There’s this one funny answer that we give to a very common interview question:
“What are your weaknesses?”
”Well, I’m a perfectionist. (grin) I can’t rest until every detail is as it should be.”
Now sometimes the interviewer remains satisfied that this is a very bearable weakness to work with. Other times, though, he silently sighs, tired of this urban myth that this is a great answer to this interview question. Cus, you know, actually perfectionism is a quality, and you just said that your only weakness is in fact a quality and no one’s gonna notice what you did there.
If I were in the position of the interviewer and I would recognize a perfectionist standing in front of me, I’d have some doubts.
My experience as a coach and an HR professional (and frankly, as a human being) has shown me that actually perfectionists have the lowest growth rate.
Why does this happen and how do we become perfectionists?
More and more research shows that success relies most on what we currently call grit. Grit is the ability to passionately and persistently follow a goal, even when major blocks and distractions stand along the way. Those who are gritty have the ability to self-regulate – to get back to their commitment towards the goal – even when the positive results take a big too long to appear.
Success is no longer the gift of the most talented, intelligent or charismatic individuals – all of these are essential abilities, but what sets apart high-potential people from highly accomplished people lies in the consistency of their efforts.
I know, this is a far less romantic approach, right? Like – where’s the magic? Where are those unbelievable success stories, where a misfit turns uber successful overnight, without even having to work that much?
Truth is, these stories are mythology. If, in fact, we are set to search for a real, tested and functional recipe, then we have to turn towards a story of success based on resilience.
Resilience (or mental and emotional power) is what allows us to try again, and again, and again etc. until we reach a satisfying result. Turns out that the profile of a successful person is someone who accepts he/she has a lot to learn, that mistakes will be made and that a mistake is not the end of the road; it’s someone willing to be vulnerable, tackle on big goals, state his ambitions and make his skills and talents visible.
The thing is, this is the opposite of a perfectionist. Real perfectionist know exactly how painful and unbearable making mistakes feels. I remember that once I couldn’t sleep for an entire week over a very small mistake I’ve made at a job. For a perfectionist, vulnerability is the most difficult experience one can have, and he would do anything in his power to evade it. Just ask yourself, how comfortable are you with showing your work to others, especially when it’s work in progress and not all details are polished? Or how does it feel when people get a glimpse of parts of you that aren’t picture perfect – like finding out there are things you don’t know, seeing you lose your temper or finding out that not every aspect of your life is perfect?
Criticism and failure are really hard hits for a perfectionist to take, hence the fragility I was referring to in the title of this article.
A perfectionist’s self-esteem is extremely fragile, because it lies at the mercy of the scoreboard – that board where we keep tracks of all our wins. A perfectionist feels (relatively) fine and confident as long as she doesn’t make any mistakes. Upon the first failure (bound to happen), all his self-trust comes crashing down. His perception is that he is a failure, not that he had a failure.
Perfectionism is a life strategy that we create since early childhood. We come to think that the way to have safety, the acceptance, appreciation and love of our parents is to make no mistake. It’s the mentality of a child who has been punished for the smallest mishap – and I am even talking about the smallest punishments (a harsh look from mum or dad, a critical comment). It’s the mentality of a child who has been asked to always perform at the highest level, without being told that high performance is build on dozens of mistakes.
It’s so hard for a perfectionist to tolerate criticism and failure, that she will avoid doing new things and taking on challenges that are above her current level of competence. But the first step in growth and development is taking on precisely this type of challenges – this requires returning to the stage of the Newbie, which requires making mistakes and being vulnerable.
It’s also hard to recover from setbacks – in fact, a perfectionist thinks that failure is proof that he is not good enough. So undeveloped is his ability to tolerate mistakes, that he lacks the power to confront them, to analyze what did not work, and what he can do different next time.
Perfectionist can’t admit to needing help. They want to prove they can make it all on their own, and will never benefit from the support and help of other people.
There’s so much self-imposed pressure on the shoulders of a perfectionist, that all her energy is lost on fighting with hyper-critical, hyper-anxious thoughts. There’s no energy or enthusiasm left for actually taking actions.
What’s the advice that I always give perfectionists?
Re-examine your personal values.
A fulfilled life – however you may want to define it – is a life where not making mistakes is not your no.1 priority. Something else has to be at the top – what could that be for you?
When the desire to avoid failure comes first, our playground gets smaller and smaller. We lock inside and over-control our self expression, wanting to show others only the “flawless” parts of our being.
So perfectionism is a bad thing?
It can be, if it becomes a goal in itself, and not just a tool that we choose when to use and when to let go of.
We differentiate between healthy – or functional perfectionism – and dysfunctional perfectionism.
Here’s a couple of differences:
If you’re a perfectionist as me, I nudge you to challenge this way of thinking. Arm yourself with patience as the process of change can be lengthy, but remember to take a small step every day. A step towards greater self-acceptance. Tell yourself often that it’s okay to make mistakes and that nothing of value comes without a certain amount of failure. Get familiar with other’s stories of success – you may be surprised to know that the people you admire the most not only have made mistakes in the past, but they still have ideas that don’t work, failed attempts and disappointments. The good part is that they get back on the field the next day, which is my wish for you.