You have two choices: You can hire the Valedictorian of the senior class at Harvard or the guy who just barely scraped by at the bottom of Harvard’s latest graduating class. What’s it going to be? When presented with these options, most people say they would jump at the chance to hire the Valedictorian. Believe it or not, that’s a bad hire. The research shows that the people who graduate at the top of the class at Harvard often don’t do as well professionally as those who graduate more toward the middle, or even the bottom, of the class. It’s incredibly counter intuitive, but there’s a reason that the Valedictorians don’t fare as well. Everyone admitted to Harvard is insanely smart. That’s a reality of the admissions criteria at the most selective school in the United States. But the students that graduate at the top of the class aren’t just smart, they are perfectionists. To be the best of the best at Harvard everything has to be “just right”. Every paper is perfect. Every test is compulsively obsessed over. Every project is completed with perfection. The students who graduate farther down in the rankings are just a little more laid back, they probably aren’t quite as compulsive about their studies, and they might tend to have more balance in their life. The real choice as you hire your employee is between a perfectionist who is highly intelligent but compulsive and neurotic, or a laid back more balanced individual who is still intelligent but also emotionally aware and relationally capable. Obviously, the second candidate will have more success in most work environments, which is why the Harvard Valedictorians are typically not as successful as other graduates. The moral of the story for all of us is clear: perfectionists don’t know when enough is enough and their strategy of perfection typically bogs them down in details that aren’t worth the extra effort in the end. Interestingly, my experience in the clinical office suggests that perfectionism is a common problem that is often times situation specific. Whether it’s with work, with chores around the house, or even in relationships, many of us have an area of life where we’re total perfectionists. And while the thing we’re focused on might even get better because of our high standards, oftentimes a lot of other things suffer. If you are ready to quit spending way too much time obsessing about having everything “just right” and arguing with those you love about your unmet (or should I say unrealistic) expectations, you just might be ready to surrender perfectionism for good. If so, these three strategies will help you fix what’s already “perfect”.
- Recognize that perfectionism is about control.
There is one thing about perfectionism that we should all acknowledge from the get go, perfectionism isn’t about performing well. We can perform well, quite well actually, and not be absolutely perfect and exact in every detail. We can perform well and not have incredibly high standards for us or for others around us. Our little case study about the Valedictorian proves that in no uncertain terms. No, if we are honest, perfectionism isn’t about performance at all. It’s about control. It’s about attempting to exert control over lots of situations, relationships, or environments that we actually have very little control over. We live in a broken world and our perfectionism drives us to irrationally attempt to control the outcomes in a world that is by definition uncontrollable. Although this attempt to control life is at best subtle and in it’s most extreme form unconscious, our constant attempt to control the outcomes is designed to guarantee our safety and to mitigate the uncertainties of living in this crazy mixed up world. The only answer to the unrealistic need to control underneath perfectionism is to pursue surrender. True surrender to “good enough” rather than “just right”. Now this probably seems impossible right now, but that’s O.K. There is a path to surrender that you can practice going forward and it begins with counting the costs.
- Count the costs of perfectionism.
One of the most dangerous things about perfectionism is that it actually does help us perform well at times. We struggle to recognize that it is an unhealthy mechanism by which we attempt to control our world because it is easy to believe that all of the perfectionism is necessary. We rehearse statements like this with ease: “Just look at all my successes”, “My frenetic behavior drives my spouse crazy, but my house is really clean”, or “I’m working A LOT, but I’m doing well at the office”. Perfectionists actually understand that perfectionism requires incredible amounts of effort, but they believe all the perfection is worth it. Yes, perfectionists often times produce good results, but they seem to be oblivious to the fact that they are spending inordinate amounts of time getting those results and are driving people around them crazy in the process. A good way to combat this is to look at the costs of perfectionism, not just the results. When we take into consideration all the cost of having things “just right”, is it really worth it? When we look at all the stress, the lack of time, and the relationship problems perfectionism causes does it really make sense to have standards for our life that are so out of control?
- Practice failure.
If you count the costs of having things “just right” and are able to believe that perfectionism is actually an unhealthy attempt to control our world, you are ready to start practicing failure. Yes, that’s right. The only way to begin to defeat perfectionism is to expose yourself to what makes you uncomfortable over and over again. You have to break some of the rules you have set for yourself go and allow yourself to feel as if you are a failing. Leave the house a mess for a whole day. Let your spouse believe that political narrative without correcting him. Go to the mall in gym clothes. Turn in the paper without proofreading it 100 times. Guess what, you’ll find that when you start to break the unwritten rules perfectionism has set for you the earth will not break wide open and swallow you up. You will still breath in oxygen. You will be O.K. In the process, you will learn that cost of perfectionism just isn’t worth it and that you can let go of a little bit of control. Sure, you might not be the metaphorical Valedictorian of your sales meeting this month, but the research shows you will probably be more successful on the job. And you might even feel like you have fixed what felt perfect.