Perfectionists vs High Achievers

I was talking with a friend this weekend, and we laughed when we realized we both shared the same mind hack for getting any work done: we both tricked ourselves into lowering our standards to an imaginary “80%”, and that sometimes was just the framing we needed to finish a project and actually deliver it, instead of endlessly toiling to achieve that elusive 100%, never getting there, and watching the project either languish, or suck the life out of us.

Sound familiar? It might seem that I think this is only a problem for high achievers, but I actually don’t think that’s true. It’s a problem for perfectionists, and perfectionism is different than high achieving in important ways (though a perfectionist wouldn’t agree with you).

Perfectionists would say that they care deeply about their work because they want to get results, make an impact, etc. And that is the reason behind their tireless working and re-working of every detail. But perfectionism is about fear, not quality.

It’s about fear of releasing something into the world that might bring shame onto you. Wherein people might see your humanity, and deem you not worthy. And this is only terrifying because it reflects a value you might also hold to be true deep down.

High achievers, on the other hand, or at least the ones I know, care much more about getting things done than getting them done perfectly. And if you ask them if it was the best it could have been, they’ll say, no, of course not. It had this problem and that, but it was the best I could do for now/the deadline had arrived/I’ll get that part in next time/etc.

The key difference, to me, is that high achievers have a “roll with the punches” attitude about their work. They do the best they can, with no expectation of perfection, and then move on. They release work at a higher cadence than perfectionists on the whole, and they maintain a growth mindset.

Perfectionists: “What tiny details can I belabor before I release this?”

High Achievers: “What can I learn from releasing this the way it is?”

This more fluid attitude toward work is a huge mindset shift for folks who care deeply about the work they put out there, and it’s challenging to adopt. You want your name to represent quality and high standards, and so see each discrete piece of work as the end-all, be-all of your value as a human being: your worth and abilities are only as good as the last thing you created.

High achievers, on the other hand, seem to look at their work as a continuum: each piece is one more brick in the wall, one more test balloon. One more opportunity to be part of a conversation, to learn something. And of course, the irony here is that by adopting a process-oriented attitude, the product naturally improves over time.

So, how can folks with perfectionist leanings learn to move toward a more forgiving, and more productive place?

  1. Look at the long view. This piece of work is not your first and won’t be your last. Think of it as a stepping stone in a longer story: about what you’re learning, how you view the world today, and how it will shape your views and work tomorrow. If it helps to think of it as “Version 1” or “Chapter 1”, then do that.

  2. Ask, “What can I learn here?” Sometimes it seems we have to have all the answers before we put something out there. So we tirelessly research, write, re-write, and endlessly tweak, hoping to have something water-tight and criticism-proof. The truth is, you can learn much more (and therefore improve “Version 2”) by getting it to some level of “good enough” and then sharing it or testing it out in the real world. (In the software world, this is known as Minimal Viable Product or MVP, and is the standard used for knowing when a product is done “enough” to release for the first time, knowing that it is never really, truly ever done.)

  3. Cut yourself some slack. Remember, you’re just a human person doing some human work. It won’t be perfect, but guess what? Only humans (probably) will be consuming it, and they’re not perfect either. Let go of the need to make something better than your abilities, and just do what you can do, today, right now. I promise it will still be worthwhile.*

*and if it’s not, see #2: What did you learn?

Gillian BenAry