Are you a perfectionist? Take the test…and start making changes now!


Why do we get stuck? Today: No. 8 -- Perfectionism
Why do we get stuck? Today: No. 8 — Perfectionism

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And so we come to the end of the Getting Unstuck staircase.  It’s not an end, of course, but a beginning.  In this Getting Unstuck series, I’ve laid out the eight broad reasons people get stuck in life. You can learn much more by buying the book or signing up for the online course.  But today we will discuss that most common and vexing modern malady — perfectionism.

Fear of failure is the reason most people don’t try new things. Obvious, right? Less obvious: How you define failure will dictate how much fear you feel. And it might keep you from trying altogether.  So let’s turn this trite observation on its head.

Every four years, the world gathers at the Olympic Games to decide who is the planet’s fastest runner, or best downhill skier, or top figure skater.  You know who the most disappointed person is? The second-best runner, skier, or skater on the planet.  We see the anguish on their faces as they step onto the (lower) medal podium. We hear color commentators talk about how one inch or one misstep (how could they!?) has changed their lives forever, as they will now be known second-best.  Losers. Failures.  Being second-best is so bad that numerous studies show bronze medal winners are actually happier than silver medalists!

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For perfectionists, life is like a constant Olympic Games. They want the gold medal all the time. In jogging. In driving. In making Powerpoints.  Worse yet, perfectionists tend to avoid situations where they can’t win the gold.  Over time, this means their areas of expertise continually narrow, because trying something new would inevitably mean failure.

Do you dwell on small mistakes for hours, days, or even weeks after they occur? Are you crushed when someone points out a small flaw in your work? Have you ever spent four hours fine-tuning a task that could have been completed in 10 minutes? Are you haunted by uncertainty when you finish a task, so nothing is ever really finished? Do typos in e-mails, or sloppy grammar in speech, bother you so much that you can’t even see or hear the meaning of the words being used? Do the words “good enough,” make you cringe?

Then you’re are likely engaging in a form of self-torture that many psychologists now recognize as a modern-day epidemic – part obsessive-compulsive disorder,   part overbearing superego, part digital-age narcissistic nightmare, and nearly always on the edge of miserable. You are a slave of success but focused on failure.  You are a perfectionist.

Gordon L. Flett, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, is probably the world’s leading expert on perfectionism. See how many of the statements you’d agree with in his 10-part quiz

Flett’s 10 signs your a perfectionist
1) You can’t stop thinking about a mistake you made
2) You are intensely competitive and can’t stand doing worse than others
3) You either want to do something “just right” or not at all
4) You demand perfection from other people
5) You won’t ask for help if asking can be perceived as a flaw or weakness
6) You will persist at a task long after other people have quit
7) You are a fault-finder who must correct other people when they are wrong
8) You are highly aware of other people’s demands and expectations
9) You are very self-conscious about making mistakes in front of other people
10) You noticed the error in the title of this list

If you answered yes to several of these take a breath — you are hardly alone.  Flett says says more than 50 percent of today’s Western school-aged children exhibit perfectionist traits.  And most high achiever women suffer from some form of it.

Perfectionists focus on one point in time – the end. Graduation. Wedding Day.  The perfectly clean house.  They get no joy from the journey, or the process.  They can’t imagine what happens “after” things are perfect.  The second day on the dream job, or the second day of the marriage, is often cause for decent into depression. The house with the impeccable carpet and plastic covered furniture is a museum, not a place where people live.   Perfectionism is the search for an ending that doesn’t exist.

At work, perfectionism can also be used to conceal a lack of competence – such as a marketing manager who spends all day copy editing a one-page press release in an effort to avoid placing phone calls needed to pitch the company’s news.  Perfectionist managers are unreasonably demanding micro-managers who irritate employees by obsessing over non-essential details. Because everything is important, they are terrible at prioritizing, perhaps the most important task of a manager. They can’t trust others to “get it right.”  And they can’t leave anything wrong, be it an eyebrow or a slightly crooked picture on a wall.

Think back to the impossible standards of the Olympic Games. It’s not really fear of failure that prevents perfectionists from trying new things; it’s an unrealistic definition of failure.  You don’t need to be great the first time you try something new! Learning any new skill, even if it doesn’t involve a promotion or a raise, makes your day a success. The perfect time to sign up for graduate school or apply for a new job will never come.

TRY THIS: Don’t think about finishing, just think about starting
The intersection of housekeeping and perfectionism is instructive. Witness is the rise of the ragingly popular FlyLady, an online character will millions of followers who acts as cheerleader for Web users who feel overwhelmed by housework.  The main philosophy behind her site: most homes are cluttered and dirty, ironically, because their occupants insist on perfectly clean rooms.  When 100% cleanliness proves to be impossible, an endless task of keeping up with dirt, the housekeeper despairs and simply gives up.  The solution, says FlyLady, is a new way of thinking.
“You’re not behind. Just jump in wherever you are,” she says, over and over.  Don’t try to clean the entire house at once. Just set a 15-minute timer, do what you can in those 15 minutes, and stop.

Do that today with your career.  Pick a time, and take a 15-minute break. During those 15-minutes, start on one step that will help you change direction. Research a new training program; call a manager and set up an informational interview; answer a job listing.  You don’t have to finish, and it doesn’t have to be the perfect opportunity. Just take one modest, concrete step forward during the next 24 hours.  When you don’t have to win gold, you’ll be surprised how bold you can be.

Sign up for Bob’s online course, or buy Bob’s book.

The Getting Unstuck series:
1. Why you can’t smell the flowers any more, and how that makes you crazy (and stuck)
2.The Greedy Algorithm could be ruining your morning commute (or your life!)
3. Why a step function stands between you and your dreams, and you better not ignore a mystery ingredient
4. Are you stuck forgetting names, or test answers? The spacing effect could be your magic potion
5. I’m no Big Data hater. Some of my best friends are 1′s and 0′s. But….
6. Squirrel! Why distractions can ruin your future (I’m sorry, what were you saying?)
7. Failing slowly, the just noticeable difference, and how cruise control steers you off the road
8. Are you a perfectionist? Take the test…and start making changes now!

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About Bob Sullivan 1600 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.