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Is perfectionism preferable?

Last updated on 
January 3, 2020

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“What’s your weakness?” – “I’m a perfectionist.” Sound familiar? While this practiced interview repartee once seemed fresh and sharp, it’s since become a tired cliché – and a warning sign for employers.

As companies become increasingly supportive of employee mental health, they need to seriously question the premium we still place on perfectionism. Are high standards always a good thing? Is obsessive focus and single-mindedness desirable in the workplace? Should employees feel comfortable to fail? When exactly, if ever, is perfectionism preferable?

‘Be the best’ culture

We live in a culture where being the best is the ultimate aim. We’re told that until we’ve hit that goal, we should strive to do better – whatever it takes. Many of us are unconscious of being perfectionists. If you constantly rewrite emails before sending them or feel low when you don’t get a PB at the gym, you might be one too. Defined by their fear of making a mistake or being average, perfectionists strive for excellence.

Whether you think of tech tycoons like Elon Musk or athletes like Serena Williams, highly successful people do seem to have one thing in common: it’s not just talent that gets them to the top; it’s their obsession – their desire to be number one. Motivated by a fear of failure, it’s this fear that often drives people to accomplish what others can’t. Perfectionism, in their case at least, seems desirable.

But it’s also sold as a desirably quality in the workplace too. We tell ourselves that – unlike regular employees – perfectionists go all-out to create faultless work. They own greater levels of diligence, are more engaged and motivated, and lift other employees up with their example.

It’s a heroic image, but in reality, it’s not that rosy. There is another, much darker side to perfectionism that needs to be addressed.

The pitfalls of perfection

Perfectionism contains some rather toxic elements. It manifests almost like an inferiority complex, with an unshakeable feeling that you’re just not good enough. People invest huge amounts of time and energy into improving simply because their current state isn’t satisfactory to them. Beneath every special achievement can lurk anxieties and self-doubt, and while success tastes sweet, it’s also fleeting; achievement will only ever be a short-lived remedy.

It’s also important to consider the fact that perfectionism doesn’t always end in creative or academic triumphs. You may have the same drive as Serena Williams, but if you don’t also have natural sporting ability, where do you channel it? When perfectionism isn’t paired with talent it can result in damaging behavior. It comes with a huge increase in stress and exhaustion – research suggests that perfectionists show greater levels of burnout – and has long been linked to eating disorders.

And even our most successful heroes are fallible: Elon Musk broke down when revealing that the cost of his commitment to perfection and productivity was insomnia, stress and fatigue, and Serena Williams recently stated that her pursuit of perfection leads to unrealistic expectations, both professionally and personally.

Finding the balance

Work perfectionists are more likely to view their performance harshly and adopt an all-or-nothing approach to the ways they work – so that if their work isn’t perfect, it’s a total catastrophe. And when someone’s self-worth is this dependent on being perfect, it can only ever be negative.

But there are different levels of perfectionism, and different forms of it too. Further research suggests there’s a big difference between working towards perfection because you yourself want to improve, and trying to be the best because you don’t want to let people down. Studies reveal that when perfectionists are worried about not disappointing others, their performance is negatively affected; yet, when they’re striving to improve for themselves, it’s reflected in a more positive performance and outlook.

So, in certain cases, perhaps perfectionism is desirable. Wanting to challenge and improve yourself is constructive, so as long as you maintain a healthy outlook and stay focused. But when you’re so fixated on being the best in other people’s eyes, it’s easy for doubt and stress to creep in – and often it’s your own wellbeing that’s surrendered in the quest of being better.

So be honest about exactly whose satisfaction you’re working for, and what recognition your achievement is feeding. High standards by themselves are no bad thing, but check yourself to ensure they support healthy ends.

Feeling the self-improvement pressure? See how to set realistic goals for positive, healthy achievement.

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