2008 - 3:21 pm

    I have several friends who are “perfectionists”. I notice they are unhappy and feel unaccomplished. So, I agree seeking perfection may be dangerous to ones health and happiness. After all, we are human beings-thus not perfect at all. The trick is I believe to do the best you could in any endeavor you do, whether it is perfect or mot, be happy that you did the best that you can do with what you have.

  6. mike

    October 14, 2008 - 5:57 pm

    What about when a perfectionist has several equally bad choices to choose from?

  7. mike

    October 14, 2008 - 7:08 pm

    Actually the more i think about it the more i agree with the author.

  8. Chris Iversen

    April 13, 2010 - 2:48 pm

    The maladaptive way most organizations implement six sigma has made it a universal blight on organizational life. Perfectionism is one form of narcissistic behavior; carried out in extremis, it is destructive to the individual and organization. Most managers don’t know when to stop digging for fly specks in the pepper jar.