Perfectionism vs. Progressionism: Why Striving for Perfection Can Be the Biggest Barrier to Your Success

When do you remember thinking you had to be perfect? Was it needing to get 100% on a test in school? Was it thinking ‘Is an A good enough when I could get an A+?” These early childhood beliefs that perfection is what is needed to be accepted and loved can haunt you unless you make the choice to think about it differently.

As a keynote speaker on storytelling, I talk about the different genres. One genre is “The Quest.” The movie that shows this is “Lord Of The Rings.” Lexus used this storytelling genre in their tag line “The Pursuit Of Perfection.” Even Lexus realized that perfection is a pursuit and not something to promise or even use as a barometer for success.

If you think the only way to be successful is to be 100% perfect 100% of the time, you will burn out. Being a perfectionist has you focus on the little things that went wrong vs. celebrating everything that went right. Replace thinking of yourself as a perfectionist with being a progressionist. This is someone who celebrates their progress every step of the way.

If you are climbing Mt. Everest and are halfway up, you have a choice on how to think. You can say look how much further I have to go or celebrate how far you have come. When you and your team celebrate the progress you make, it releases endorphins and you all get reenergized to keep going!

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Tip One: Let Go of Wanting to Be Seen as Perfect

Even if perfection was possible it robs you of any vulnerability and connection with other people. People need to hear a story of when you stumbled or failed before they can relate to you. If you’re in a job interview, don’t pretend to be perfect. Have a story ready to go of when you failed or made a big mistake and include the life lesson you learned from it.

When I give a keynote, I tell the story of being laid off from Conde Nast and how I had to reinvent myself and not panic. This way the audience knows that I know what it feels like to be scared or sad and they can relate to me. If we are perfect, then we are a robot and nobody prefers a robot over a flawed human being as a co-worker or a friend.

Tip Two: Celebrate Progress

Teams that schedule a weekly time to open a meeting celebrating the progress and not just the victories perform better than other teams. If you only focus on the mistakes someone makes and never acknowledge the progress they are making, they will eventually quit. When you celebrate progress, especially for new hires and Millennials, you will retain new talent.

When I was a competitive swimmer in high school, my parents kept track of my times in each event for the summer. They told me it doesn’t matter what place you come in as long as you keep improving your own time. This is when I learned to focus on my own progress and I win.

In swimming, they measure your time to the thousandth of a second when you hit the wall. When I was swimming breaststroke against someone who always had beat me in the past, I found that I had beat him by less than one second. When I asked my coach how that happened, he said when you pulled your head out of the water to take a breath, you stayed focus on the wall. The competitor turned his head to the side see if he was ahead of you or not. That split second of taking his focus off the wall caused him to lose.

This happens in business too. I see so many companies worried about what the competition is doing. When Amazon was launching, Jeff Bezos told his 500 employees to just focus on being the best online bookseller. (Remember when Amazon just sold books?!) They were not to focus on or worry about Barnes & Noble’s 5,000 employees at all. We all know how that focus paid off for Amazon!

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Tip Three: Choose Happiness over Perfection

There is an old saying: “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” How many times do people in business argue over details that don’t matter? Even married couples telling a story can get stuck in a detail about what day or time they had their favorite meal on vacation. Don’t you just want to take them by the shoulder and say “Nobody cares what day or time the meal was, tell us about the food!”

Can you imagine seeing Van Gogh’s  “The Irises” painting in a museum and complaining that you thought the blue would be brighter? When you make a conscious choice to focus on what is working in your career and in your life you are happier. Happy people are more productive and successful!

To recap, the key to success and happiness is to let go of even wanting to be perfect. That way when you are not perfect you don’t let it discourage or stop you. Start celebrating your progress as well as everyone you work with too. Finally, choose to focus on your own progress and you will win!

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